Africa’s middle class: striving to develop a continent

BOSTON — An investment analyst in Ghana who avoided life as a subsistence farmer by winning a college scholarship.

A real estate agent in South Africa who sells homes to "black diamonds," as the country's upwardly mobile blacks are known.

An assistant to a senator in Liberia who has a generator to provide her home with electric power.

These are the faces of Africa's entrepreneurs and professionals who are driving the continent’s economic growth. They give crucial support to democracy and political stability. They are members of Africa's middle class.

Fifty years after the phenomenon of African independence brought an end to colonial rule, the African middle class has taken advantage of educational and professional opportunities to improve their status and to seek better futures for their families.

The continent's middle class does not often make international headlines nor is it much studied by academics, but the group is key to the continent’s progress, according to economists and political scientists.

As the World Cup kicks off in Johannesburg on June 11, Africans around the world are celebrating that their continent is hosting the world’s biggest sports tournament for the first time. But more than that, from the Congo to Cape Town, Africans are reveling in the sign that the continent has come of age and is offering more opportunities to its people.

Since 1960, when 17 African countries achieved independence from French and British colonial rule, the continent has struggled to find its way forward. International headlines have often portrayed Africa in harsh terms of violence, dictatorships, famine and disaster. With this series on Africa’s middle class, GlobalPost is focusing on the millions of unheralded Africans who make up the center of the continent’s economic and social pyramid.

The middle class is widely acknowledged to be Africa's future, the group that is crucial to the continent's economic and political development. But it is difficult to define exactly who is in the key group and even harder still to establish how many middle class there are in sub-Saharan Africa.

The World Bank estimates that Africa's middle class is small but will grow to reach 43 million by 2030. Other experts say the middle class is much larger, at 300 million, representing the population that is between the masses of Africa's poorest and the continent's elite few.

Africa's middle class is not the same as the middle class in the U.S. or Europe. They have escaped the poverty and hunger of many Africans. They want their own homes, cars and televisions.

“Africa’s middle class is the great economic engine that will drive development across the continent,” said Vijay Mahajan, whose book, “Africa Rising,” describes the social phenomenon. “The growth of Africa’s middle class greatly accelerated after the independence of African nations in the 1960s.”

He describes the “Africa 1s” as the elite wealthy class and the “Africa 3s” are the very poor, existing on less than $1 dollar a day. In the middle are the “Africa 2s,” who, Mahajan explains, “want to do better, who are optimistic and forward-thinking. These are the nurses, teachers, small business people, civil servants, workers in the hospitality industry.”

Between 300 million and 500 million of Africa’s 1 billion people are defined as "Africa 2s" by Mahajan.

“The Africa 2s are driving the economic growth of the continent. They are building modern Africa,” said Mahajan. “They are the ones who send their kids to schools and count on education to improve their lives. And this emerging African middle class, made up of all nationalities taken together, is roughly the size of the middle class in India or China.

The number of African immigrants working in the First World is about equal to the number of immigrants from India and China, according to Mahajan, and a large portion of them are middle class. Africans working in the developed world send about $40 billion to $50 billion a year back to Africa, said Mahajan, who stresses that the flow of capital to Africa “is very important for the continent. That money feeds and educates new generations. It is similar to the remittances sent back to India and China.”

Africa’s middle class will become an important global market, said Mahajan. “Every fifth or sixth consumer in the developing world is in Africa,” he said. “China and India are now producing goods, like televisions and radios, specifically for the Africa market. Recycled mobile phones go to the African market. The use of pre-paid mobile phone cards is growing fantastically across Africa.”

Africa’s middle class is not only crucial for economic growth but is essential for the growth of democracy, said Vijaya Ramachandran, senior fellow at the Center for Global Development and author of “Africa’s Private Sector.”

“The middle class in Africa, like everywhere else, supports democratic governments that function well and that are accountable,” said Ramachandran, who has specialized in African development issues at the World Bank and the United Nations after getting a PhD in economics from Harvard. She defines Africa’s middle class as those living on more than $5 per day.

Above $5 dollars a day would not be enough income to be included in the middle class in the U.S. or other First World countries, but Ramachandran says it is sufficient to be part of Africa’s “aspirational class.”

“They have escaped the worst burdens of poverty,” said Ramachandran. “They are able to meet their basic needs in nutrition, health and housing. They are not so insecure, they don’t risk losing this on a daily basis, which is what it is like for those existing on less than $5 per day.”

“Africa’s middle class supports states that provide public services like education, health, electricity and water,” said Ramachandran. “The middle class is central to ensuring the sustainability of democratic forms of government. The middle class is essential to building democratic institutions, for creating a civil society. These are important for Africa.”

Africa’s middle class is strongest in countries that have robust and growing private sectors. “Countries in East and Southern Africa that sustain a viable middle class and that hold governments accountable include countries like Tanzania, Kenya, South Africa, Botswana and Namibia. Mozambique’s middle class is small but growing in size and importance,” said Ramachandran. “In West Africa, Ghana’s middle class is doing well.”

A healthy private sector enables Africa’s middle class, said Ramachandran. “Businesses, both small and big, provide jobs. It supports more entrepreneurs. That’s how a middle class grows,” she said.

Although thousands of Africa’s best educated have left for jobs overseas, it is not a “brain drain” that harms the continent, argues Ramachandran.

“It does not have to be viewed as a flight of human capital that hurts Africa,” she said. “These are enterprising people who are taking advantage of the huge differences in wages. They can get paid much more for their skills in the First World. They send back significant remittances that get others educated. Over time they contribute to the continent’s development, even if it is from a distance.

“In Nigeria and Ghana we are seeing a return of young people who worked in the finance sector in New York and London,” said Ramachandran. “They are bringing valuable skills and an interaction with the First World. They are also bringing a view of how things work in the First World.”

Just as the international news media generally ignores Africa’s middle class, academic research has not focused on the group.

“There is very little about Africa’s middle class that has been written since the 1960s. And there is very little in the way of statistics,” said Martha Saavedra, associate director of the Center for African Studies, at University of California, Berkeley. “There are estimates and extrapolations about the numbers of small traders and entrepreneurial activity, but little in the way of hard figures. Many accounts in the news media just portray the mass of poverty in Africa and the sea of smiling faces of poor, barefoot children. Clearly there is more to Africa, and a big part of that is the middle class.”

That is exactly why GlobalPost offers these stories about Africa’s middle class:

• In Kenya, the educated professionals of the middle class pressed politicians to end the political and ethnic violence of 2008. Now they must encourage reform.

• In South Africa, upwardly mobile blacks are shaking off years of apartheid oppression and buying homes in areas previously reserved for whites. They are also buying BMW cars from a Johannesburg dealership owned by a black businessman.

• In Ghana, the private Ashesi University College is offering students new educational opportunities that will enable them to embark on professional careers.

Liberia’s 14-year civil war dismantled the once-thriving middle class, but now, a few years after the war ended, the middle class is beginning to return.

Sierra Leone’s 11 years of civil war — between 1991 and 2002 — also caused many of the educated middle class to flee, but now they are trickling back and helping to rebuild the economy.

• And in the United States, two well-educated Africans decide to keep working overseas in order to be able to send money back to their families in Africa.

These compelling stories show middle-class Africans at work. By working to improve their own lives, and the futures of their families, they are also helping to boost Africa’s political and economic future.