The rise of Kenya's middle class offers the country, and the whole continent, hope for the future
Africa seems to spell continent with a capital “C”. “C” for conflict, for catastrophe, for corruption and for crime. However, a new “C” is emerging especially in Kenya, sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest economy: “C” for class. This is a group which is neither desperately poor nor disgustingly rich. They are comfortable, they work hard for it. They are the new middle class.
The Village Market is one of Nairobi’s most elegant shopping malls. Nestled between the jungle-like Hills of Muthaiga, an old and expensive part of town, it bustles with life on a Friday afternoon. The weekend starts early and the parking lot is full of Toyotas, Mitsubishis and Peugeots, as repairing them in the case of a breakdown is an easy DIY job. Prices in the cafés and the ice-cream parlour are high, but most of the punters are Kenyans – and not of the white or Asian variety. “Going to the shopping mall on a Friday afternoon sets a signal. I show everybody that I have made it. I can afford to pay 100 Kenya shillings (about £1) for a bottle of Coke instead of 20 bob at the kiosk down the road,” says Stella Wamuyu, before she is off to shop at Nakumatt, an African supermarket chain, which offers shampoo from Paris next to Chilean wines. Nakumatt’s business was up by $250 million in the past year.
Stella works as the manager of a luxury hotel on the island of Lamu, where she heads a team of 23. They cater to the whims of tourists paying $500 a night. Her husband lives in Nairobi together with their eldest child. He is a manager at a local foreign exchange branch and for one week a month Stella joins him in the capital. She replaced a “Mzungu”, a white man, two years ago and she relishes the opportunity. She was born one of 11 children and grew up in Kisumu, on the shores of Lake Victoria. For her, the choice of a career in the service and hospitality industry was a natural one. Tourism contributes about ten per cent of Kenya’s annual economic output. “I started in the kitchen, ten years ago. Today, I am the manager, but I still empty a full ashtray when I see it.”
Stella leads by example, and certainly many young Kenyans would wish to follow her footsteps. Education is important here: about 85 per cent of children attend school regularly. Even in the remotest area of northern Kenya, you will see children on their way to and from school. Their shirts are spotless and their shoes, hand-me-downs from Europe, polished. You’d never guess they had just left a mud hut, in which they live without electricity and water. The number of Kenyans enrolled in colleges has doubled in the past 10 years to almost 100,000. The University of Nairobi is considered the best in sub-Saharan Africa, South Africa excluded. Kenyans still hope to study abroad, but now exchanges are increasingly two-way.
Graduates seek jobs in international businesses, such as the two-year trainee-scheme that Barclays Bank offers in Kenya. Education and work allow them access to the life of their dreams: their own house, one or two cars, private education, holidays and gadgets, such as mobile phones and plasma-screen TVs. The BlackBerry remains a symbol – nobody is quite that busy yet. They will join the ranks of small-business owners, teachers, doctors, lawyers, engineers, architects and civil servants who are fuelling a construction boom in Nairobi-600 new cinder-block condominiums, complete with landscaped gardens, gyms, pools and broadband internet. However, Kenya is still Kenya. In order to get the contract, the construction firm had to offer a large “present” to government officials – “chai”, or tea, as it is called in local slang. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. New neighbourhoods develop, such as Ngong Town, at the foot of the Ngong Hills made famous by Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa. The neat red roofs of the new houses clash with lumber-yards, hairdressing salons and internet cafés, on which advertisements are painted in garish colours.
Rebecca Kinoti, a clothes and bags designer who has ten other women sewing for her, says: “If I can afford to rent, I might as well buy.” Barclays Bank is there to help people like her; it now has 32 branches in Kenya. A mortgage with Barclays ties a Kenyan customer in for 20 years at an interest rate of 15 per cent, with a 10 per cent deposit and no maximum loan limit. A lot of Kenyans have the confidence to agree to such terms. The middle classes believe in their future. Is their confidence justified? Rebecca Kinoti shrugs her shoulders. “You have to be fast in making decisions. Prices rise and life is short.” A Kenyan economist estimates that of the population of about 37 million people, about four million are middle class, earning between $2,500 (£1,700) and $40,000 (£27,000) a year.
Until the December 2007 election the middle classes were the factor that made Kenya different from other sub-Saharan African states. Kenya seemed not to be consumed by ethnic conflict. However, the election changed all that. It pitted the two major ethnic groups-Luo and Kikuyu-against each other. The mainly Luo supporters of opposition leader Raila Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement fought against the Party of National Unity, led by the ruling President Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyan. The middle class, however, identify themselves as much by where they live, work and went to college as by their tribal ancestry. Stone-throwing, machete-clutching mobs with mud-smeared faces threatened to turn their lives upside down. During the violence, the middle class tried to act as an agent of peace: executives of multinational and local companies met both Kibaki and Odinga to push through a power-sharing agreement. “They just forced the government to get on with it,” says Richard Leakey, the son of the famous paleoanthropologists and head of the Kenya Wildlife Service.
The violence that tore the country apart caused almost $3.5 billion worth of damage to the Kenyan economy and growth fell to 2.1 per cent at the end of 2008, down from 6.3 per cent the year before. On the bright side, the ratings company Fitch revised its outlook on Kenya’s long-term foreign and local currency issue default ratings from “negative” to “stable”. When the World Bank recommended last October that the country seek alternative financing, the government revived a plan to sell $500 million worth of sovereign bonds. The decision should be taken before the end of the fiscal year in June, said the Economic Secretary, Geoffrey Mwau. Such a sale is in the interest of the Kenyan middle classes, who like to assume their share of responsibility in the country. When the Kenya Electricity Generating Company (KenGen) offered shares to the public, they were over-subscribed by 233 per cent. Scan Group, a privately owned company which was floated on the Nairobi Stock Exchange, was over-subscribed by 521 per cent.
The middle class seems to know that the current dependence on the export of raw materials offers no future for the country. Local entrepreneurs want to diversify their industrial base and offer their products in a wider market. Remove trade barriers, harmonise trade licensing procedures, reduce time taken at border checks and improve the judiciary, and Kenyan business could supply the wider African market. This is a strategy that could be replicated in other African countries, thus creating a larger African middle class. Of course, this is much easier said than done. But how else can the creation of a larger African middle class as well as an increase in international investments be encouraged?
An important role in expanding the middle classes via investment falls to the Kenyan diaspora, whose most famous member is Barack Obama. His father, a goatherd-turned-economist, serves as an early example of how well Kenyans do when they live abroad. In the US, no other group of immigrants is as well educated. Almost a quarter of them hold post-graduate degrees, in a larger proportion than the Chinese, Hispanic or Asian immigrant communities. No other group sends so much money home, according to the Kenyan writer and academic Binyavanga Wainaina, himself a fellow of Bard College in upstate New York. The diaspora owns property, is involved in improving the Kenyan infrastructure and helps pay for the education of the younger generation. Obama has encouraged these African-Americans to boost Africa’s development, thereby helping further growth of its middle class as a backbone of society and of democracy.
Africa still only plays a modest role in global trade because of the harder facts of daily African life, such as the unreliable energy supply. “Nothing rains on your day like a power cut in the morning, when you are just about to send that important email,” says Tom Njoroge, who works for a telecoms company. Electricity blackouts are a big problem in Kenya, but there might be a solution to it. Some experts say that the relatively thin volcanic crust of the Rift Valley, which stretches down from the Red Sea to Mozambique, is ideal for geothermal power, which runs whatever the weather and emits negligible carbon. The Olkaria station outside Naivasha is a pioneer project and Kenya already used up its whole capacity before reverting to diesel generators during one of the frequent power cuts.
Before the Kenyan middle classes think global, they prefer to think African. Kenya is in a unique position. It acts as an incubator for business people for the benefit of the whole continent. In other countries, too, there are signs of hope. Kenya’s neighbour, Rwanda, and its president, Paul Kagame, are often cited as good examples for Africa’s future. In Ghana, fair and peaceful elections were held in January 2009. In Botswana, President Ian Khama is implementing careful and sensible policies. In Mali, President Amadou Toumani Touré is regarded as an able peace negotiator, as is Tanzania’s President Jakaya Kikwete.
The Kenyan middle class need not be an exception. Perhaps in time the whole of Africa will share dreams from their fathers – dreams of prosperity, democracy and peace.