More international students from Africa are opting to study in Turkey due to growing Turkish-African relations in recent years.
Influenced by Turkey's growing soft power in Africa, more international students from the continent are studying in Turkish universities in recent years. Source: Yasin Akgul / AFP

Looking to study abroad from Africa? Istanbul might just be your destination. In recent years, more African students have opted to study in Turkey, which is now home to around 4,000 students from the continent. 

Turkish dramas, commonly known as “dizi,” are at least partially to blame. Similar to K-pop, dizi is another example of how a non-Anglophone cultural phenomenon can exert soft power to large swaths of populations around the world. Turkey was only second to the US in global television series exports in 2017, and has continued to grow since. In East African countries like Uganda and Ethiopia, Turkish dramas air as much as five times weekly, dubbed into local languages.

The dizi fever naturally trickles into a growing interest in Turkey, which opens up new opportunities in higher education through bilateral exchange. According to a statement released by Turkey’s Council of Higher Education (YÖK) on Anadolu Agency, 21 African countries have signed memorandums of understanding for cooperation as part of its mission to “bring Turkey-Africa relations to the next level through humanitarian diplomacy”. 

YÖK’s announcement came in the wake of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s address in the three-day Turkey-Africa Partnership Summit, which took place in Istanbul in December. Mr. Erdoğan convened with African heads of state, officials, and Turkish-speaking international students from the continent at the summit, Nikkei Asia reports

In his opening remark, the president also iterated that the country had previously awarded 14,000 scholarships for African students to study in Turkish universities, and trained close to 250 African junior diplomats.

Study in Turkey: Ankara expands soft power in African countries, encourages educational exchange

More students from the African continent are learning the Turkish language in hopes to work and study in Turkey.

More students from the African continent are learning the Turkish language in hopes of securing educational and employment opportunities in Turkey. Source: Giuseppe Cacace / AFP

Ankara’s move to assert its presence in the African continent isn’t new. Since 2005, Turkey has pursued “Afrika Açılımı” (“Africa Opening”) as a major campaign in its foreign policy to diversify its political and economic ties with Sub-Saharan African nations.

Today, Turkey’s influence in African countries is palpable in many spheres ranging from trade, humanitarian aid, military cooperation and educational exchange. Add in the fact that Turkish Airlines is now the largest airline network in the continent, Turkey’s increased visibility is a major source of attraction for African students.

Institutions such as the Yunus Emre Institute, a non-profit organisation operating as Turkey’s cultural arm in global diplomacy, has set up shop in major African cities like Addis Ababa, Dakar, Johannesburg, Abuja and Kigali. Successful students can even study in Turkey at summer schools, which was established to facilitate cultural exchange through academic collaboration.  

In 2018 alone, 900 Ethiopian students were reported to have enrolled in Turkish-language classes in universities, according to the PIE News. Students hope to win scholarships for postgraduate studies in Turkey, or landing jobs in Turkish companies that are investing more in Africa.

The Maarif Foundation, Turkey’s largest overseas education organisation, has over 17,565 African students enrolled in 175 institutions on the continent. The Foundation actively recruits students from Africa into Turkish universities through education fairs, and recently expanded its reach to the Malian capital of Bamako. 

“We were pleased that the second educational fair organised by the Turkish Maarif Foundation was held in Mali,” Murat Mustafa Onart, Turkish Ambassador in Mali, was quoted saying. “We follow the work of the Foundation in Mali closely with great interest. The fact that Malian students choose Turkey for their higher education will further the relations between the two countries.” 

“In Turkey, education is very comprehensive and high-quality. Following my high school graduation, I took the university exam and enrolled at 29 Mayıs University in Istanbul,” says Abdulaziz Abdi Iddi, a Tanzanian student, was reported saying

With attractive, fully-funded scholarships offered by the Turkish government, flexible visa policies, and lower living costs, the number of international students from Africa will likely grow further in the coming years.

“I feel at home in Turkey, I am not alienated. Turkish people are warm-hearted,” says Shamim Saidi Walele, another Tanzanian student in Istanbul. “It is a country and an attraction centre for foreigners. I would appreciate it if the relationship between Turkey and Tanzania improves.”