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Consumerism the Byword for East Africa's Rising Middle Class

Thembi Mutch argues that East Africa's growing consumption disguises poverty and a neglect of public culture.
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Hummer-driving Kenyan MP Gideon Mbuvi was thown out of parliament for wearing sunglasses and earstuds.

Arusha, Tanzania:

Inside a glitzy restaurant in the city of Arusha, two women bedecked in theatrical jewellery swan past the diners, each wearing a bright, large purple hat and enough make-up to paint a four bedroom house. I practically choke on my biryani as the waft of perfume invades my nostrils.They are too brassy and confident to be working girls. So I sidle over. It turns out Happiness and Apay, 25 and 22, are both from Tanzania - here on an evening night out ‘with the girls’ to celebrate the success of their new businesses. Happiness has an Arts and Craft Shop in Arusha, East Africa’s new regional capital. Apay is from Dar Es Salaam, and runs a successful cosmetic and perfumes business.

Happiness gets straight to the point. “I was always a stubborn, challenging child," she says. "We’re not a rich family - I am the first child to go beyond standard four. My parents were herders, but my dad did business, took maize to market, kept livestock. Nothing large, but I learnt the fundamentals of business planning and costing right out there, in the Masaii Steppe with the goats! It’s a great time to be young and do business in Tanzania.” Apay agrees: “I am from the Chagga tribe - we’ve got good business sense! Actually it’s changed here: in the old days it was considered selfish and ‘Western’ to run a business. But our generation wants to make money.” The waitress, Loveness, 22, is watching us as we chat. On her Nokia smartphone are pictures of her posing. “I want to be a model,” she says shyly.

From ubuntu to bling

This next generation of Tanzanians are far removed from the socialism and ubuntu of ‘Baba Ya Taifa’ (Father of the Nation) Julius Nyerere. They are immersed in Blackberry phones, bling, popular music and digital connectivity. Twenty years ago, this sort of Tanzanian didn’t exist. Julius Nyerere actively discouraged middle class consumption, business and entrepreneurism: according to the socialist model, we were all equal. Cultural and community development took priority over personal gain.

Is this rapid thrust towards material acquisition healthy? What is being sidelined in the process? Faisal Kiwewa, director of the thriving Ugandan Arts organization Bayimba says, “Whereas we receive considerable support from, mainly foreign, public sector funders, we are challenged in convincing the private sector to get on board ... they perceive arts festivals as not directly serving the rampant consumerism, nor do they offer direct private benefits - do not wipe out the issue of corruption here!

"The private sector fails to see or attach value to the relevance and economic spin-off of investing in a large arts/cultural festival. Even though this very private sector relies to a large extent on goods produced by that very sector."

He adds: “Our governments are pushed by the same consumerism and only seem to want to invest in the hardware - buildings, roads - and not in the software of society - arts, culture and education.

"Apart from the many SUVs flocking the streets of Kampala, there is huge building activity ongoing, often at the expense of the software  of society, and with hardly any public space left." Right now, there is a huge public debate in Uganda regarding the demolition of the National Musuem for a commercial 60-floor building called the East African Trade Centre.

The cult of consumption

Out on the streets, surveying any major city - Mombassa, Kampala, Arusha, Nairobi or Dar Es Salaam - the profligacy of malls, luxury serviced apartments, office blocks and hotels springing up is striking and alarming. But who are these buildings for?

There is no question that American-style consumption is becoming entrenched in this part of the world. But what really lies beneath the exuberant boast that “we’ve never had it so good here in East Africa” is a slow and stealthy obliteration of public space and of a common conception of the good.

This is evidenced in the minutia of daily life. Butcher Lesley De Kock says: “We’ve seen the taste in meat expand, and the demand for more exotic or different cuts of meat increase greatly amongst our African customers. They’re buying more, and spending more.”

“We in East Africa are expanding at an incredible rate on all fronts," says Arthur Ashton, a Tanzanian who works in import and export. "Land ownership, mining trading, transport with the pan-African highway, ships and containers coming into the large ports mining, you name it, there isn’t a single sector that isn’t expanding, and with it the emerging middle class and their voracious appetite for consumer goods is growing - plasma TV screens, all this building.” Democracy, it seems, equals the ability to purchase and to own.

Koshi and his brother Ravi, from Nairobi, are in their early thirties. They still see great opportunities in Tanzania: “Arusha is only three hours away on the Pan East African Highway, but it’s behind Nairobi in some ways, in terms of manufacturing and investment, and the drop in commodities like tea, coffee and mineral resources on the world market has affected us. But all the same, compared to Kenya, there is so much potential for developing manufacturing here. Textiles, tyres, pharmaceuticals. All the things we’ve got already in Nairobi.” They are sceptical about the new middle class: “They are ostentatious, building big marble houses and showing off their wealth, but they are hoarding. We need to get to a point where the wealth is spread out a bit. We are still a long way off that.”

Certainly the famous traffic jams in the East African capitals give credence to the idea that there is a huge amount of unthinking consumption going on: in the old days an embossed business card and the flash of a wristwatch implied status, these days it’s a Rav 4, a Prado Toyota that cuts it. But dig a little deeper and complexities emerge. For example, Happiness is using her wealth to support her brothers and sisters through school and is also selling and collecting African art.  “I am so proud to be Tanzanian, I want to support my culture and its craft, so I collect it and sell it, and learn about it in the process,” she says. Apay chimes in: “We need to invest in cultural centres, in museums, make sure we don’t lose the traditions in the rural areas. Our children must know books like Songs of Lowino, writers like Ngugi Wa Thiong'o, Chinua Achebe, Issa Shivji, it’s not just about looking to the West and copying everything.”

For others, the issues extend further still. Bayimba endeavours to show that art works can and should be part of the public space, and serve to generate discussions about how public spaces are planned and built to develop a city. The concept of the creative, inclusive city for many arts organisations is vital for the economic and social development of its residents, especially with growing middle classes that tend to have more free-time or income at their disposal. 

Yet for the larger businessmen, concerns remain exclusively economic. “Actually despite the fact international firms and banks are moving into East Africa like never before, we need to stem the flood of cheap imports, by imposing higher import duties, like India has, otherwise we’ll get swamped with cheap tat, and lose sight of quality,” says Koshi. But a market exists for the cheap tat. For the first time a whole range of affordable goods are available to the poorer sections of the country.

In Tanzania much of the population is employed in the informal sector, a feature it shares with its neighbours Uganda and Kenya. The term ‘informal economy’ means a number of things, as Koshi describes: “You see them everywhere, people selling combs, cheap padlocks, Chinese radios, carrying everything on their backs… or the women in the market, all selling the vegetables they bought at the auction that morning.

"They’re making a tiny profit- about $10 a week, they are trapped as small entrepreneurs, because the market isn’t diverse enough, and they can’t get capital."

On the peripheries

Amena Hamani, 34, is one of these women. She works up to 60 hours a week, like the ‘mamatilies’ - women who prepare and cook food by the side of the road and sell it for a tiny profit (it is the only work that fits in round the demands of childcare and motherhood) - and earns up to $80 a month, in a good month. Of her budget, 15,000 TZ shillings (about $12.30) a week is spent on basics - maize, spinach and beans. Tea, sugar, rice and meat are luxuries that she buys once a week. She supports five people - three of her own kids, two of her brothers. Her rent is 20,000TZ (about $9.20) a month for two basic mud rooms without electricity or running water. She has to buy water at $0.80 for 10 litres, and the prices rise when there’s no electricity for the water pumps to fill the wells. There has been a 20-50% price rise in wheat, maize, sugar, coffee, dairy, oils and cereal in this region.

For women like Amena, this is devastating. “Life is very very hard, it’s impossible if we need to buy medicine, clothes, shoes or pay school fees," she says. "Most of us in our neighbourhood run up bills and debts at the local shop; if we earn it goes to pay this off, and there’s nothing left. We live in debt.”

Arthur Ashton remains philosophical. “The problem is greed," he explains. "This new middle class are greedy, and all this consumption puts a massive strain on resources, all of them - environment, land, electricity - we haven’t got a reliable electricity supply, yet our presidents in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania own Lear jets that cost $50 million a piece.

"If the leaders are corrupt and greedy, what kind of examples are they setting?”

Demian Asiri, an IT specialist, who moved to East Africa from Canada seeing opportunities here, concurs: “It’s still all about who you know here, not what you know, or what you could do. This level of nepotism is damaging and holds the middle classes, and growth in general, back."

Certainly there still seem to be massive gaps. There may be wealth, new Western-style consumption and a healthy circulation of capital in East Africa, but there is an urgent need to address fundamental challenges, principally that of infrastructural development, and think about larger issues, like cultural identity and ethical production. Where for example, is the public discussion about the role of festivals and museums in a time of growing prosperity? We must ensure that we don’t get drowned in a fetishistic desire to consume.

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