The African Middle-Class: A force for good – Pinado Waba


There was a time when expressions like the” haves and have not’s”, “Lords and serfs” were common in describing the class divisions that exist in the society especially as it affects the economy. Worthy of note however is that at the time these expressions were used, there was a wide gap between those on top and those at the bottom of the economic ladder; you either belonged to the working class or the upper class, in other words rich or poor. Although history shows that there were those who ranked within the middle cadre, they were largely overwhelmed by either side

Today however, we’re facing another dynamic of change which is the emergence of the “middle class”. In recent times, there isn’t any economic related article or advertorial that doesn’t proffer endearing solutions or choices designed to appeal to the “growing middle class”. In his 1936 book The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, John Maynard Keynes described one of the core connections between the middle class and economic growth: “that stable middle class consumption is needed to spur investment” he said, and it is this same line of thought that I would like to explore in the African context

By way of elaborating on the subject, the free encyclopedia says the middle class is a class of people in the middle of a societal hierarchy. In socio-economic terms, the middle class is the broad group of people in contemporary society who fall socio-economically between the working class and upper class, but the common measures of what constitutes middle class vary significantly among cultures.

So what are those central themes in the variety of cultures? A middle class family may be an average nuclear family of four to five people, they might have a car or two, a comfortable house, stable middle income jobs, they may even afford to employ one to two housekeeping staff, their children might attend good schools and they may be able to afford to go on holiday at least once a year to a choice destination.

I think the description of these themes sounds ordinary and if it is, why is it so important to please this “middle class” market? Well the answer is simple; they are the new “purchasing power” of the society because it could easily be acknowledged that to a large extent globalization as well as other mile stones in technological advancements, achievements as well as innovations have led to a considerable raise in the income of the working class, which enables them to save and live more comfortably when compared to the previous income that could barely cope with basic needs, this is not forgetting the move on the economic ladder from “working class” to “middle class”.

They are also the “do it yourself” generation that is likely to be more receptive to the current hi-tech era, which provides for easy and fast improvements that make life easy, because of their new tastes and lifestyles especially things like half-finished or finished commodities in order to save time and energy. Needless to say, it might be these same “tastes” if you like that can create the kind of industries Africa needs to create employment opportunities and sustain growth

More so, the fact that they are in the middle, places them in a strategic position that can earn them the reputation of being the driving force of the economy. This is not only because of their number, but because they may be largely employed by the rich and they in turn employ the poor. This means they redistribute the wealth which by implication provides for a sort of symbiotic relationship within the hierarchy.

There is no downplaying the extent to which the African middle class can reach, especially if they are able to interact with each other without barriers like visa and cumbersome transportation networks

At present, what will be profitable for the economy is to find ways of engaging this middle class that are indigenous to Africa, in diverse endeavors, for example, Zimbabwe is often described as a poor country, but it also records a very high number of unemployed graduates who equally qualify as a potential middle class. 

This now brings me to the issue I have been trying to avoid from the beginning of this write-up which is Policy, because it is almost impossible to talk about economy and not query policy and its implementation. Zimbabwe is almost obsessed with integrating foreign businesses and companies in the country, which is laudable given the circumstances that exist elsewhere, but then what happens to all the other under-developed sectors, what happened to the idea of starting and nurturing indigenous “homemade” companies? What is wrong with creating, supporting and protecting infant industries? This is not about giving subsidies but about ensuring a fair playing field that allows for everyone to play without room for cronyism.

During a tourism fair in 2012, Côte d’Ivoire show cased some of its tourism attractions including beautiful beaches and other relaxation resorts, but I was curious to know how much money the sector brings to the country’s economy, considering it was presenting itself alongside countries like Egypt, Kenya and South Africa.

The then representative of the tourism board told me that they have no such record but she further impressed me by saying that the people who live in the rural areas that surround these beaches and other attractions make hand crafts and other Ivorian specialties, to sell to tourists and to a large extent these people enjoy this source of income, and it improves their livelihood in several ways. In my opinion this is the kind of unique sources of income that African governments can look out for and make policies that can influence their growth.

The “middle class” is vibrant and agile almost everything is within its reach at this time. Some of the great thinkers have explained how beneficial it is to use opportunity and time whenever they appear at the same time, which is somewhat rare, so at present, this is possible by opening the African market to Africa. Africa trading with Africa will be very beneficial because that way, the fusion that occurs will not only be those of resources and commodities but of culture and entertainment and those things that encourage one’s identity to thrive, whether in clothes, food and accessories and that is why the middle class is important!

Pinado Waba contributes to from Germany

[Photo: Kenyatta Avenue, Nairobi. Credit: Financial Times]

There is a force for good on the continent…it is the growing middle-class