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Africa’s middle class growing steadily, says bank

Africa’s middle class has tripled over the last 30 years, with fully one in three now considered above the poverty line but not among the wealthy, according to the African Development Bank.

In 2010, 34.3% of the African population, or 313 million people, were classified as middle class, compared with 26.2% or 111 million people in 1980, the bank said in a report.

“Solid economic growth in Africa over the past two decades has contributed to reducing poverty in Africa and increasing the size of the middle class,” the April 2011 report said, underlining that the emergent class helped increase consumption and develop the private sector.

The class is defined as those who spend between $2 and $20 a day, a range the bank says is appropriate given the cost of living in the world’s poorest continent.

But those on the low end, living on between $2 and $4 a day, are vulnerable and could fall back into poverty at the slightest crisis, the bank warns.

The more stable middle class — spending between $2 and $20 a day — counts for about 120 million people and “is more or less the size of the middle class in India or China”.

Nevertheless, widespread inequalities persist, with about 100 000 Africans holding about 60% of the continent’s gross domestic product in 2008, according to the report.

About 61% of the continent’s population lives below the poverty line of $2 a day.

The middle class is “crucial for the economic and political development of Africa”, the bank says, noting that it provides a market for private businesses, as its counterparts in the United States and Europe have done.

Internet users soaring
Overall consumption levels on the continent are currently around a third of those in Europe, and have held up during the recession.

Sales of refrigerators, TV sets, mobile telephones and cars have increased markedly in almost all African countries over the past few years, the bank added.

“Possession of cars and motorcycles in Ghana, for example, has increased by 81% since 2006,” the report said.

Africans also have better access to electricity and high-speed internet, have fewer children and spend more money on educating their offspring than poorer people do.

“The number of internet users, which can be used as a proxy for middle class lifestyles, has increased from about 4.5 million people in 2000 to 80.6 million people in 2008,” the report said.

On the political level, the middle class is better informed and more concerned about human rights and the quality of public services, and likely to demand more accountability from their governments.

Economic growth, reduced inequalities, the development of the private sector, the creation of stable salaried jobs and higher education have all helped the emergence of the middle class.

Generally better educated, members of the middle class are often salaried workers or own small businesses, and typically live in the towns or in coastal areas in brick housing with modern appliances.

This rising middle class can be a key factor in helping African countries base growth more on domestic demand and less on exports, according to the report. — AFP

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