The African Middle Class: Too much hype?

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This article first appeared in my weekly column with the Business Daily on February 15, 2015

There is a great deal of hype about Kenya’s and Africa’s emerging middle class. Indeed Kenya is considered to have one of the largest middle-class populations in Africa.

Stories abound about global companies and investors eyeing the newest middle class in the world and how they can make handsome profits through tapping into the spending power. Indeed some say that Africa’s consumer spending is set to rise from $860 billion in 2008 to $1.4 trillion in 2020.



But let’s take a step back and look at technical definitions of the middle class: The African Development Bank states that Africans who spend $2 to $20 (Sh92=$1) a day qualify as middle class. The Standard Bank defines it as those who spend $15 to $115 a day.  A point to note is that earning above $2 dollars a day is a commonly accepted definition of the poverty line in developing countries in general because people above the $2 dollar line are above absolute poverty. One questions the prudence of equating not being in absolute poverty as synonymous with middle class.

The first problem of pinning the definition of middle class as individuals spending $2 or $15 (Sh170 or Sh1,275) a day masks the fact that there are high levels of dependency in Africa. Because the government lacks a robust social security net, those who earn income are often supporting several relatives and friends financially. Thus, even if an individual spends Sh2,000, most of this may be spending for dependents, not the individual.

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In addition, there are other factors that should be looked at beyond strict figures. As an analyst pointed out, looking at figures does not answer whether this ‘middle class’ has access to affordable health care and  education, and whether they can afford leisure activities.

Those questions are more important than coming up with arbitrary cut-off points. For example, given Kenya’s high mortality rate and burden of disease exacerbated by truly poor health facilities, thousands of shillings are spent on expensive healthcare and individuals are often constrained by such obligations thereby haemorrhaging their earnings on such expenses.

Further, the reality is that poverty is still pervasive. A Standard Bank survey of 11 sub-Saharan African countries, which together account for about half of Africa gross domestic product, found that 86 per cent of their households remain in the low-income band. All these households will focus on meeting basic needs with little room for discretionary spending.

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So the level of truly disposable income is important to determine as the reality is that although an individual may be able to afford food from a fine restaurant he or she may have too many dependents to actually go out and make that purchase.

On the other hand, prices for apartments in fashionable districts in certain African cities match those in the global north. So is the narrative truly about the ‘middle class’ or an emerging elite?

Is the trend in Kenya actually one of economic dualism with a deep divide between rich and poor with paltry sprinklings of a middle class? The questionable nature of the Kenya middle class is exemplified by the fact that fast food chains that are fraternised by low-income groups in Europe and North America are the very same found in up-market malls and posh neighbourhoods in Kenya. So does ‘rich’ in Kenya translate to ‘poor’ in the USA?



The appeal here is one of caution about over-hyping Kenya’s and indeed Africa’s middle class. The commentary has to be tempered with presenting accurate scenarios on the nature of this ‘middle class’ and the depth of the pockets therewith.

 Ms Were is a development economist. Email: | Twitter: @anzetse


Fraud in higher education killing Africa’s development

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This article first appeared in my weekly column in the Business Daily on February 8, 2015

In the past week there has been a buzz around institutes of higher education allegedly handing out dubious academic accreditations for a fee.

Beyond the surprise and outrage, this reality in Kenya speaks to the larger question of how poor and fraudulent education is killing economic development.

It is an absolute outrage that given the skills gap Kenya already has, institutions and ‘students’ are willing to collude in a manner that  augur ill for the youth, who are the main victims of the alleged misdemeanours, and for the economy in general.


As it stands, most employers are dissatisfied with the quality of graduates being churned out even by reputable institutions of higher education.

Employers are often struggling to fill vacancies yet hundreds of thousands of unemployed graduates exist, a situation that points to the extent of the mismatch.

In fact, in a survey among experts in 36 African countries on the major challenges youth face in the labour market, 54 per cent found a mismatch between what job seekers have to offer and what employers require.

So when the duplicity enters the sphere of education, and inauthentic students ‘graduate’, the effect is the creation of a young population with no true marketable skills and therefore limited economic promise.

The seriousness of the situation is underpinned by the fact that educated youths are seen to be the engine that would drive Kenya into economic prosperity.


Therefore, when institutions collude with ‘students’ in such a manner, it compromises the quality of the skills base on which current and future growth is predicated.

The problematic elements of tertiary education do not end there. Even when authentic degrees are earned, the composition of the same is a problem.

If Kenya is like many other African countries, there exists an imbalance with a shortage of those with degrees in technical areas such as the extractive, logistics, chemical and pharmaceutical industries as well as a surplus of workers in audits, administration, sales and communication positions.

But this is not without cause: Kenya does not produce many nuclear scientists, for example, partly because it lacks facilities but also because young people do not view such jobs as vendible in the local labour market.

This results in an imbalance that feeds into an inability of the country to build on technical skills sets that drive efficiency, technological innovation and productivity, creating positive disruptions that boost economic growth.

It is, therefore, crucial that not only fraudulent institutions of higher education are deregistered, but also a stronger connection be built between employers and the academia.

This means relevance of education will be improved, reducing the skills mismatch.


In addition, technical and vocational skills development should be promoted as it offers the youth additional applied skills and better chances in the labour market.

Further, training should go beyond hard skills and train students in soft skills — behavioural skills — because these can have a significant positive impact on employment and earnings of young Kenyans.

Ms Were is a development economist. Email:, Twitter: @anzetse

Davos shows world is watching Africa for opportunities

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This article first appeared in my weekly column with Business Daily on February 1, 2015


At the World Economic Forum, Africa featured more prominently in discussions than in the past. The continent’s politicians and leading businessmen seem to be singing the same tune stating the importance of emphasising global trade with the continent, investing in infrastructure and reminding the world of Africa’s growth figures.

But what did Davos say about Kenya (and Africa) and what does this mean for the country?

First, there is a great deal of interest in Africa but there is still significant anxiety and concern about the conditions and environment for business and for personal safety.

South African President Jacob Zuma had to reassure participants that Africa is “relatively stable”, with “reduced areas of conflict in the continent”. Of course Ebola in West Africa and terrorism in Kenya and Nigeria were mentioned.

The basic message is this: The world is interested in making money from countries like Kenya, but many are unclear on what a fully fledged investment on the continent entails.

One could argue that had China not made deep inroads into the continent, interest in Africa would be more muted.

It is up to Kenya to increase access to information and data about the country and market the positive aspects of what investment here means, while being candid about the risks present.


Secondly, Africa is the newest kid on the block but is still largely discussed as a monolith, a single market and single investment destination.

Luckily for Kenya, a few days after Davos, Fortune magazine listed the country as one of the seven emerging markets to watch (Kenya was the only African country on the list).

There is some indication that basic differentiation is beginning to emerge, with some foreign investors distinguishing between East and West Africa, or oil importing versus oil exporting economies.

This differentiation is bound to grow and is good news for Kenya because there is space on the global stage for the country to stand out as a key investment space.


At the moment, it looks like investments will be made in one or two “sure bet” countries and Kenya can leverage on all its strengths to be seen to be one of those sure bets.

Thirdly, Davos made it clear that people are paying attention to Africa and thus the continent is likely to be increasingly integrated into global financial markets.

Part of the reasons behind the interest is the resilience shown during the 2008-09 financial crisis. This and the high yields has given countries like Kenya access to global financial markets in an unprecedented manner.

Ironically in trying to diversify risk, investors are integrating the continent more closely to global financial markets, perhaps compromising the relative isolation on which Africa’s past resilience was based.

Kenya and Africa will open up further and the attention of the government should be on how to attract investment but more importantly, to develop the capacity to absorb the incoming investment in a manner that builds the economy equitably and sustainably.

Ms Were is a development economist.

Low oil prices are good, but let us watch the dollar

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This article first appeared in my weekly column with the Business Daily on January 25, 2015

Oil prices have fallen by more than half from the mid-2014 peak. Most look at this as a positive development for Kenya, but they are missing an important point; there is a link between low oil prices and a strong US dollar.

Analysts have long observed the correlation between low crude prices and a strong dollar.

Why does this happen? The answer is unclear. But one explanation is that when there is plenty of global liquidity and returns from traditional financial assets are low, large amounts of money are shifted to commodity markets and the oil market in particular, thus oil prices go up.

In the inverse case, when the prospect of returns from traditional financial assets is elevated, money is shifted out of commodity markets such as oil, leading to a decline in price.

The US is on the mend as will be discussed below, and this raises prospects of good returns from traditional financial assets and this may be a factor that explains how a strong dollar puts downward pressure on oil prices.


The inverse relationship between crude prices and the dollar will have an impact on the Kenyan economy, but which will carry the day?

According to an analyst interviewed by Reuters, the negative effect of the stronger dollar on global liquidity outweighs the positives from falling oil prices by a ratio of 10 to 1.

Let’s look at the effect lower oil prices can have on Kenya’s economy. Inflation should fall and so should the Current Account Deficit (CAD).

Additionally, lower oil prices are associated with stock surges in the country and portfolio investors targeting Africa are now focusing more on oil-importing countries such as Kenya and looking away from oil-exporting countries.


But Kenyans should also look at the other side of the equation; a strong dollar.

Behind the rise of the dollar are important related factors. Firstly, the US economy is recovering with positive growth prospects while forecasts for other developed economies in particular are being revised down.

The US GDP (annualised) grew 4.6 per cent in Q2 and 3.5 in Q3 while there are concerns about deflation in Europe for example.

There is also a reported improvement in the US current account deficit and some argue that more tension between and Ukraine and Russia could not only further dampen growth in Europe, but this uncertainty could make the Euro even more unattractive for investors pushing them to US dollars.

Kenya faces numerous problems if the trend of the strong dollar continues. To begin with the strong dollar is rising in the context of a weakening Kenya shilling due to low demand for shilling-backed investments (bad for stocks and local debt issues).

Additionally, some imports will become more expensive for Kenya, which is an import economy, thereby placing upward inflationary pressure on the economy (which may counter the deflationary power of low oil prices).

On top the strong dollar will strain the CBK’s capacity to continue injecting dollars into the economy without running down its own foreign exchange reserves.


Finally, Kenya’s dollar denominated debt will be more expensive to service and paying back a strong currency in a weak one is a sombre combination.

Thus although low oil prices are a welcome development, the association with a strong dollar has an ominous undertone for the economy of which Kenyans should be aware.

The implications of the end of US QE for Africa

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This article first appeared in The East African on January 25, 2015

The US economy is in recovery, having recorded an annualised GDP growth rate of 4.6 per cent in Q2 and 3.5 per cent in Q3 of 2014.

In addition, the period of quantitative easing (QE), which flooded the global markets with dollars, has come to an end. This effectively withdraws $85 billion of net stimulus each month.

Further, the Federal Reserve looks set to increase interest rates in 2015 after a prolonged period of near zero interest rates. In addition to this, the dollar is strengthening. What does this all mean for Africa?

One effect may be that the aggressiveness with which investments in Africa were sought will wane noticeably. Due to the near zero interest rates in the US and other developed markets as well as the US Fed’s QE, excess liquidity had to look for points of absorption.

As a result, investors were more willing to look farther afield for investments, thereby providing speculative capital flows to countries in emerging markets in particular. In fact, this phenomenon may be a factor behind Kenya’s Eurobond oversubscription.

With the end of QE, global dollar liquidity will lessen and this will mean money flowing into Africa and other emerging markets will taper off.


Couple this with the expectation of a rise in US interest rates and you have a phenomenon where dollars will run back to the US making them much harder to attract for countries in Africa.

Indeed, now that the US is recovering and the expectation is that an interest rate hike will soon happen, the value of assets in which speculative investments were made in emerging markets may decline in value.

Why? The IMF states that US policy led to a “global search for yield with investors flocking into emerging markets contributing to a broader mispricing of domestic assets.” Now with the end of QE in sight and a recovering US, the value of the assets in which dollars were invested will lower in value. In short there may be deflationary pressure on many asset classes in developing country markets.

Further, far fewer speculative investments may occur because of rising global risk aversion, thereby restricting cheap dollar access for African economies.

The IMF makes the point that the mere announcement of an end to QE led to “rapid currency depreciations, increases in external financing premiums, declines in equity prices, and reversal in capital flows” in some emerging markets.

Another point to consider is made by DK Matai of Quantum Innovation Labs who states that there is a near $8+ trillion in US dollar carry trade.

Carry trade refers to strategy in which an investor borrows money at a low interest rate in order to invest in an asset that is likely to provide a higher return.


Matai makes the point that, “Of that $8+ trillion, $5.7 trillion is emerging market dollar debt… split between $3.1 trillion in bank loans and $2.6 trillion in corporate bonds.”

So there is a global dynamic going on in which “$8 trillion in borrowed US dollars is now being reversed-back into US dollars to repay debts around the world and thereby reduce the dollar-denominated interest payments.”

In short, those who made investments in continents like Africa at low US interest rates will be racing to pay back that debt before the anticipated interest rate hike is made by the US Fed. Given the scale of debt given to emerging markets, this repayment of debt will make dollars less available, strengthening the dollar and reducing liquidity even further.

So, Africa needs to brace for tougher times in the short to medium term as an end of QE and an anticipated hike in US interest rates means “risky” African investments will not be as attractive as they used to be.

Complicating this melange of factors are tumbling oil prices. Low oil prices are associated with a strong US dollar. The current account and government expenditure of African countries for which oil exports compose a significant portion of revenue will be negatively affected.

Further, due to the strong dollar, African currencies will be losing ground, particularly those of countries such as those in East Africa whose currencies are actually weakening anyway as well.

Thus, although African import economies will benefit from low oil prices, which should have a positive effect on current account deficits, a strengthening dollar and weakening local currency will mean that imports are more expensive, thereby countering the lowering of inflation that low oil prices may have encouraged.

Therefore Africa, at least in the medium term, may increasingly turn to China to sustain capital flows strengthening the Look East creed of many African governments.


On the other hand, on Thursday the European Central Bank announced a QE programme that will pump out up to Euro 60 billion a month. There is a chance that Africa can benefit from this, especially in light of the end of QE by the USA.

Let’s see how African governments and markets respond to what is an interesting blend of dynamics.

Political factors key in market performance

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This article was first published in the Business Daily on January 18, 2015

In his book The End of the Free Market, Ian Bremmer makes the point that “in emerging markets, political factors still matter— at least as much as economic fundamentals for the performance of markets.”Certain retrogressive practices if left unchanged can harm economic growth by dampening development prospects.The first political factor is tribalism. As a result of divisive ethnic-based politics, the economy continues to suffer consequences of negative ethnicity.The costs of tribalism are numerous.


For example, it leads to sub-optimal allocation in public sector appointments. Because the President is now expected to factor in tribes during decision-making, he does not have the luxury of choosing the best person for the job. Instead he appoints individuals who would be accepted with the least acrimony.This is not to suggest the appointees are incompetent but rather to illustrate how tribal lens affect capacity to ensure the best always manage agencies.Recently it was revealed three tribes hold at least half of all public sector jobs, with some overrepresented compared to their total population.Whether this over representation was deliberate is an issue that disturbs many Kenyans. So strong is tribalism that the Public Service Commission chair said ethnicity is an appointment criterion to ensure all tribes need to be represented fairly.Political and public sectors are at a point where tribe trumps demonstrable skills, professionalism or competence.How can a government run efficiently if tribe rather than aptitude is a key qualification to manage the ministries, Central Bank, parastatals and other agencies that inform growth?


Another issue closely linked to ethnicity can be seen in how individuals decide whether to invest in certain regions while shunning others.During the post-election violence in 2008, many flourishing businesses were shut down as owners fled hostile regions.The losses are still being felt by the economy because some entrepreneurs are yet to return. Such tensions have economic costs because ethnicity rather than economic viability informs location.

The second political factor is corruption. The public sector is rife with corruption, brunting the capacity of capital to be employed efficiently to spur growth and development.Transparency International ranks Kenya 136 out of 175 in public sector corruption. Graft is costly as it affects resource allocation in two ways.Firstly, it can change private investors’ assessment of the relative merits of various investments as graft informs changes in comparable prices of goods and services, resources and factors of production.The International Monetary Fund believes if bribery comes into play in enterprise, this lowers investment and retards growth. Ernst and Young reported a third of companies it surveyed paid bribes to win contracts and half of Kenyan CEOs justified the practice.How can resources be allocated efficiently with such shadowy activity?


Secondly, an economic journal shows corruption misallocates resources through decisions on how public funds are invested, or choice of private investments allowed by corrupt agencies.Misallocation comes from possibility of a corrupt decision-maker considering rent-seeking as a key decider.Corruption leads to reduced domestic and foreign direct investment, overblown government expenditure as well as diverting state expenditure away from education, health, and infrastructure towards white elephants.

The third political factor is the public wage bill reportedly now at 53 per cent of the budget, using up 55 per cent of public revenue.This is likely to remain for decades as there is no political will to effect change. Thus, instead of allocating resources to investment or development, we will be busy funding a public sector yet to shun corruption or embrace a culture of efficiency.These political factors cost the economy dearly and their impact must be addressed.

What the latest economic growth data in Kenya really mean

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This article was first published in the Business Daily on January 11, 2015

Last year’s Q3 gross domestic product (GDP) figures show the economy expanded by 5.5 per cent compared to a revised 6.2 per cent in the same period in 2013. The growth was mainly supported by strong activity in construction, finance and insurance, trade, information and communication, and agriculture and forestry.All sectors recorded positive growth except accommodation and food services (hotels and restaurants) that have consistently been on a decline since last year.


But what do these growth figures really mean? Underlying the GDP growth snapshots are some long-term structures that should be analysed and of which Kenyans must be cognisant.The first question is the extent to which all Kenyans are benefiting from growth. The latest UN Human Development Report ranks Kenya 147 out of 187 countries and although there has been a rise in human development since the 1990s, only a small section of the population has gained.To illustrate, the incomes of the richest 20 per cent have risen steadily and now stand at 11 times more than those of the poorest 20 per cent.In fact, a country report by the Africa Development Bank states that the biggest challenge is not raising GDP but ensuring inclusion.There is a widening gap between the rich and poor with the creation of a dual economy where the rich prosper and the poor continue to struggle.This can be attributed to an underdeveloped social security net that does not provide consistent and sufficient income support to the poorest.The core concern with inequitable growth is not just the ideological issues around fairness and justice but the reality that while the poor have a high propensity to consume, they lack the disposable income to engage in many of the spending and profit-making activities that spur investment and growth.


As a University of Nairobi analyst said, this creates a vicious cycle in which low growth results in high poverty that in turn abets low growth.Today, each of the 42 million Kenyans would earn Sh189,624 ($2,158) yearly if income was distributed equitably. Sadly, the manner in which GDP growth is currently structured only encourages economic dualism.In addition, the growth structure ensures that the youth are at best fringe beneficiaries of the economic largesse, which elicits the feeling that they are in a no-win situation with the older generation.The International Labour Office (ILO) points out that while young women and men account for 37 per cent of the working-age population, their participation in employment is less than 20 per cent.Due to difficulties in securing jobs, the youth feel the best option is to leave the labour market. This leaves them more vulnerable to chronic unemployment or eking out a living in a tough economy.The result of this skewed system is frustration and dissatisfaction, coupled with security concerns as the jobless youth engage in crime to survive. Their exclusion from mainstream economic activity can create discontent and another “Arab Spring”.


Linked to the youth issue is the fact that these relatively healthy GDP figures mask the reality of jobless growth. This is where the economy experiences growth amidst decreasing employment.Indeed, the ILO released a report last year stating little progress is being made in reducing working poverty and vulnerable forms of employment such as informal jobs and undeclared work.Unemployment in Kenya stands at more than 13 per cent, masking the enormity of the labour market challenges where a significant proportion of the population is inactive rather than unemployed. Of the employed, many are engaged in informal jobs.So while GDP figures are important, it is crucial we foster equitable and inclusive growth as well as develop job creation strategies to address the burgeoning chronic unemployment and underemployment.