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The middle classes: Moving on up

Posted on Monday, 2 August 2010 13:24

An increasingly affluent population? is changing political preferences, ?consumer attitudes, education ?systems and cultural practices. In a continent-wide investigation, our journalists in Uganda, Morocco and Côte d’Ivoire meet middle class families to find out what they stand for, where they are headed and what they want. Read an extract here of Parselelo Kantai’s opening article on Africa’s middle class.

Read our three profiles of middle class families from Côte d’Ivoire, Morocco and Uganda.

Plus Zimbabwean writer Petina Gappah assesses the rollercoaster ride of her country’s middle class. And why Francis Beddington thinks there is more room in the middle in his economic analysis for

Among the stack of reports produced by economic experts, donor agencies, the armies of non-governmental organisations marching across the continent, academics and governments, it is almost impossible to find a single reliable statistic on African middle classes. Normalcy does not make news.

African lives are often portrayed as nasty, brutish and short, invariably lived at the extreme. The idea that millions of Africans lead suburban existences, punctuated by a visit to the pub for a round of idle political chatter after a day at the office is counter-intuitive.

The task of documenting middle class normalcy has been taken up by African writers such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The central figure in her debut novel Purple Hibiscus is a Nigerian teenager who is dropped off every morning at her private school and confronts her wealthy, tyrannical father.

According to the statistics, that time is over. As African countries slipped into war, dictatorship and economic mismanagement, among the first groups to take flight were the educated classes. Malawian academic Paul Tiyambe Zeleza has documented the flight of African intellectuals from the continent. In the 1980s, there were 25,000 academics leaving every year, by 1995 the number had doubled.

Conspicuous consumption?

Much less has been written about those who stayed – the lives and livelihoods beyond the poverty statistics. We hear little about the beneficiaries of Africa’s economic growth over the past decade. The changing shape of the consumer class is Africa’s untold story. Analysts and investors struggle to understand it, as much of it lies in the informal economy.

A decade ago, the mobile phone company Kencell (now Zain/Bharti) estimated that about 100,000 Kenyans would be able to afford mobile phones. Its rival, Safaricom thought the figure would be much higher. Kencell, which marketed itself as an elite brand, got 100,000 subscribers within a year. Safaricom, which targeted all Kenyans, brought in over a million subscribers within five years.

There is little hard data about this middle band of consumers. Economist Vijay ?Mahajan speaks of 350-500 million people in Africa’s “middle class”. World Bank statistics suggest that only about one-third of Africa’s billion people live on more than $2 a day.

Consulting firm McKinsey & Company believes that the number of African households with an annual disposable income of between $10,000-20,000 grew from 18m in 2000, to 27.4m in 2008. Assuming each household has four members, that is over 100 million people.

Over the past five years, Nairobi-based market-research firm Consumer Insight has been researching living conditions and consumption in ?Africa. In 13 cities, the firm interviewed 2,500 people for the Maisha Lifestyle Survey to find out about their lifestyles, their possessions, their use of public services and their hopes for the future.

The survey is based on an index called the Living Standards Measure (LSM), a continental measure developed by South Africa-based Research International. The LSM calculates living standards on the basis of access to wealth, rather than simple income levels. “Income has been a very poor proxy of population segmentation,” says Havi Murungi, head of research at Consumer Insight. “It does not tell you how people are spending what they have, what their expectations are or even what they are doing with themselves or with their money.” ?Access to the accoutrements of middle-class life is available from anywhere between a few hundred dollars to several thousands dollars per month, depending on the location.

Spreading demand?

A few years ago, advertisers latched onto a catchphrase already popular among Kenya’s youth: sambaza, a Kiswahili word meaning to spread or to share.The ‘sambaza economy’ helps describe how the majority of poor, young people were able to access ‘lifestyle’ far beyond their means.

New consumer classes are being built on the sambaza generation. Rising incomes are filling the coffers of new shopping malls such as Shoprite in South Africa, Nakumatt in Kenya and Marjane in Morocco, with each company targeting growth in other African countries. Beyond groceries and cars, what services are the middle classes purchasing? Are they spreading the wealth? Do they even feel part of the society in which they live? ?

The publisher of Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus in Nigeria, Muhtar Bakare, says that some of his country’s upper middle class are, “expatriates in their own country”. The fact that there is very little understanding about current social structures suggests that we urgently need to investigate the vast changes confronting African ?societies.

This article was first published in the August-September 2010 issue of The Africa Report.