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Sierra Leone’s middle class gains traction

Country's professionals make progress after 11-year civil war, which ended in 2002.

“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.