Western storytelling, the East African “middle class” and how to account for “politics”

Here we have an interesting paradigmatic story from Der Spiegel, translated from German for their English version, “Up and Coming in Kampala; Africa’s Growing Middle Class Drives Development” by Horand Knaup and Jan Puhl:

Three good anecdotal stories here of successful start-up African businesses generating local jobs and wealth through import substitution with domestic production. They help to grow a domestic consumer market and ultimately look to export as well. One of the two in Uganda got significant assistance from the national government and the Kenyan business got financing from a German international development arm.

She earned her starting capital by importing clothes from the West, but then she began designing her own collections, and soon “Sylvia Owori” was the most popular label among women in East Africa.

Owori has her collection produced by seamstresses in villages. She has trained 200 women and sponsors the purchase of their sewing machines. “When I receive a big order, I can deliver quickly and flexibly,” she says. On the other hand, she says, the women can stand on their own feet when she doesn’t happen to have any work for them.

Her latest creation is a denim laptop bag shaped like the map of Africa. “This bag was once a pair of jeans,” she says. “You threw it into a container for old clothing and sent it to Africa. We made something new out of it and will sell it back to you.” Swedish fashion giant H&M is interested in the bag, and two other Western fashion chains have asked Owori to meet with them in London.

It’s a question of finding new ways to stimulate economic growth. The corrupt oligarchies in many African countries have made money from the export of commodities, but only a fraction of the population has benefited from the proceeds. The growth being generated by Africa’s middle class is more sustainable, say development experts. Much of it is based on the processing of African fabrics, wood and fruits, and it creates jobs.

Good examples of what is going right and working, from two of Africa’s 50+ plus countries. Well done as such.

“She is the epitome of a success story. And success stories are no longer a rarity in Africa, despite its reputation as a continent of poverty and suffering.” Right and important.

But then we get into the broad assertions and big selective extrapolations. “This growth is producing a middle class that’s growing from year to year. According to the African Development Bank, this middle class already includes 313 million people, or 34 percent of the total population.” To say that “this middle class” includes roughly a third of the population of the entire continent is to me quite misleading in the context of this story,

which cites “Emmanuel Katongole [head of Uganda’s acclaimed Quality Chemical Industires] as a typical representative of this middle class. He drives a shiny black Mercedes SUV and wears tailored suits.” Excuse me–go to Uganda and look around and talk to people. One third of the total population?! This is not what the African Development Bank numbers mean.

And the story then concludes with a leap into political and social prognostication that seems to me unhelpful at best if not dangerously myopic.

Here is how the story wraps up:

‘Voters Know What’s at Stake’

But the next potential problem is already on the horizon. Kenya holds elections next spring. During the last election, five years ago, politicians incited violence between gangs of thugs, fueling ethnic hatred. As a result, 1,300 people were killed, hundreds of thousands were driven from their homes, the tourism industry was shattered and many businesses were destroyed.

“It won’t be that bad this time,” says Kimani [ a successful Nairobi businessman who is the third profile]. “Voters know what’s at stake now.” The middle class in Kenya has a lot to lose, he says. It won’t tolerate the same kind of chaos that erupted five years ago.

Overall, I think that is a bad summary of what happened in the last Kenyan election. And the last election happened at a time when the economy was growing significantly faster than it is now–and at a time when the Kenyan cities where much of the violence happened already had a significant young urban middle class. And there were a lot less small arms at large, and things like grenade attacks were much less common. And tribalism was less open. I respect the gentleman’s prognostication, and I certainly hope he turns out to be right, but to just throw this out there alone and unexamined to me undermines the value of the story as a whole.

Leave a Reply