Connect to share and comment

Special Reports

Africa’s middle class: striving to develop a continent

50 years after Africa's independence boom, middle class drives economic growth, democracy.

(Photo by Reuters)

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.