In Search of the “African Middle Class”

Who would guess that a little over a decade ago Africa was mostly described as "the hopeless continent"?

Nairobi Skyline. Image credit Mkimemia via Wikimedia Commons.

“Africa Rising” stories have become old news in English-speaking media, so much so that Africa is a Country called them a meme not long ago. But only a few have run in French news outlets, and one such op-ed [in French] recently made it to the pages of the well-respected French daily newspaper, Le Monde. The piece has a specific flavor for a couple of reasons: a condescending and prescriptive tone, also known as the Françafrique touch, as its title trumpeting that “Africa is on the right tracks” (L’Afrique est bien partie) makes clear; an emphasis on the rise of the “African middle class,” portrayed as the cornerstone of the “African economic revolution”, whose origins are to be found in “diversifying and emancipating economies”, enabling “endogenous growth” that is free of the “dependency on raw materials exports” because it is “driven by consumption”. Such a nice Cinderella story! Who would guess that a little over a decade ago Africa was mostly described as “the hopeless continent”?


Cape of Good Hope

This rosy picture can be traced back to the strategic briefs and equity research notes published from 2010 onwards by Boston Consulting Group, McKinsey, Goldman Sachs (pdf) or Deloitte (pdf), advertising “the new African consumer”, finally in a position to spend some cash in brand new supermarkets. In a time when growth rates of industrialized countries stutter and when the Chinese and Indian engines of the global economy are somewhat slowing down, financial analysts and investment consultants can’t get enough of the one thing that they have dismissed for so long: Africa.

“That’s where the flavor is,” said Thabo Ncalo recently, manager of the Africa Fund for Johannesburg-based Stanlib, “the frontier markets,” like Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria or Rwanda. Close your eyes and let your imagination do the rest: hundreds of millions of purses loosening their strings…

Of course it’s difficult to sell such a vision if “Africa” remains associated with deadly conflicts, food crises and looming poverty. Thus baiting scaredy-cat investors and lobbying the media with the “African middle class” is downright genius: there’s enough actual change taking place all over the continent to make the notion look respectable, and it remains vague enough to accommodate any expectation and get traction across the board. This is where development organizations, in their quest for better aid efficiency and alternatives to aid, join forces with investors. But despite the evidence piling up of how misleading it can be, change in African countries continues to be examined through its reflection in Western mirrors rather than for itself – and “the rise and rise of the African middle class,” as Deloitte called it, is no exception.

In April 2011 The African Development Bank (AfDB) released a market brief on “The Middle of the Pyramid: Dynamics of the African Middle Class” (pdf). Since then the estimated number of middle class Africans has been arbitrarily set at 350 million, sometimes delivered as the more dramatic soundbite “one in three Africans”. The AfBD goes on to explain that, given their higher revenues from salaried jobs or small business ownership, and the ensuing economic security, “Africa’s emerging consumers are likely to assume the traditional role of the US and European middle classes as global consumers”.

The chief economist and vice president of the AfDB at the time, Mthuli Ncube, gave it straight to CNN: “it’s a call to say ‘look, please invest in Africa'”. Sure enough, if the new is made to look like the old, it gains the reassuring quality of being just the same. In that respect, the “African middle class” is a means to an end, a programmatic concept: rationalize to normalize, normalize to legitimize.


“Growing pains”

To call such a construct fragile is an understatement. The AfDB defines “middle class” as those spending between $2 and $20 per day. By its own admission though, about 60% of those only spend between $2 and $4 per day and remain in what the bank calls a “floating class,” a vulnerable position “barely out of the poor category” with “the constant possibility of dropping back in the event of any exogenous shocks”. It seems indeed that trying to recognize the American “service class” or the European petite bourgeoisie in today’s African societies only goes so far.

This prompted Thandika Mkandawire, professor of African development at the London School of Economics, to label the AfDB’s version of a middle class a “stretch concept“. Also sobering is the geographical dispersion of AfDB’s middle class: most of the African upper middle class (spending $10-$20 per day) lives in North Africa, which does not bode well with all the talk of frontier markets stimulated by a new white collar generation south of the Sahara.

The interesting thing about the sub-classes is their evolution and what that says about socio-economic dynamics. A growing number of Africans are indeed lifting themselves out of economic poverty but, contrary to the African economic revolution narrative, this is not happening overnight and is still largely ongoing. 61% of Africans still live below the $2 poverty line according to the AfDB. Equally important is the fact that very few seem to transition from the “floating class” to actual middle class territory. In fact the share of the three top brackets has remained almost identical over the last four decades.

This is crucial to discussing African middle classes: the gap between the floating class and the lower middle class is much wider than it looks on paper. In December 2011, the Agence Française de Développement released the results of several country-level studies on middle class(es) in Africa [in French; a PDF]. “I place myself in the middle,” said a respondent in Kenya, “but there is a big gap between us and the rich… We can consider ourselves as members of the middle class, we are strugglers, because we have to manage to get what we want.”

Sure, six of the ten fastest growing economies are African, but seven of the ten most unequal countries in terms of income distribution are also African. Among them, the still-number-one economy of the continent: South Africa, where the unemployment rate is close to 25%. Poster boy Nigeria is not that different: hailed for its top growth and diversifying economy – the latter in no small part due to billionaire Aliko Dangote’s growing empire – it is also fast becoming the country where the super-rich fly out their lunch while the rest of the Nigerians are stuck in slow-motion traffic.

In Angola, where dazzling economic growth is making investors weak at the knees after three decades of an on-and-off civil war, the China International Trust and Investment Company built an entire city 30 km outside of Luanda specifically aimed at the middle class. 750 eight-storey apartment blocks intended to house 500,000 people, and yet, as Louise Redvers reported last year, only a few thousands live there: the development is too expensive for the vast majority of Angolans, but not nearly enough for the minority who can actually afford it.

As Jumoke Balogun from CompareAfrica bluntly put it, the view from the ground is that Africa is rising and Africans are not.


Middle of the road

The World Bank has put together its own concept of “global middle class,” academics have offered alternative income brackets to better represent the middle class of developing countries and insightful comparisons have been made with the Chinese notion of “little prosperity” (xiaokang). Andy Sumner, economist made famous by his New Bottom Billion charge against Paul Collier, has also put forward the interesting concept of “catalyst class”. Yet few seem in a hurry of answering what “African middle class” means beyond fine-tuning its mathematical formula.

That middle class has become this development-approved equivalent of middle-income group dismissed the socio-political discussion of class almost entirely. By which I do not mean the faith inherited from Tocqueville that a burgeoning middle class will necessarily put African societies on to the path of democracy – according to the 80’s mantra, was that not the job of the “elites”?; in the 90’s, that of the “civil society”? – but instead the ever-evolving process of its own formation. But fixated on wealth, the discussion on middle classes in Africa misses out on the other two pillars of social stratification: social status and political power.

As soon as those two are factored in, discussing the “African middle class” as a homogenous entity seems absurd, and so it should. Thinking that what separates the senior civil servant from the street hawker or the country head of an MNC from the shop owner is a matter of daily expenditure amounts to looking at their reality through the wrong end of the telescope: the bigger picture is that they live in different worlds. And similar daily expenditure of middle class Ghanaians and middle class South Africans do not guarantee that they long for the same things either.

For here lies the rub: the material culture that the notion of “middle class” posits as shared consciousness is articulated to a strong sense of individualism, which is borderline contradictory with the idea of class. All the more reasons for the analysis to consider the representations which members have of themselves as a group and the historical context in which such groups are being shaped.

The infamous South African “Black Diamonds” are a testament to this prerequisite. Emerging from the ANC’s affirmative action policy of Black Economic Empowerment in post-apartheid South Africa, they initially, if briefly, represented success and hope for Black people formerly oppressed as an underclass. Yet the name, acquired through their involvement in gold and diamond mining, has since then become a symbol of personal greed in the eye of most South Africans and a derogatory term after it became associated with the new ruling class.


Out with the old, in with the new

Freed from its prescriptive shackles, the middle class framework could however prove beneficial to cut through some of the more polarized categories of analysis: formal and informal sectors, legal and illegal activities or public and private sectors. Many of the “neither-poor-nor-rich” Africans work multiple jobs across those categories. Local NGO staffers in Dakar have sheep on the terrace of their houses to fatten and sell. Shop owners in Conakry and Ouagadougou own small plots of land outside the city that they farm in their spare time. Primary school teachers in Nairobi give as much private lessons outside school as they teach inside their classroom.

They have cellphones and email addresses but many can’t afford health insurance. They own a car but sometimes need to save for weeks before getting it fixed. They speak multiple languages but fear they won’t be able to pay for their children’s education. They want a better life but don’t know that it will come to pass. Whatever bracket they fall into, those represent the bulk of African middle classes and their worry is not a trip to the mall on Sundays, their gaze is fixed on the horizon: the next year and beyond.

Another assumption obscures our vision of African middle classes. Because the notion of class is so intertwined in Western national trajectories, little efforts are made to discuss today’s African middle classes past the nation-state framework, as if all middle class Cameroonians lived in Cameroon for example. But they are coming of age in a context of greater international connectedness, and evidence shows that the people most susceptible to be international migrants are neither the poorest – economic and human capital are a prerequisite – nor the richest – who have already “made it” – but those in between.

Contrary to popular opinion, the number one destination of African international migrants are the 53 other African countries beside their own, not the Western world. Can it be said that African middle classes are born, to some extent, through migration journeys?

Think of the Burkinabe plantation workers in Côte d’Ivoire, whose capital on return is as much the money they saved as the fancy music they bring back, and whose prestige of “having done the Côte” (avoir fait la Côte) establishes them in a stratum of their own, the diaspos. Or of the Congolese studying in Dakar and Saint Louis universities, where they rely on small jobs and family support to make ends meet; later learning the rope of their trade in Morocco and earning their first paychecks; and finally returning to Brazzaville to get the rare well-paid jobs that their migratory credentials insure and enjoy the recognition and envy of their fellow Congolese.

Somalia’s President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud is of course the symbol of such middle class success story through step migration: from the agricultural town of Jalaqasi to Mogadishu, to Bhopal, India for education, back to Somalia where he worked for NGOs and UN organizations, ultimately co-founding the Peace and Development Party in 2011 before being elected President in September 2012.

That’s not to mention the tens of thousands of teachers, nurses and entrepreneurs hidden among the millions of refugees across the continent: are they still middle class Africans? Will they ever be again? What do they consider themselves in the mean time? Then there are those living outside the continent, involving themselves in their homeland’s economic and political affairs, either individually or as diasporas: should the economic position, social status and political engagement of their members be assessed in the eye of their host country, their home country or both? And what about non-African immigrants: the senior French citizens retiring in Morocco and Tunisia [in French], the Portuguese fleeing unemployment in Angola and Mozambique or the Chinese setting up shop in Lesotho, are those new kinds of middle classes in Africa too?

Many more questions like these remain to be asked and so many of those deserve better answers than “the African middle class” wrapped in a bow and delivered to our doorstep courtesy of norm entrepreneurs and Money Incorporated. At the bottom of the pyramid are those on whom narratives are imposed and who have limited means to resist; at the top are those who have decided on their narrative and are writing their memoirs already; and in between is where the action is, where narratives overlap, clash or fuse because Africans are playing the field unencumbered by the nay-sayers or the yay-sayers. There is much to be learned about that life; and who better to tell these stories of in-betweenness than members of the middle classes themselves, African journalists, artists, bloggers and academics?

Further Reading

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