Indian Diaspora in Africa: Historical Roots and Current Strength

Author:   Rajneesh Gupta

By Dr. Rajneesh Kumar Gupta, Assistant Professor at Motilal Nehru College, University of Delhi

India has more than three thousand years’ history of cultural and commercial relations with Africa. Commercial relations have a longer history than cultural contacts. Indian sources indicate that there were contacts and trade relations between Dravidians and Babylonians as early as the seventh century B.C. On their way to Mesopotamia the Indian merchants and sailors would have certainly visited Southern Arabia, which is situated on the maritime route and most probably the Eastern part of Horn of Africa- the Somali peninsula. Freya Stark writes that a flourishing maritime trade existed between India and Southern Arabia before the fourteenth century B.C. (Richard: 1954, 28-30). Indian contacts in ancient period were more visible in Eastern and Southern coast of Africa and ancient Indian epics like ‘Vedas’ and ‘Shrimad Bhagwat Geeta’,  provide valuable information regarding contacts between the two regions.  Daniel D.C. Don Nanjira rightly says “If we consider all early invaders of East Africa to have been foreign visitors or traders, then Indians (Hindus) were definitely among the invaders whose connections with the East African coast go back many centuries before Christ” (1976, 3).

However, in modern history major gesticulates of migration are closely related to the colonialism.  During the Raj, Indians were taken over as indentured labourers to far-flung parts of the Empire in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, a circumstance to which the modern Indian Diaspora of Africa, Caribbean and other places attest in their own peculiar ways. In this period Indians went broadly under three different capacities- (i) the indentured worker in sugar colonies of Caribbean, Oceania and Africa, (ii) Under Kangani / maistry system to Malaysia and Ceylone, and (iii) free or passenger Indians primarily in East Africa (Dubey: 2010, 1-2). It has been estimated that during 1829-1924 about 769,437 Indians migrated to Mauritius, South Africa, Reunion, Seychelles and East African region (Kadekar: 2005, 36). Later period of colonial era also witnessed increased frequencies of free emigration as traders, skilled artisans, bankers, petty contractors, clerks, professionals and entrepreneurs.

In independent India, following the oil boom of the mid-1970s, the Middle East has witnessed a massive induction of the Indian workers. Though in the era of liberalization, privatization and globalization, United State of America, Canada and West European countries have become favorite destination for highly skilled Indian immigrants, prevailing opportunities in Africa still attracts significant number of Indian migrants. Majority of new immigrants go there on temporary work permit and do not seek permanent citizenship. After working there for some time, they explore opportunity in Western countries, and as soon as they get chance they emigrate from these countries. In late 1990s, this trend increased many folds and number of illegal migrants also took advantage of this. Some years back ‘The Analyst’ (a Kenyan magazine) reported, ‘While official figures show that only 1918 (731, 703 and 484, respectively) work permits were issued between 1995 and 1997, unconfirmed reports state that between 30,000 and 40,000 immigrant workers from the Asian sub-continent have entered Kenya in the last four years’ (1999, 9). Term Asian refers here to Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi and even Sri Lankan but majority among them are Indian. Survey conducted by the author in Kenya during June-July 2007 with a sample size of 100 participants also indicates that Indian immigration to Africa is still ongoing.

Similarly, official records of the Government of India also note increasing presence of Indian communities in the African continent. Report of the High Level Committee on Indian Diaspora released in the 2001 estimated total number of Indian Diaspora in Africa 2,063,178 which includes 1,969,708 People of Indian Origins (PIO’s), 89,405 Non Resident Indians (NRI’s) and 3,500 stateless people. They were spread in 34 countries located in various regions of the continent (2001, xlvii). Latest available estimates on overseas Indians indicate that current Diasporic strength of India in Africa is 2,696,956 out of those 2,508,503 are PIOs and rest 155,897 are NRIs. Currently, Indian Diaspora resides in 46 countries of Africa covering all linguistic, cultural or geographical regions of Africa (Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, 2010). Indian Diaspora in Africa constitutes 12.48 per cent of the total Diasporic strength of India. It would be interesting to note that among Indian Diaspora in Africa more than 93 per cent are PIO’s and they constitutes 21.13 per cent of the global strength of PIO’s.

With regard to population of Indian Diaspora in individual countries of Africa, we see substantial variation. Whereas, in Mauritius Indian Diaspora constitutes 70 per cent in total population; in Republic of Sao Tome and Principe this strength is merely 3. To analyze current strength of Indian Diaspora in Africa, broadly speaking we can classify them in four categories- (1) dominant strength (2) substantial strength (3) marginal strength, and (4) minimal strength.

Dominant strength- Mauritius is the only country not only in Africa but in entire globe which should be included in this category. High Level Committee on Indian Diaspora regarded Indian Diaspora in Mauritius unique and distinctive as here Indian Diaspora constitutes an overwhelming majority- nearly 70 per cent of the total population and they were among first permanent settlers in the island (2001, 49).  They are playing vital role in the political process of the country and holding important elected posts and in current parliament of Mauritius there are 36 members of Indian origin; although, unlike other parts of the world they are not economically affluent community. Indians in Mauritius are not a monolithic homogenous community. There are divisions on the basis of religion, caste, place of origin, language etc. Each of them has beautifully preserved their cultural identity.  There are associations and organizations associated to their culture/language. Every township of Mauritius is graced with temple, gurdwara, mosque and various community halls. Famous ‘Ganga Talab’ is said to be purified by water of holy river Ganga and being considered as pilgrimage for Hindu’s in Mauritius. Due to cultural resemblance Mauritius is often regarded as little India away from geographical territory of India.

Substantial strength- South Africa and Reunion Island can be included in this category. In South Africa total strength of Indian Diaspora is 1,218,000 and they constitute almost 3 per cent of the total population of South Africa. They are concentrated in the major industrial centres of South Africa and around 75 per cent of the Indian community lives in Kwazulu Natal. Durban, the capital of this province accounts for a considerable part of largely urbanized Indian population of this country (Report of High Level Committee on Indian Diaspora: 2001, 84). This concentration makes them politically influential in this area which is incidentally among highly industrialized and prosperous regions of South Africa. Similarly, in Reunion Island total strength of Indian Diaspora is 275,200 and they constitute almost 30 per cent of the total population.

Marginal strength- In this category countries which having population of Indian Diaspora between 100,000 to 10,000 could be included. By this criteria Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Nigeria, Madagascar, Mozambique, Zambia, Botswana and Zimbabwe comes under this category. In these countries, strength of Indian Diaspora in terms of total population of host country is very small and in scattered in various regions. Therefore, they don’t make influential political constituency and there is very less chance of obtaining political offices on the basis of ethnic identity. But incidentally, Indian Diaspora in these countries are economically well off and culturally keen to retain identity. Some of leading journalist, prominent academician and lawyers, who shape public opinion in these countries, belong to Indian communities.

Minimal strength- Fourth category includes countries where strength of Indian Diasporic community is less than 10000 people. There are some 33 African countries which fall under this category. As they are spread in different geographical location of their host-land and do not make any single constituency. Moreover, in number of cases they are temporary resident working in projects and still hold Indian Passport. Therefore, in political terms their presence is insignificance and in most of the cases they are not able to obtain political offices in their host-land. Malawi could be only exception, where Indian community has been actively engaged in the politics. There has been representation of Indian communities in parliament and government. Currently, Mr. Mohammed Sidik Mia is serving as a Deputy Minister for Irrigation and Water Development of Malawi. Institute for Policy Interaction, most influential NGO of Malawi, working on issues of governance is headed by PIO.  But this kind of success is not seen in any other country of Africa with such a small number of Indian communities.


Indians have been visiting African continent since ages. Despite of age old linkages, modern settlement of Indians in Africa is certainly linked with the colonial exploration of the continent. In the colonial period migration occurred in both ways- by force as well as by choice. Further, a large scale migration occurred in the post independent period. Today, Indian Diaspora in Africa constitutes 12.48 per cent of the total Diasporic strength of India and they reside in 46 countries of Africa covering all linguistic, cultural or geographical regions of the continent. These people went with limited resources and physical and climatic conditions of the region were usually very difficult. However, all those hardships were proven gnome with the courage, hard work and dedication of Indian Diaspora.



---(1999). The Analyst, Nairobi, February 1999.

---(2001). Report of the High Level Committee on the Indian Diaspora, Indian Council of World Affairs: New Delhi. 

---(2010). Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, Government of India, Estimated Number of Overseas Indians [Online: Web] Accessed 1 February 2010 URL:

Daniel D. Nanjira (1976). The Status of Aliens in East Africa, New York: Praeger Publishers.

Dubey Ajay (2010). ‘Indian Diaspora in Africa: Diversity and Challenges’ in Dubey Ajay (ed.) Indian Diaspora in Africa: A Comparative Perspective, New Delhi: MD Publications Pvt. Ltd.

Kadekar LN (2005). Global Indian Diaspora: An Overview, Research Monograph Hyderabad: Department of Sociology, University of Hyderabad.

Richard D.D. R. (1954). History of East Africa, London: Evavg Missionsverlag.


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