Beyond the Numbers: West Africa’s Middle Class

By Olivier Bucyana (@olivierbu1) & Mohamed A. Sultan (@malimsultan)

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Africa’s middle class is one of the fastest growing socio-economic groups in the world. But while it is expected to swell in coming decades, it is also an incredibly elusive and mysterious category. Just who qualifies as middle class on the continent? How many middle class people are there? Where do they come from? And most importantly, what impact are they having on Africa’s development? These are just some of the questions that remain unanswered – confounding statisticians struggling to track numbers, let alone make sense of them, and boggling political scientists and economists trying to assess their social and economic impact

Knowing the genesis, spread and effect of Africa’s middle class is crucial in better understanding their socio-economic role on the continent’s development. It is also valuable in assessing how this impacts on economic and policy setting, and the social configuration of African societies –both now and in the future. The “Africa rising” narrative, coined by the rapid expansion of several African countries’ economies at rates of 6% or more, coupled with the growing evidence that seven of the world’s top fastest growing economies are in Africa has intrigued economists, investors, analysts, and African policy makers alike. But the real question is what is really driving this growth? Are natural resources the sole drivers of Africa’s rising economic prowess? It doesn’t seem so. African economies are becoming more complex. They are driven by a growing services sector and expanding consumer markets. And it’s precisely this consumer market that seems to be benefitting from the all-too-elusive and emergent middle class. The fact that Africa’s economic growth may not be strictly defined by the export potential of resource rich countries is most welcomed news. No country has ever been able to sustain economic growth or make strong democratic advancements without a vibrant middle class. It is undeniably a necessary condition to building strong democratic societies.

What’s driving Africa’s economic growth? 

Africa’s vast natural resources, including oil and mineral wealth, combined with growing commodity prices over the last decades have been key factors behind the continent’s economic growth. A large part of the policy discourse has therefore been confined to discussions on local and global norms on resource management. Improving the governance of natural resources is certainly primordial for Africa and until a more sustainable, equitable and fair system is in place to manage natural resources – be they mineral, oil, land or fisheries – the region will continue to be plagued by the unwanted consequences of inefficient policies, which translates into poverty, environmental degradation, rampant corruption, and predatory and exploitative behaviors by unscrupulous officials, and companies.

But natural resources are not the only factor prompting economic growth. An increasing  body of literature points to different and unforeseen drivers. For example, the shift in labor force from agricultural to more productive sectors and the growth of the services economy have all contributed to increased income and consumption. This consumption is now not only limited to the small traditional African elite, which accumulated its wealth over the past decades, through legacy economic activities and close relationship with political powers. This consumption is being led by what economists instinctively refer to as “middle class”. The global management consulting firm, McKinsey, that advises governments, businesses and institutions, estimates that consumer spending is expected to increase from 860 million (2008) to 1.4 trillion in 2020. The issue is now to what degree African governments should carve a bigger space on the policy reform agenda to account for this emerging economic dynamic?  And more specifically, how should governments adjust their tax systems to ensure that everyone contributes their fair share? These are just some of the questions that are now coming to the fore.

Looking at the numbers

Defining the “African middle class” is extremely complex, especially when the data available is limited and given the very different stages of economic maturity of the continent’s countries. According to a report recently published by the African Development Bank (AFDB), 34% of Africans, approximately 370 million people, currently fall into this category and earn between US$2 and US$20 per day. Other bodies, such as the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), defined the African middle class as those earning between US$10 and US$100 per day and counted approximately 32 million Africans as part of the middle class in 2010.


   Source: Africa in Fact – Issue 28 – November 2014

While there may not be consensus on just who constitutes as “middle class”, this is also not particular to Africa. Even in the United States, the middle class has no formal economic definition and politicians struggle to understand it.

The political and social impact of Africa’s middle class

While reliable data may be scarce, there is no doubt that Africa’s middle class exists and is rising.  On an everyday level we can see this truth manifested through the growing numbers of luxury hotels, large-scale supermarkets and specialty boutiques in cities such as Abidjan, Dakar and Accra. But from the perspective of a political scientist, the middle class has a very powerful, but far less  visible effect on social transformation. The middle class can have formidable effects on political reforms, which as seen in Europe during the Industrial Revolution, can effectually shape the backbone of every progressive society. This makes the middle class invaluable in the democratization process of any given country, and all the more reason to scrutinize at a greater level.

In Africa, the middle class is often at the helm of social change, but they are not the sole instigators of mass movements. Ghana is a good example of the former, where the #OccupyGhana movement was ignited and continues to gain fervor through the middle and upper-middle classes. Here the impetus for change was in response to the endemic corruption and deteriorating economy of a country lauded as West Africa’s democratic darling. But then there’s Burkina Faso and Nigeria. Here, social movements for change have been largely prompted by disgruntled youth, the unemployed and poor and in both cases, their efforts have proven quite successful. The recent uprising in Burkina is a prime example. This mass movement, which protested an attempt by their (then) longstanding head of state Blaise Campaore to seek an (unlawful) next term, led to his overthrow. And in Nigeria, back in 2012, tens of thousands of citizens took to the street to protest their government’s removal of their fuel subsidy which more than doubled the price of a gallon cost of fuel (from US$1.70 to approximately US$3.50), as well as transportation and food prices. Here as well, efforts paid off, and the fuel subsidy was finally reinstated.

It is interesting to speculate on why different echelons of society, across different countries in Africa become the instigators and drivers of change.  Why is it not the middle or upper classes in Burkina and Nigeria who led these two protests? And why is Ghana’s middle class the driving force behind their own movement? We notice that the middle class in West Africa (and this may also apply to other parts of the continent) rely heavily on themselves to obtain some of the basic services they are entitled to by their elected leaders. In Nigeria, for example, due to the frequent power outages, many (if not all) members of the middle and upper class own their own generators and water tanks. They have then, perhaps, less reason to take to the streets compared to someone suffering through his umpteenth day without either water or light. Instead of dutifully demanding what they are entitled to, members of the middle and upper class in countries like Nigeria and other countries have created bubbles for themselves where they can live immune to what those less financially-capable suffer through day in and day out. But does this mean the middle class is not playing their role or fulfilling their duties as active citizens in these countries? And if so, what effect does this complacency have on the development of their societies?

It is clear that more needs to be done to understand the political economy of Africa’s middle class. How it affects the changing political and social environment; how it impacts government attitudes behind public service delivery; whether (and how) it affects the dynamism of civil society; and what this means for long term economic policy setting are all crucial areas to explore for the betterment of building more democratic and advanced, free and fair societies in and across the continent. While the size and level of involvement of Africa’s middle class in pushing for reforms varies across the continent, the issue is both pertinent and timely. Beginning the discussions today will hopefully help bring about change and better understanding tomorrow.


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