Africa’s new middle class benefits travel

Africa, EthiopiaAfrica’s middle class is growing.

The African Development Bank says one in three Africans are now middle class. While the bank’s definition isn’t comparable to the Western definition–the African middle class makes $2-$20 a day–the lifestyle is similar. Middle-class Africans tend to be professionals or small business owners and instead of worrying about basics such as food and shelter, their main concerns are getting better health care and getting their kids into university.

The bank says the countries with the biggest middle class are Botswana, Gabon, and Tunisia, while Liberia, Mozambique, and Rwanda have the smallest. The BBC has an interesting photo gallery profiling members of this rapidly growing class.

So how does this affect travel? With an growing middle class you get more domestic tourism, good news for non-Africans traveling in Africa. More regional airlines are cropping up, and comfortable buses provide an appealing alternative to the bone-shaking rattletraps familiar to travelers in Africa.

It also makes consumer goods easier to find. This generally means cheap Chinese exports of even worse quality than what we’re accustomed to in the West, but in bigger cities quality goods are readily available. There’s also an increasing number of nice restaurants and cafes geared towards locals. Internet access is also improving.

During my Ethiopian road trip and my two months living in Harar I benefited from Ethiopia’s middle class. Mobile phone coverage is available everywhere except remote villages and the wilderness, and although the Internet is slow, there are Internet cafes in every town. Improved education meant there many people who could speak English and who could help me learn some Amharic and Harari. Often I could take a more comfortable “luxury” bus rather than be stuffed in a local bus with an entire village of passengers. Self-styled budget travelers may turn their nose up at spending an extra two dollars to be comfortable, but the middle class buses are quicker and you’re more likely to meet someone you can talk to.

In fact, I made some good friends on the luxury bus to Harar. A group of Ethiopian pharmacy students showed me the town and gave me insights into their lives. University education is free in Ethiopia if you pass a rigorous entrance exam. The government even pays for your room and board, and you pay them back by working a government job for some time after you get out. The students I met will be setting off to villages to provide basic health care.

Nearly all these students, and in fact nearly all middle-class Africans I’ve met, yearn to go to the West. One even called her country “a prison”. While heading to the West may be a good career move, it hurts the continent. As one African pointed out in the BBC photo gallery, the money it takes to get to Europe can start up a nice business in Africa.