African middle classes

Many reports and researchers have projected Africa´s Urban Middle Classes as the saviour of the continent. Now a recent book challenges this view. Much like the case of India it has been argued that Africa has a growing urban middle class fuelling growth of domestic markets through consumer power. Along with a rising younger population in the forthcoming decades, the middle class has been projected to have a snowball effect in alleviating poverty and creating jobs across the continent. So, across the 54 countries and close to one billion strong African population- how well is the middle class doing?

The new book «The Rise of the African Middle Class» counters a rosy picture with a tempered pessimism. The researchers argue that Africa´s middle class is in fact much smaller than any hype goes. At the heart of the misunderstandings or myths about the middle class, they place a calculation that the African Development Bank introduced in 2011. According to this estimate Africans spending between 2 and 10 USD per day is ranked as middle class.

This would number the middle class to about 300 million. Put alongside impressive economic growth rates for some African countries in recent years, the myth about the middle class was created. The book is thus highly critical about the postivist and optimistic thinking about Africa´s economic present and near future.

Generally, the researchers question whether a person spending 2 USD can be counted as middle class. If one put the limit on 5 USD, the so called middle class would shrink many times, they argue. Moreover, they oppose a liberal and optimistic «trickle-down-theory» offering that a growing middle class will increasingly absorb lower classes and free these from poverty. Instead, gaps between the well-off and the lower classes are seen to be widening. In other words, the economic GDP growth may not be benefitting the broader masses

Several of the writers claim the elites have too much political power. The elites are seen as discouraging more democratic processes and public access to basic services. The upper middle class are thereby driven to buy health services on the private market, for instance. However, this behaviour of the privileged in turn frees government agencies from delivering these services to the lower middle class type people. This cycle widens gaps, sustains a hiearchical status quo and diminishes potential political influence from the middle class at large.

The authors take their examples from different African countries, from Tanzania and South Africa to Nigeria. In sum, it is a dismal picture featuring a middle class that has a long way to go. This view of the African middle class is not akin to, for example, McInsey´s optimistic business forecasts. It suggests that African middle classes are much smaller in number, less resourceful, less entrepreunering and less politically relevant than other versions would have it.

While reading a book like this it´s important to remember that these are interpretations. One could critically interpose that the book is lacking in focus on the more dynamic and entrepreneurial middle size companies emerging from middle class back grounds. There are many examples of an increase in such endeavours in Africa, both orientated toward domestic and international markets. One need only watch a BBC Africa business report to discover that. Famous investor George Soros has stated that Africa´s middle classes is one of the bright economic spots globally. However, the book in question finds the bigger picture to be a less empowered one. One may agree that the coming impact of African middle classes are as yet not wholly realized.

- Feven Melake