The middle class in Africa


Earlier this week, my mother-in-law came back from a vacation in Africa—one of those organized group safari tours where they ferry you from camp hotel to camp hotel. In the car, while I drove her and my father-in-law back from the airport, she talked a bit about the tour guides, native Africans she assumed had to be better-off than most, but not rich. And that made her realize that she'd never heard much about an African middle class before, or seen photos of what their lives were like. All you ever saw on TV or in magazines were the obscenely wealthy, and the obscenely poor.

A photo research project organized by photographer Joan Bardeletti aims to change that by documenting middle-class life in the Ivory Coast, Kenya and Mozambique. The photo above is from the city of Abidjan in the Ivory Coast, where being middle class seems to involve finding a base job, and then devoting free time to entrepreneurship.

Do the middle classes really exist in Abidjan? With between 1 and 7€ per person [about $1.30 to $9.75] per day, their income could seem pathetic to the occidental standards. However, they live far better than the poor (1€ or less a day) and can not be compared to the rich minority. Often coming from numerous and rural families, their education brought them in town and allowed them to emerge. For most of them, they have a steady job allowing them to build up their future, live in a flat with electricity, TV, fridge .... and invest in their children's education, sending them to private school if they feel it is necessary. Upon this definition, they represent 30% of the country's population and hold 40% of its wealth.

[Pictured] Charles Kapié with his partner in the street close to their office. At 30 years old he has created and runs a consulting firm in agronomy and a cyber café. He used to be a civil servant and he invested his "rappel" (first year of salary paid at once) in his activity and resigned after one year. He was paid $400/month. He situate himself in the middle of the Middle Classes.

This is a French site. The English translations, as you can see, are a little funky and most of the photo captions are only in French, but Google Translate has been doing a good job making sense of them for me. And this is definitely worth looking through, regardless.

The Middle Classes in Africa

(Via Michael Clemens)

Photo: Joan Bardeletti


  1. Google translation was excellent:

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  2. I had a great time reading the graphic novel series Aya, which is set in late 70s Ivory Coast (highly recommended!). I heard the people there had a very hard time from eighties on with civil wars and political unrest, and have wondered how they are doing these days. It’s great to finally see the people in pictures – it’s admirable how they keep on being resilient and creative in the face of hardships.

  3. Come to think of it, I don’t see much about the middle class in any continent or country, save for the U.S.

    Wonder how much of the appeal of this work for some people relates to the relative irony it has to their stereotypes.

    Also, for what it’s worth, the countries profiled are remarkably different from one another, economically and culturally.

    1. @ Clayton. There is a continent of the world called EUROPE and the middle class percentage there is not less than 90%.

    1. I can’t speak to all of Africa, but in Ghana, anyway, the vast majority of cyber cafe users are legit folks, just trying to to check out the internets like the rest of us. Very, very few people have internet connections in their homes. In the cities, student and other young people are becoming more computer literate cyber cafes to check emails, social networking sites, etc.

  4. IDK, why in a post trying to dispel the poverty myth, the author would use the term “Africa” when describing where her(his?) parents went. “Africa” is a continent, it makes not sense to treat it like a big homogeneous country.

    Other than that, I enjoyed the article.

    1. Because I don’t remember where they went, specifically. And I think they may have been in more than one country.

      1. It’s often helpful to break it down by region. This might require a bit of education on your part. Most people wouldn’t say “my parents just got back from Asia” without specifying a region/section/country. With huge continents that are very problematically presented as monoliths [read: Africa], it’s worth the extra effort.

  5. Interesting article. I was curious about that myself – you do see what seems like middle-class Africans to us in movies sometimes, like Hotel Rwanda, but by the standard of living there that would be considered very upper-class.

    It’s very much like my experience here in Thailand. There is devastating poverty in rural Thailand, but in the cities there is a huge middle class and a very few obscenely rich. Most TV and movies is about the very upper classes (most TV and movies in the US shows the middle or upper-middle class).

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