Henning Melber (ed) The rise of Africa’s middle class. Myths, realities and critical engagements  London: Zed Books, 2016.

The Rise of Africa's Middle Class

In this interesting, useful but slightly patchy collection, the very existence, nature and possible political and economic roles of Africa’s supposed middle class are put under the microscope.  This is a very necessary task because of the way that empirically unsupported assumptions and the ahistorical transference of class analysis of Western industrial societies has frequently been the basis for identifying this elusive class and assigning it roles in the much vaunted Africa rising narrative and in projections of the advance of Western conceptions of democracy in Africa.

The editor of the collection locates a reason for studying the idea of an African middle class partly in the declaration by the African Development Bank of the existence of an African middle class of over 300 million people and what he succinctly, and in my view accurately, refers to as “the bank’s almost obsessive gospel about the role of the middle class in the continent’s rapid and accelerated development” (p.2).  This purported development, a key part of the Africa rising narrative so popular in recent years in promoting the concept of fast and irreversible growth and so encouraging a general sense of optimistic euphoria about African economies having entered a brave new world of imminent prosperity and reduced dependence, has proved limited in scope, scale and certainly in breadth and depth of economic progress.

As with previous African booms, it has proved so closely tied to increased commodity prices and export-led growth that it has not been sustainable and has not led to major development of domestic industry, investment in modern agricultural methods, increases in domestic market size or lessening of dependence on foreign markets, prices for export commodities set globally and continued reliance on manufactured imports, foreign loans and aid. This illusory growth has been matched by illusions about the growth of a clearly identifiable middle class with the income, assets, consumer power and resulting political clout to play a major role in both indigenous economic diversification, sustainable growth and the furthering of democracy.

Melber points out that identifying people as belonging to a middle class on the basis of daily spending or income of “a paltry U$$2 a day” requires substantial creativity and notes Richard Kaplinsky’s acid but apposite remark that “such a category means that everyone not starving qualifies as middle class” (p.2). This strikes the right note of scepticism about the UN’s and ADB’s projections of the new middle class in Africa being the answer to the continent’s developmental impasse (p.5).

The other clear aim of the book is to work out if and how one can identify a middle class. Melber warns in the introduction that often the identification of a middle class and the allotment to it of major progressive roles in economic and political terms borders “on wishful thinking, if not being an ideological smokescreen” (p.8) and this certainly is one of the messages I will take from the book.

Lentz’s chapter, which follows the introduction, is interesting in its analysis of how people who may be classed under the US$2 crtiteria as middle class certainly don’t feel they are and feel that struggle to get by and at most are able to mask their poverty (p.17), hardly the basis for a great economic take-off powered by this group.  The chapter also usefully reminds us of the varied and shifting identities of people in many African societies with aspects of urban modernity mixing with traditional hierarchies and modes of behaviour – again making Western models of class identity unhelpful if not positively misleading.

Along with the above chapters, the most useful are Akingugbe and Wohlmuth’s on African entrepreneurs and the missing middle and Schubert’s on Angola (he rams home the message that people who might be identified by the UN or ADB as middle class have a daily struggle to survive and so are not key stakeholders or potential drivers of economic growth).Akingugbe and Wohlmuth are particularly good at identifying the dependent nature of those who might be deemed middle class – dependent on the state.  The mature of Africa’s export-led economies with gatekeeper elites in charge mean that the sort of small business/commercial/retail/shareholder middle classes found in developed Western economies do not exist in the same way in many African economies where companies are to a great extent connected to the elite class of politicians, reliant on granting of state contracts and so effectively minor parts of client networks rather than having independence as an economic class with wider economic and consumer power through their income or assets (p.75).  They correctly identify the gap between the rather small group of large, formnal companies at the top of the economic trees in African economies and the mass of “survival-type micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) at the bottom”, with precious little in between (p.75).  They emphasise the message that political connectivity is still all in many polities and economies across the continent.

These are the stand out chapters in a useful book. The others often seem to go over the same ground but with less impact and I couldn’t get to grips at all with the inclusion of the one on the Dar es Salaam middle class and Kiswahili videos and was disappointed that the chapter on Nigeria failed to identify how one could identify the characteristics of a middle class there, but just assumed there was one..

But it is a volume worth reading for those looking at the narratives of political and economic development. It does strike the very necessary cautionary note about the need for more nuanced research on what might constitute a middle class in Africa and, in some cases, whether one can be said to exist in any form at all.


Professor Keith Somerville, Centre for Journalism, University of Kent, and Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Commonwealth Studies (University of London). Author of Africa’s Long Road Since Independence. The Many Histories of a Continent, Penguin, 2017, and Ivory.Power and Poaching in Africa , Hurst and Co 2016.