Interview: Thinking about Africa’s middle class

In May this year, How we made it in Africa published a selection of pictures from French photographer Philippe Sibelly’s The Other Africa, a project studying the emergence of the African middle class. In this interview he shares some of his thoughts on Africa’s middle class and the continent’s business environment.

Antoine is a tennis instructor in Libreville, Gabon. Photo: Philippe Sibelly

Antoine is a tennis instructor in Libreville, Gabon. Photo: Philippe Sibelly

There is currently a lot of talk about how Africa’s political and business environment is improving. As someone who has travelled through the continent many times over the years, do you agree?

It is difficult for me to say if this environment has improved or not. For The Other Africa I am trying to visit every African country and I rarely have the opportunity to go back to a country I visited in the past. It is therefore difficult to assess any improvement in a specific place. What I know from meeting people in various African countries is that the business environment is already quite good. The idea of setting up my own business in Africa has often come to my mind and I have even discussed it with friends in Ghana, Senegal and Equatorial Guinea. The political situation varies greatly from one country to another and there is obviously lots of room for improvement on that front, but some of the countries I have visited have already created a very good climate for investment, I think about Ghana in particular.

Your project, The Other Africa, focuses exclusively on the African middle class. Why did you choose this specific theme?

I use the term ‘middle class’ very loosely. Many researches and articles have been published on this topic recently. The African Development Bank published a very interesting report entitled The Middle of the Pyramid: Dynamics of the Middle Class in Africa. It clearly defines the middle class financially.

I started this project in 2005 long before there was any interest for this subject matter. I base my choice of ‘models’ on their way of life rather than their income; I’ve actually never asked any of the people I photographed about their income. In fact I look for people who have a lifestyle close to mine: a more or less steady income, small family, enjoying a social life and leisure activities. My aim was mostly to show Africa in a different way to the usual photojournalism clichés. I only knew Africa through these news images: black and white photos of unnamed people suffering. I decided to photograph Africans in the opposite way: posed colour portraits, peaceful images of professionals, always named. My photos want to be confusing for the viewer. These photos could have been taken anywhere.

What is your message to European companies looking to do business in Africa?

I wouldn’t have a message for large companies as I am sure most already know what to expect. My message would rather be for individuals or small companies. Most countries on the continent offer a perfect blend for investors: many goods and services are needed, the growing middle class has buying power and needs most of these goods and services, and competition remains low because of the negative image conveyed by the media. Africa also has an invaluable asset: a young, ingenious and resourceful workforce.

What is your favourite African country and why?

I have often been asked this question and I fail to come with a definite answer. I love Algiers, probably because it reminds me so much of my home town Marseille and I have so much in common with Algerians – language, love for the same foods and even the same sense of humour! I thought Cape Verde was fabulous and I did find it very difficult to leave Mindelo. I have many friends in Dakar and it is a place I could easily see myself settle in, same for Accra. Gabon was another lovely place and I also had a great time during my last trip in Equatorial Guinea. My experience in Equatorial Guinea has been so different from what I expected based on the various reports I read about the country. I couldn’t really recommend one country more than another but I could surely recommend people go and see Africa for themselves, trying to do so without predefined ideas based on Western media reports.

View a selection of pictures from The Other Africa