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The Making of the Middle Class in Africa

Mthuli Ncube's picture
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Robust economic growth over the past 15 years has led to visible changes across Africa. Visitors to cities on the continent cannot help but notice the emerging African middle class.  Defined as those earning between $2 and $20 a day in 2010, Africa’s middle class is expected to grow from 355 million (34 percent of Africa’s population) to 1.1 billion (42 percent of the population) in 2060. To be sure, about 60% of them – approximately 180 million people – remain barely out of the poor category. They constitute the ‘floating’ class, earning between $2 and$4 a day. They are in a vulnerable position, constantly at risk of dropping back into poverty in the event of any unexpected shocks, such as the loss of income and the death of the head of household.
Pointing out business processess at ITU-Inveneo ICT Entrepreneurship Training Not only is Africa’s middle class crucial for economic growth, but they are essential for the growth of democracy and will play a key role in rebalancing the African economy. Consumer spending by the middle class has reached an estimated $680 billion in 2008 – or nearly a quarter of Africa’s GDP. By 2030 this figure will likely reach $2.2 trillion and Africa will comprise about 3 per cent of world-wide consumption.

Despite a reputation for thrift, middle-class households do allocate part of the household budget to leisure and entertainment. Our analysis shows that middle-class households are likely to spend more on private education and health, as well as on household assets such as televisions and refrigerators. In addition to being better off in material terms, the middle class are in general both more satisfied and more optimistic about the future than their poorer compatriots.

Education and spatial mobility are often key factors in procuring a middle-class job. They allow people to move into a new sector or industry with higher wage rates, or to relocate to an urban agglomeration where there are greater job opportunities. The region has witnessed strong expansion in manufacturing and service industries such as telecommunications and finance in recent years. This is expected to translate into sustained growth of middle-class jobs in the future. African cities will continue to expand at a rapid pace, creating the dynamic environments conducive to innovation and higher labor productivity. Nevertheless, despite these positive developments, the informal sector will continue to dominate the African labor market in the medium term, as the growth of steady, well-paid employment is starting from such a low level.

The growth of the middle class represents a huge challenge for service provision. Large investments have to be funded, yet at the same time the most vulnerable in society need to be protected from relapsing into poverty. The middle class enjoys higher purchasing power than the poor, which means they are better placed to help fund improvements to infrastructure. However, the preponderance of the ‘floating class’ (those earning between just $2 and $4 per day) suggests that user charges may need to be kept at a modest and affordable level.

The challenge is how to bridge the huge infrastructure funding gap. Africa requires between $19 and $20 billion per year to achieve full coverage in electricity by the year 2019. Investment needs for access to improved water total $16 billion per year, while requirements for improved sanitation amount to $17 to $18 billion per year.
Ultimately, the emergence of the African middle class can only be sustained if the continent puts in place strategies that expand prosperity for all. Without such measures, which include expanding opportunities for technical training and job creation, the growth of the middle class is likely to be undermined by social friction. Policies that foster improved infrastructure, sustained and shared growth, enhanced human resources, private sector participation, and improved accountability and governance also spur the growth of the middle class. Social policies can accelerate this emerging trend, for example through pro-poor spending on education and health. Over the next 20 years, with the appropriate policies on human capital development and job generation, Africa can transform its social fabric, as more and more of its population exit out of poverty to join the ranks of the middle class.


Submitted by Homi on

Defining the African middle class as those living in households earning between $2 and $20/day is another example of how Africa gets treated differently from other regions. Given that the classification is in purchasing power parity terms, it should be the same in any region. But I doubt anyone in Europe would think of themselves as being in the middle class if they were earning $2/day. In fact, there is ample research to suggest that the real attributes of being in the middle class--starting to spend more on consumer durables and leisure activities, starting to buy differentiated products, to pay more for quality--starts at much higher levels of income, somewhere around $10/day. This is emerging as a standard in much of the literature in other regions. It should be used in Africa as well.

Submitted by sam on

Much as Africa's growth is being celebrated around the world, it is important to note that poverty still loom over the continent.
Access to quality education is still a reserve for the rich and upper-middle class. Health care services are still highly concentrated in metro and urban areas, while rural dwellers travel miles to access health facilities.
It is becoming convincing that as Africa's economic captains continue to steer their ships towards full blown capitalism, the condition of the poorest-of-the-poor and the 'floating-middle class' have probably not improve much. This is because the burgeoning capitalist economy rarely see any need to invest in the poor. Rather, the poor are continuously being exploited for cheap labour for the production of capitalist goods that they (the poor) may never be able to afford.
A case in point is the development going on in Abuja, Nigeria. The workers who toil day and night to build that city cannot afford to live in the city. They are relegated to live miles away in peri-urban settlements. Taxi drivers, factory workers and the likes may never be able to afford a living in Abuja metropolis, yet their sweat and toil keeps the city running.
This is the irony of Africa's emerging economies; that the economies grow at single digits while poverty and the condition of poor continue to worsen. We experience economic growth accompanied by economic underdevelopment.
Until there are deliberate policies for addressing the income disequilibria between the state-backed-super-rich and their stewards (the upper-middle class)on the one hand, and the floating-middle class and poorest of the poor on the other, Africa's fast growing economies my not necessarily translate into development.

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