Africa’s Illusive Middle Class

Monday, 4 January 2016
Richard Dowden

Africa is no longer a continent of palaces and peasants. There is now a solid middle class, which is one of the chief factors that drove Africa’s economic growth from around 2000. This coincided with more aid for development, an end to many of the wars that had dogged the continent in the 1990s, Chinese demand for commodities, and internet connectivity with the rest of the planet.

These range of factors drove growth in the new century at more than 5%. In the 1970s, Africa grew at 4.2%, in the 1980s at 1.8%, and in the 1990s at 2.6%. High commodity prices – especially oil – gave countries like Angola, Equatorial Guinea and Libya growth rates over 7% between 2000 and 2010. Many non-oil countries were doing better too, in some instances thanks to the end of catastrophic wars. 

This created a new optimism about Africa. Africa Rising they called it. Some saw it as the new Asia, a soaring economic miracle that would transform the entire continent. The combination of minerals, agriculture and a new middle class drew investment from Europe and Asia and even from North America. Mobile phones meant that Africa could talk to the rest of the world. 

But last year China's economy slowed down, oil prices fell to $45 a barrel, and other mineral prices collapsed. That left only that final factor driving Africa’s growth – the middle class.

The top and the bottom of Africa’s pyramid of wealth are easy to define. At the top, a handful of people have made money honestly, but most have done so through political power. At the very top are the multi millionaire – if not billionaire - super-rich. These are mainly presidents, ministers and their cronies who control the corruption cartels. Much of that wealth is siphoned out of their countries in collaboration with non-African partners and banked in Europe or Asia. Continent-wide, these super rich probably number fewer than a thousand. They have palaces in Africa and palatial homes in Paris, London or other capitals.

At the bottom of the pile are the peasants and urban poor who live on less than two dollars a day and work long hours to stay alive. They will own a pair of repeatedly-repaired shoes, a pair of trousers and a shirt that hangs on a nail with possibly a second shirt for Sundays. Their home will be of sticks, mud and flattened tins for a door. Richer ones will have a bed. The rest will sleep on a grass mat on the floor. Thanks to cheap Chinese goods this class is better off than it was 20 years ago but the gap between rich and poor is still vast.

Who is in the middle? What do they do? The economic definition of middle class in Africa is so vague that it is almost meaningless. Outsiders’ definitions by income do not help. These are some estimates:

·       Standard Bank 2014: 7.6 million earning between $23 and $115 a day.

·       McKinseys 2008: 15.7 million earning more than $55 a day.

·       The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development 2014: 32 million earning between $10 and $100 a day

·       African Development Bank 2010: 327 million earning more than $2.2 a day.

Then there is Vijay Mahajan’s fantasy picture in his 2007 Africa Rising book proclaiming that Africa has 900 million consumers. I suppose if you count everyone who is lucky enough to eat every day as a 'consumer' and you then call all consumers 'middle class', then almost everyone can be counted.

My image of a typical middle class African is a man with a suit and tie who may be a teacher or a doctor, a businessman or a civil servant. At one time it was almost exclusively men, but several women have now joined the African middle class. She or he will have had more than 10 years education, they will speak English or French, possibly both, and be able to communicate in two or three local languages. Those at the higher end will have a university degree and a few will have been abroad for further education.

Their occupation will be civil servants, business entreprenuers or employees of large local or international companies. They will own a house and a car and will send their children to private schools. If they have the money these schools will be in Europe and America but, increasingly, middle class Africans send their children to India or other Asian countries. And in recent years there has been a rapid increase in good fee-paying schools in Africa itself. 

The most profound change in almost all African societies is the growth of the nuclear family and the slow death of the extended family. The first post-independence generation of African professionals found they had to share their incomes not just with their immediate family but for their extended families as well. Today the middle classes are gradually dropping these extended family obligations. Modern urban life means you look after your own children – two or three only – and you may pay for the funeral of a respected uncle or aunt. But you no longer pay school fees for children of distant cousins you barely know.

But few of Africa’s “middle class” rely simply on their salary as they would in Europe and America. In addition to the day job, many will inherit land which will produce food for the family and another source of income. Secondly they are well placed to buy land around the burgeoning towns and build on it. Many will exploit the dying family structure by employing poor members of the extended family as domestic servants or workers on the family estate. Thirdly they will have their private businesses. For example they may own two or three cars and hire drivers to use as taxis. None of this will be declared to the taxman. Nor will it appear in any World Bank of IMF figures. Whatever the surveys say the African middle class is much bigger and richer than anyone thinks.  

Richard Dowden is the Director of the Royal African Society.