IT IS to the middle class we must look for the prosperity of Africa, to paraphrase William Thackeray. Many countries are making a mint from commodities such as oil, copper and gold thanks to sky-high prices. But that is not enough to give Africa a permanent boost. Commodity markets are notoriously fickle and revenues can quickly be squandered.
The true test of progress is whether new riches trickle down from the elite to create a group of consumers large enough to sustain broad economic spurts in the service and manufacturing sectors. If so, a virtuous circle of yet more jobs, new government revenues and better public services beckons, eventually benefiting the poor.
This is indeed happening, according to a report by the African Development Bank. It says a third of Africans are now “middle-class”, defined as having between $2 and $20 to spend a day. A decade ago that was true of only a quarter of Africans. This change has occurred in a period of fast population growth among low-income families.
But before Western consumer-goods companies rush to open stores in Ouagadougou or Bujumbura they should look at the report’s small print. Two-thirds of that supposed new middle class have just $2 to $4 per day. They may be able to buy a telephone or washing-machine or television, but not often and probably not all three.
Middle-class may, in any case, be a misnomer for such people. In education, aspirations and social status many of them are closer to the European working class of a century ago: no longer starving, but still short of many things the Western middle class of today takes for granted. Their children probably lack a good education. Holiday travel is largely out of reach. Good health care is a luxury. Many start out as subsistence farmers and are among the first in their families to earn a regular wage. They certainly do not carry credit cards or count as part of a global consumer society.
Sharp geographical variations persist. North Africans top the ranking. In sub-Saharan Africa the better the governance, the bigger a country’s middle-income bulge. In Botswana, Namibia, Ghana, Kenya and South Africa almost half the population earn more than $2 per day, whereas in the worst-governed countries less than a fifth have managed to cross that barrier.
In any event, improvements in governance, better access to technology, the rapid spread of mobile telephones and the better use of natural resources have begun to raise millions out of dire poverty. The class of Africans with $4 to $20 a day has been stuck at about 14% for three decades. A decade ago, two-thirds of Africans had less than $2 a day. Today that figure is around 60%. And most of those above the barrier are still far from comfortable.