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Keeping it in the family: African migrants send home billions

By Robyn Curnow and Teo Kermeliotis, CNN
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Zimbabweans abroad provide earnings
  • Many Africans rely on money sent home from relatives who live overseas
  • Remittances are a vital lifeline and can reduce poverty, says World Bank
  • The cost of transferring money is very high, putting a burden on migrants and recipients

Mashonaland, Zimbabwe (CNN) -- They might have left their countries to earn themselves a living abroad but for millions of Africans their paychecks also provide a lifeline for their families left behind.

One such migrant is Zimbabwean Ebsalom Matapo. Based now in Bradford, England, he works rehabilitating drug users and ex-offenders, and sends a quarter of his hard-earned wages to his relatives back in Zimbabwe.

"I look after my parents," said Ebsalom. "I've got my family to look after, so sending money is part of our lives, basically.

"I can actually tell you what the rate (is) today, U.S. dollars and pounds. I know it by head because we are always doing that, so we send a lot of money," he added.

Ebsalom's family live in Zimbabwe's rural Mashonaland and usually get by with just a borehole and the crops they grow. For them, the funds coming from abroad are vital.

"Even if he can send $100 we survive," said Freddie Matapo, Ebsalom's father.

According to the World Bank, recorded remittances making their way into Africa increased fourfold between 1990 and 2010. They are now the continent's largest source of foreign capital after foreign direct investments.

World Bank lead economist Dilip Ratha said "30 million migrants send home $40 billion a year according to official statistics.

"The true size of remittances is significantly larger than that," he added, pointing out that a large proportion of funds is sent through various unofficial channels.

As much as we feel the strain, we are actually happy we are giving them a chance to survive.
--Ebsalom Matapo, Zimbabwean working in England
  • Zimbabwe
  • Africa
  • African Economy

Remittances sent home by the African Diaspora provide a much-needed boost for millions of people across the continent and reduce poverty, the World Banks says.

Typically, these funds can lead to increased investments in land purchasing and house building as well as providing extra help for starting businesses and improving education.

In Zimbabwe, remittances have at times propped up the economy, providing an additional source of income in a country that has been battered by political and economic crises and has seen unemployment rocket to nearly 90% in recent years.

Freddie said the only time he leaves his home in Mashonaland is to go to Zimbabwe's capital Harare to collect Ebsalom's remittances from an international money transfer outlet.

However, the cost of wiring money to African countries is still very high. Some brokers charge fees as high as 25%, putting an added burden on migrants and those receiving remittances.

But for many Africans abroad, like Ebsalom, there is no other choice than to pay the high rates in order to sustain and help educate the family that's left behind.

"As much as we feel the strain, we are actually happy we are giving them a chance to survive," said Ebsalom.

And when the money make its way to the communities back home, it's time for an extra treat.

"We buy sugar, meat, flour," said Freddie, who is thankful for his son's help.

"I am praying to God to keep him for quite a long time. I am very grateful for what he does for me, to all of us. Me and my wife, we thank God."