Africa’s middle class is booming. Sort of. Not really.

Last week’s media coverage of a Standard Bank report on Africa’s middle class was so poor that it further confirmed my suspicions that 1) there’s a real lack of reliable data regarding Africa’s economic situation and 2) journalists don’t read the reports they write about.

Let’s look at the coverage given to the report to see what various journalists got from the data.

The optimists
The Globe and Mail’s Geoffrey York reports that Africa’s middle class “has tripled in size over the past 14 years” and a “further 25 million households will become middle class and lower-middle-class” in the 11 countries that were comprised in the study (because 11 countries in sub-Saharan Africa = Africa’s 54 recognized states, as we know). This growth should help foster a stable business, political and social environment on the continent.

The Financial Post’s James Kynge agrees: this boom (still in “Africa”) will create a “burgeoning consumer market for items such as vehicles, insurance policies, property and health products”. Investors should however be mindful that “households prioritise [sic] differ markedly as their household incomes change, with wealthier households preferring to allocate more on education, insurance and other financial services, their health, vehicles, mortgages, rentals and utilities and home maintenance.” The problem is that these “wealthier households” aren’t as many as we thought – but Kynge doesn’t seem to worry too much about that.

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A public toilet in Mukuru. Three shillings per use.

The people vs. constitution

Cityscapes, Issue 05 — In Mukuru, one of Nairobi’s largest informal settlements, three shillings gets you the privilege to relieve yourself in a communal toilet, which, although cleaner than a plastic bag thrown over the railway tracks, might still facilitate the spread of infectious diseases. If you’re a woman, this privilege ends when the sun sets at 7pm, after which venturing out at night-time means risking muggings, rape, or worse. Because the settlement is located on private, industrial land, the state hasn’t been able to bring basic infrastructure and public services, which would spare parents and children the indignity of defecating in open view in a poorly-lit one-bedroom shack.

But Kenya’s new constitution, because it includes such novel provisions as the right to accessible and adequate housing, has given slum dwellers a newfound hope that their situation might one day improve. With support from civil society organizations and advisers from local universities, some of Mukuru’s residents have decided to sue both their absentee landlords and the government, claiming their constitutional rights to humane living conditions have been violated.

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Insecure shopping: Nairobi mall culture after the Westgate attacks

Cityscapes, Issue 05 — I first visited the Westgate shopping mall, which made international news when it was violently occupied by armed militants in September 2013, on my very first day in Nairobi. Like the city’s national park, elephant orphanage or Karen Blixen’s estate, Westgate was a central landmark for tourists, a haven for the large community of expatriates, and a common meeting space for Nairobi’s upper class elites. Opened in 2007 and owned by Israelis, the five-story landmark housed banks, shops carrying imported products, a cinema, playgrounds and top-notch restaurants.

That a shopping mall should play such a significant role in a city’s psyche speaks both to the paranoid tendencies of the well off and perceived lack of public space in Nairobi, a city with substantial public parks flanking the congested inner city. Years of high crime in this segregated city (first racially, now socially) have pushed wealthier residents into gated compounds on the western side of the city. Shops and restaurants here trade behind high walls or in malls, offering few opportunities for outdoor window-shopping or people watching while on a stroll. There are no squares and few parks in Nairobi’s west side.

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Dispelling the myth of Africa rising

The New York Times surprises us today with yet another article desperately trying to prove the “Africa rising” rhetoric without any substantial facts or data. No, increasing car traffic and new retail outlets are not indicators that things are faring well for Africans.

Nicholas Kulish’s piece is full of contradictions that have become standard in the way western media portray Africa’s economic prospects. Consumer demand is supposedly booming, but Kulish cites no specific data that reflects the trend. Such demand is fuelled by the rise of the middle class, yet this term is so loosely used by various institutions (the African Development Bank defines members of the Middle Class as those earning between $2 and $20) that it could hardly be relied on to draw any sort of conclusion on the continent’s financial prosperity. Betting on the lower middle class to bear the weight of market growth is actually ignoring that it’s near impossible to live decently with less than $4-5 a day in a large, expensive city like Nairobi. But guess what? That slice of the population has barely been growing.

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The recent prison escape in Quebec is another painful reminder of how messed up our correctional system is

VICE Canada, June 13, 2014 — Just 15 months after an embarrassing escape from the St-Jérôme prison, Quebec was gifted with a second, spectacular prison break from a provincial jail in Orsainville that saw three detainees linked to the Hells Angels take off in a helicopter like a terrible A-Team reboot. Now Interpol is jumping into the search after Quebec asked for their help, and the government is left trying to figure out what the hell happened.

So far security minister Lise Thériault has blamed the Orsainville prison, the Sûreté du Québec, the justice system and the previous government for the massive fuckup that happened last Saturday, without being able to really prove anyone’s responsibility. She also refused to comment on why the detainee’s security grade was lowered down from S5 to S3, allowing them to walk freely inside the prison’s courtyard where the helicopter picked them up.

It’s almost been a week since the latest escape, and every day comes with its own revelations that confirm the whole thing was easily preventable. Police investigators, for instance, apparently knew about the detainee’s plans to escape and had even paid them a visit to let them know—yet the prison’s managers decided to loosen the condition of their detention because their behaviour during incarceration didn’t reveal any risk of escape.

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Canadian police forces want to protect you with military battle gear

VICE Canada, June 9, 2014 — Last week, media reports described a city “under siege” as the RCMP hunted for a man who killed three police officers and injured two others in Moncton, New Brunswick. The heavily armed police force deployed armoured vehicles, helicopters, and a robot to find the gunman—while officers patrolled the streets in full-combat uniform. All of this military gear brought back unfortunate memories of the clash between Mi’kmaq protesters and heavily armed New Brunswick RCMP officers, snipers, and private police forces that rocked the province late last year.

If you’re confused as to when the RCMP started to operate like the Canadian Armed Forces, you probably haven’t realized yet that Canadian police have been following the lead of the US in militarizing their equipment and intervention tactics.

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Nairobi’s solution to terrorism: blame the Somalis

OpenDemocracy, April 17, 2014 — Perhaps due to the commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide last week, the Nairobi police’s substantial crackdown on Muslims and illegal immigrants failed to hit international headlines. Over 4,000 people were arrested in just a few days, in response to  yet another grenade attack killing six in the infamous Eastleigh neighbourhood on March 30th. Although most were released shortly, an unknown number of detainees who have failed to present proper ID remain held at the nearby Kasarani stadium in substandard conditions, and police sweeps have since expanded to other neighbourhoods. Human rights and humanitarian organizations were initially denied the right to visit the stadium, despite children being among the arrested; they were finally allowed in at the end of the week. At least one woman gave birth while in detention.

Eastleigh, a largely Muslim neighbourhood near downtown Nairobi, nicknamed “Little Mogadishu” for its large population of ethnic Somalis, is a frequent theatre for both terror attacks – the previous one, a bomb blast in a local bus, claimed four lives last December – and police harassment. Arbitrary arrests and physical abuse are known to routinely target Somalis, many of which are refugees who escaped the squalid, overcrowded camps of Dadaab and Kakuma in the country’s north (Kenya hosts 610,000 documented and 500,000 undocumented refugees from Somalia).

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At the Simbi washing station


Cafe Connexion

Why Rwanda’s coffee industry is a case study in development

During my time in East Africa, I’ve had the opportunity to closely observe many development initiatives, but few managed to convinced me as well as Rwanda’s coffee industry. Here’s my take on why the recent history of the industry should be considered as a case study for economic and human development.

1) Re-developing Rwanda’s coffee industry wasn’t an aid program. It was an unprecedented alignment of government priorities with the business sector, with help from foreign aid. It’s rare to see all three types of actors advance in the same direction together. They didn’t start from scratch either - coffee production was introduced by the Belgians during colonization. Even though the industry was vastly dysfunctional even then, and was nearly completely destroyed during the genocide, the basis was there to be built upon.

2) From farmers to washing stations to buyers and exporters, all actors along the value chain have been part of the process. I see that lacking in a lot of development programs, especially in agriculture – you can’t teach skills to farmers without improving access to the market; you can’t expect industries to grow without enabling a business-friendly culture, improving roads, training managers… Development through business should imply strengthening entire industries, and not just empower some of its actors, otherwise the impact will be minimal and localised. Getting the government on board is crucial for this.

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Matt Smith, from Rwanda Trading Co., speaks with an employee.

Rwanda’s specialty coffee industry: a success story for economic and human development

Business Daily, April 2014 — Colette Mukarisa farms over 500 coffee trees on one of southwestern Rwanda’s many luscious hills. She has high hopes for the picking season that is just about to start; last year, her crop produced a coffee that fared well in the Cup of Excellence, an industry-wide competition sometimes known as the “Oscars of the coffee world.” The ranking earned her a much-appreciated bonus, as well as the right to taste her own coffee for the very first time.

Ms. Mukarisa’s coffee cherries are highly sought after by international roasters, as consumer demand for high-quality and sustainably grown coffee grows in North America, Europe and Japan. In recent years, Rwanda has placed itself as a top producer of premium beans, selling to coffee giants such as the U.S.-based Starbucks and Green Mountain, and to high-end roasters like Stumptown and Intelligentsia. Some 33% of Rwanda’s coffee production in 2013 was graded “specialty”, meaning it scored above 80 on a 100-point scale, making up 45% of Rwanda’s total revenues from coffee exports (USD$55.2 million in 2013).

Speciality coffee sells for at least USD$0.20 above ordinary coffee (the benchmark New York “C” price), and a large portion of the selling price goes directly to producers. Dozens of thousands of farmers have seen their income increase as a result, and the industry has been credited not only for helping the country make gains on human development, but also for playing a substantial role in national reconciliation, as members of formerly rival communities have been working side to side along the supply chain. The stellar growth of Rwanda’s coffee industry has become a case study in market development.

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