A revolution from below

Africa is redefining what it means to be middle class


Two crenelated stone towers rise above a medieval portcullis and gate that has sprouted incongruously between the huge grey granite domes that ring Abuja, Nigeria’s capital. This is Nigeria’s Wonderland Amusement Park, a Disneyesque collection of roller-coaster, Ferris wheel, car rides and snack shops. In most respects it is unremarkable. Like similar parks scattered across the rich world it is designed partly to entertain children and mainly to test the patience of their parents (while separating them from their cash). It is unusual in one crucial respect: for years it was perhaps the only amusement park to be found in the 2,500 or so miles separating the southern fringes of the Sahara and South Africa’s northern borders.

In 2016 and over the years that follow ever more African children will be swirled around or hurtled into the air. After a decade of rapid economic growth across most parts of sub-Saharan Africa, millions of families have seen their incomes increase enough that they can start spending on more than life’s necessities. Signs of this are visible almost everywhere. In Nairobi cranes jut into the sky while in Lagos new car dealerships shine a blaze of generator-powered light onto streets darkened by blackouts. This growing class of consumers is attracting a herd of private-equity firms and multinational consumer-goods companies, to cash in on what McKinsey, a consultancy, called Africa’s “single-largest business opportunity”.

This seems fanciful. Even though the region’s economy has expanded at an average pace of close to 5% over the past 15 years—enough to have more than doubled economic output—the proceeds of this have not been evenly distributed. Moreover, most poor Africans were in such deep poverty that even a doubling of income (from say $1 to $2 a day) is not enough to lift them out of it. Among the biggest boosters of the idea that Africa’s middle class would explode is the African Development Bank. In an influential report in 2011 it reckoned that this class had already tripled in size in 30 years and was 300m strong. Yet its study was based on the bold classification of the category as including anyone with more than $2 a day to spend. About half of this supposed middle class live on less than $4 a day.

A somewhat more sober assessment by South ­Africa’s Standard Bank that is based on the spending power and consumer habits of families (whether they have a television, for instance) reckons that there are just 15m middle-class people in 11 of sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest economies. Almost a third of these live in Nigeria; hardly any are in Ethiopia. Small as this class may be, it is already having outsized effects in driving innovation that will allow it to enjoy many of the goods that were once the preserve of richer folk. In 2016 the impact will be felt across many areas of life—and in ever more parts of Africa.

Do-it-yourself development

Take private schooling. In Lagos, Nigeria’s richest city, most government-run schools are dilapidated and staffed by teachers who often show up drunk, if they show up at all. In 2012, when researchers calculated that almost 60% of children weren’t attending school, the state government was flummoxed: tens of thousands of kids could be seen on the streets going to and coming home from schools. A survey of households found that almost all of these children were attending (mostly unlicensed) private schools, many of which charged less than 25,000 naira ($125) a year. This has nudged the government into improving state-funded schools by, among other things, looking at bringing in private-sector operators such as Bridge International Academies, a business that provides schools to about 100,000 Kenyan children at a cost of $70 a year.

In health care, street-side clinics offer many of the services that the state has failed to provide. Cheap equipment (much of it bought second-hand from the rich world) is allowing private doctors in Ibadan, Nigeria’s third-largest city, to offer scans and x-rays that the local hospital does not. Mobile phones have moved from the hands of bankers on Wall Street into those of most African adults, helping provide access to financial services.

This emerging middle class, even as it fends for itself in terms of public services, is demanding more of the state. Elections held in Nigeria in 2015 were the cleanest in decades, largely because people with phones recorded the tally in thousands of voting stations, tweeting or posting the results so that they couldn’t be rigged by the incumbent party. With presidential or legislative elections coming up in 2016 in several countries (see next story), this new class could find itself on a political roller-coaster too.

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