Sierra Leone’s middle class gains traction

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone — Here in Sierra Leone and across Africa experts struggle to define what it means to be middle class. But many people know they want to be part of that group.

“It’s my education [secondary and vocational school] and experience,” said Michael Tommy, a generator mechanic for one of the United Nations’ compounds here. “With the money they pay me I’m able to sustain myself and my family, but I’m not able to save for a house.”

For Desmond Finney, Sierra Leone’s middle class can be divided into two subgroups: “It’s those of us that 15 to 20 years ago decided to go to college and have found ourselves in that class because of education,” said the managing director of Premier Media, a local media consultancy. “The other set of people are those who are businessmen, or those that have been able to make it in the informal sector.”

Who makes up Africa’s middle class and the numbers of people in it are not exactly clear. A strict determination by income level is not sufficient, according to many experts. Education, career paths, aspirations and lifestyle are also important features that help to establish who is in the middle class. Getting children educated and buying a home are important elements in being middle class.

Sierra Leone, with a population of 5.2 million, has a small but growing middle class.

The growth of Sierra Leone's middle class was thwarted by the country's volatile history. The education and careers of thousands were violently disrupted by the civil war which wracked the country from 1991 to 2002.

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Now, with peace and stability for years, Sierra Leone is returning to economic growth and development. President Ernest Bai Koroma is hungry for social change and business investment that will help Sierra Leone become more prosperous. More people are seizing the opportunity to move out of the shackles of poverty which has crippled the nation — and much of Africa — for decades.

Tommy, 45, said he worked odd jobs to pay his secondary school fees, but treasures his job at the U.N. He knew he couldn’t afford to go to college, so he went to a vocational school instead where he studied mechanical engineering.

He wants his three children to attend college. “I don’t mind paying for their school fees,” he said.

He makes about $325 dollars a month, a good wage here. By comparison, a waitress typically earns $25 a month before tips. A nurse working at a government hospital earns roughly $50. A local taxi driver may bring home $5 on a good day. A typical middle-class American would be considered rich by Sierra Leone standards.

Many of Sierra Leone’s professionals who fled the country during the civil war found refuge in the U.S. and Europe, where they pursued education and jobs.

The brutal war disrupted education in secondary schools and colleges across the country, so there is a major gap that is hindering the growth of the middle class, said Adusei Jumah, economic advisor for the U.N. Development Program in Sierra Leone.

“The middle class is essential for economic growth because the poor lack purchasing power,” he said.

Jumah said Sierra Leone’s few rich have already saturated the market on spending for luxury items like cars and imported groceries. But the middle class is needed to increase demand for more basic grocery-type items, as Sierra Leone’s society shifts from an agrarian one to one with more blue-collar and white-collar jobs.

More locals are shopping at grocery stores that once were patronized only by the rich and expatriates. There’s also been an influx of foreign banks, telecommunications companies and electronics stores to sell to the local middle class market.

Finney, 40, says that’s because he and his peers want to drive nice cars, wear jewelry and purchase flat-screen TVs and satellite services. He defined the middle class in Sierra Leone as those making at least $500 a month.

“For us it’s been an uphill drive,” he said, referring to the increase in his earnings and those of his wife, who works for the Bank of Sierra Leone. He admits he spoils his 11-year-old son, who he’d like to send abroad for college.

Mariama Turaoi, 26, a receptionist for a telecom company, wasn’t able to define who is in Sierra Leone’s middle class, but she says the $200 a month she earns now is allowing her to build a modest house for herself and two sisters that she says will offer her a more comfortable life.

Following secondary school, Turaoi spent two years at a secretarial school, where she learned to type, work with a computer and some basic accounting skills. She saved her first paycheck to open a bank account.

“When I was a petty trader I wasn’t able to buy anything but foodstuffs and pay for my sisters’ school fees,” she said. “Now with this job I was able to buy a TV and DVDs and clothes.”

The problem Sierra Leone faces is that despite more people like Finney and Tommy striving to build houses and send their children to college, there aren’t enough jobs in the nation for educated, eager graduates.

“Here the supply outmatches the demand,” Jumah said. “Sierra Leone needs a lot of foreign direct investment.”

But in the end, keeping political tension at a minimum, or even nonexistent, will ensure the middle class remains and thrives here.

“It’s all about peace,” Finney said. “Years ago the country was not stable enough for us to thrive.”

Africa's middle class is a GlobalPost series to highlight the continent's key but under-reported population including South Africa's growing class of "black diamonds," education opportunities in Ghana, the challenge to Kenya's middle class, the struggles to rebuild a middle class after years of civil war in Liberia and the diaspora of thousands of Africa's ambitious in the U.S. and Europe.