Middle-class life: Surviving the modern African city

Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire

About 40% of Africa’s population currently live in cities. By 2035, this figure is expected to rise to 50%. But surviving in the modern African city comes with numerous pressures, like dealing with unemployment and income uncertainty.

A recent survey by the University of Cape Town Unilever Institute of Strategic Marketing, titled African Lions, reveals how the continent’s middle class are coping with urban life – a “hustle playbook”, as the report calls it.

The UCT team defines the middle class as those who: 1) earn over US$4 per day; 2) have disposable income; 3) are employed, run a business or are studying; 4) made it to secondary school; and 5) are not earning more than $70 per day. They interviewed a sample of 7,500 people living in 10 African cities – Abidjan (Côte d’Ivoire), Accra (Ghana), Lagos (Nigeria), Kano (Nigeria), Douala (Cameroon), Luanda (Angola), Lusaka (Zambia), Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), Nairobi (Kenya) and Addis Ababa (Ethiopia).

Play #1: Start a business

Just over 70% of respondents believe in order to live a secure lifestyle, you have to have your own business. And while entrepreneurship is commonly viewed as the obvious vehicle to success, there are some markets – such as Accra, Kano, Luanda, Lusaka and Addis Ababa – where a formal job is still regarded as the best way to climb the ladder.

However, both professional paths face significant barriers, including nepotism, inadequate employment opportunities, low wages, limited or non-existent funding for new ventures, and corporates shutting down and retrenching.

Play #2: Diversify

Of those interviewed for the study, only 37% have formal jobs. This is not surprising as the informal sector accounts for 93% of new jobs.

However, there is a strong focus on income diversification, as 21% of respondents have a side job and 22% are involved in a side business.

Play #3: Financial discipline

Resilience is a key characteristic of the middle class in Africa. Due to financial pressures, they have learnt to carefully monitor their expenditure, pool resources and juggle budgets.

In most markets the middle class is disciplined when it comes to finances and spending. One respondent in Luanda said: “I like to spend according to my plan and usually I just ignore the desire to spend on things not budgeted for.”

The survey found that middle-class Africans plan their spending when it comes to purchasing clothes and entertainment, and they often suppress the desire to impulse spend – except when it comes to luxuries.

But despite this, only 38% have money left at the end of the month.

Play #4: Cementing their middle-class position

In order to cement their position in the middle class, and for a fear of slipping back towards poverty, a large number of respondents seek to minimise financial vulnerability through savings. Some 75% have a savings account, 64% cite savings as another source of income, and 67% have money put aside for emergencies.

Play #5: Expect the unexpected

Nearly 80% of respondents had unexpected expenses in the last year. What the middle class should learn to expect and plan for is: illness, death, repairs to home and car, financially assisting a family member, and unplanned entertainment expenses (such as for a visiting friend or a celebration).

Play #6: Connect

When it comes to connectivity, 77% own a smartphone, 49% have a computer, and 33% own a tablet.

One respondent said: “My life and my phone are one – I can’t live without my phone, I love Facebook and I’m always online and I spend up to 3 hours of my day on my phone.”

Play #7: Network

Networking is perceived as crucial to landing a job and generating business – it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. Many respondents are already part of a global network through the media and the internet. Eighty-three per cent of those surveyed have internet access (often through their mobile phones), which they use to engage on social media platforms like Facebook (45%), WhatsApp (28%) and Twitter (17%).

Play #8: Look the part

“Clothes separate me from [the] lower class,” noted one respondent.

While brands, original clothing and appearing unique are important, traditional dress statements that deliberately uphold customs are also common. However, ‘looking good’ also extends to the virtual world, with the middle class often carefully curating their online presence.

Investment in haircare is often disproportionate to other expenditure items, with 67% of respondents visiting the hairdresser at least once a month.

Play #9: Don’t get sick

Health insurance and seeking out medical help are expensive, which is why prevention is key. Some 62% haven’t been in a dentist’s chair, and 29% have never visited a doctor. Only 11% have health insurance, while 44% say it is a necessity.

Respondents see healthy eating as a good preventative measure, and some make exercise a priority.

Play #10: Eat right

There is a strong perception among the middle class that traditional foods are healthier compared to pre-packaged store food. Some 73% believe that “traditional foods are more healthy and nutritious”, and 70% consistently monitor food content to ensure it is healthy.

Sixty-nine per cent control their sugar intake, and 71% take note of the information on the product label.

Play #11: Don’t go it alone

On average, each middle-class household has 1.8 income earners. Around 37% receive income from family or friends, 11% of which comes from another country. However, 58% return the favour and also regularly send money to a family or household.

The top five sources of credit are family (56%), friends (52%), the bank (34%), savings group (15%), and employers (8%).

Play #12: Think future

Middle-class Africans are generally optimistic, and around 83% believe their circumstances will improve in the future.

“I belong to the middle class but that doesn’t mean I will remain a middle-class person. I am working hard to be able to achieve my dreams and move to the other level in life,” said one respondent.

To achieve these ambitions, one third of those surveyed are studying or attending night classes.

Play #13: Keep the faith

Faith plays an important role in the lives of Africa’s middle class, with 77% attending religious gatherings at least a few times every month. Only 7% said they have never attended a religious meeting.

The majority of those surveyed are either Christian (76%) or Muslim (22%).

Play #14: Enjoy the journey

It is common for the middle class to “chill”, “de-stress”, “relax” and “rest”. Over 80% do this by spending time with family and friends at least once a month. Visiting the hairdresser (67%), watching live sport events (45%), playing sport (41%), or engaging in hobbies (45%) are also popular ways to let off steam. In addition, 28% attend traditional ceremonies once a month, 29% go to bars and clubs, and 13% visit casinos.