Page 2 of 2   <      

In Africa, a New Middle-Income Consumerism

Middle-income Africans are spawning the advent of new services, such as fertility treatments and funeral homes. And their habits are changing how people define themselves.

For example, although older Ugandans were forced to see themselves in terms of ethnicity during the brutal reign of Idi Amin, Ruharo's identity has more to do with where he shops and what he buys, which in turn reflects the wider world he greets each day on the Internet and cable TV or on occasional trips to London.

"What matters is your lifestyle," said Ruharo, whose current reading includes a motivational book, "The Greatness Guide."

"The car you drive -- it should be a Japanese import. Where you hang. You have to live in an apartment -- I live down here in Bakoto Flats. The BlackBerry is important. It's purely a status symbol because no one here is that busy yet."

Ruharo, who started his own business developing text-messaging products for cellphone companies, now has 14 employees, recent college graduates who share his taste for Diesel jeans and iPods. He said the growing consumerism, including his own, is because "people are more exposed to the world than 10 years ago" and because of a stretch of stability in a country with a turbulent political history.

Although President Yoweri Museveni has been criticized for treading the path to dictatorship -- he's been in power more than 20 years and has imprisoned political enemies -- he has been praised for policies that have fueled a steady economic upswing since the 1990s. Extreme poverty in Uganda, defined as those who earn less than $1 a day, has been cut in half to about 30 percent.

Vijay Mahajan, a business professor at the University of Texas in Austin, recently coined the phrase "Africa 2s" to describe people who are neither desperately poor (Africa 3s) nor obnoxiously rich (Africa 1s), and says the middle group is one of the most important drivers of economic growth in Africa.

"I'm convinced that Africa is going to be built by Africa 2s," said Mahajan, who has written a book, "Africa Rising," on the subject. "These are the people sending their kids to school . . . who are the most optimistic, the most forward-thinking."

Kenyan economist James Shikwati suggested that middle-income consumers are also a driving force for political change.

"It's empowering," he said. "If you give people a sense of freedom in the economic sector, then you deny it in the political sector, you have a problem."

On a Tuesday afternoon in Kampala, the parking lot of the Garden City mall was full of Africa 2s, people pushing carts past fake palm trees to their sport-utility vehicles, or, like Zubedah Nanfuka, shopping inside the dimly lit, air-conditioned expanse.

"It's the one place you can be international and keep up with friends from Western countries," said Nanfuka, a 27-year-old program assistant at an embassy who until recently hosted a local lifestyle TV show called "Cook and Dine." "If you say, 'I shop at Garden City,' it puts you in a certain class."

Nanfuka buys clothes from boutiques in the mall once a month or so, she said. She shops at the bookstore, stops for an ice cream and recently enjoyed cocktails at the rooftop bar before the local premiere of "Sex and the City." Although Nanfuka is heading to the United States to get a master's degree this fall, she said she plans to come back to Kampala to work.

"It's an ongoing struggle, but I think things are promising here," she said, as people traipsed past shelves of flat-screen televisions or sat on benches under hanging ferns.

Adams Lorika was there taking a break. Her mother was a rural shopkeeper, and her father was exiled during Amin's rule for being from the wrong ethnic group, but her life is better by many measures, she said. She married a man who earns a decent salary shipping imports to shops such as those in the mall; she works at a store selling housewares. Together, they earn about $1,000 a month, of which she can spend about $50 on movies, shoes or dining out. They have a bank account and are in the process of obtaining a mortgage to buy a house.

"I come on Saturday with the kids," Lorika said. "They hang out and eat at the food court. The prices here are a bit expensive, but if you want something, you have to go for it."

A young woman in jeans and a tie-dye headscarf was yelling into a red metallic cellphone: "I'm coming! Have a drink!" heading toward the Chick'n Express in the food court. Mariam Adam, a cosmetologist and playwright, said that her friends come to the mall even though they can't afford to buy much. She said it's not so much about shopping, but rather what the mall represents.

"People come to be seen here, so people assume you have money, even though that may not be the case. Things have changed a lot," she said, recalling the days when she felt shabby compared with a visitor from London. "Now, someone from London can come and they're wearing the same shoes I have."

<       2

© 2008 The Washington Post Company