‘There is a lot of buzz about how Africa is rising but I think we need a reality check’
Uganda’s growing middle class may not be as wealthy as it would like to seem
Ugandan entrepreneurs Cedric Babu and his wife Alison, from Northern Ireland, with their children in Kampala. Photograph: Mary Fitzgerald
President of Uganda Yoweri Museveni: ‘The potential of this new middle class is huge. hey consume more so consumption levels go up.” Photograph: Carl Court/Getty Images
A vendor sells fruits and vegetables at Nakasero market in central Kampala. Uganda has benefited from being part of the East Africa common market which, since coming into force in 2010, has moved to do away with all barriers to trade between five countries: Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and Burundi. Photograph: Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images
In many ways, Ugandan Cedric Babu and his wife Alison epitomise Africa’s new generation of entrepreneurs. They met while studying business in the US: Cedric was on a tennis scholarship and Alison on a scholarship from Northern Ireland.
After a stint living in Belfast, they returned to Uganda where Cedric set up Kinetic Management Group, a company that represents several leading sportspeople and music stars from across East Africa.
Alison opened the Amagara café bistro, a trendy hang-out in Kampala where young professionals meet for brunch at the weekend, and helped her mother-in-law to launch a natural skincare range that uses raw materials from Uganda.
Their social circle includes 30-something Ugandans working in the tech sector and communications, plus others helping to build the country’s export market. All are engaged in a constant conversation about how Uganda, and Africa generally, is changing and where it might be heading. Theirs is an optimistic vision of the future, but it is laced with pragmatism as to what can be achieved.
“There is a lot of buzz right now about how Africa is rising but I think we need a bit of a reality check,” says Cedric. “No one can deny things are changing but it depends on where you are standing. Many feel some of this talk has been exaggerated. Major challenges remain.”
Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni has big ambitions, claiming last June that the country over which he has presided for almost three decades will become a middle-income nation by 2017 and be classified as “first world” within 50 years.
Last year the Irish embassy in Kampala commissioned a study on Uganda’s burgeoning middle class and the potential economic opportunity it presents. The research identified “population and economic growth, tertiary education expansion, advancement in information and communications technology and innovation in financial services” as key drivers of the country’s expanding middle class.
The potential of this new middle class is huge,” Mr Museveni told The Irish Times. “They consume more, so consumption levels go up. Some of them are entrepreneurs. They have skills and look for opportunities to convert our natural assets into products for export. All of that fuels the economic growth rates we see today.”
Last August, however, Uganda’s central bank challenged Mr Museveni’s predictions, saying it would take two decades for the country to reach middle- income status based on current economic and population trends. The bank’s governor, Emmanuel Tumusiime-Mutebile, noted that while the minimum threshold for middle-income status is gross national income per capita of $1,036 (€760), Uganda’s level in 2011 was about half that at $510.
With the government aiming for annual economic growth of 7 per cent a year and the population increasing by 3.2 per cent, per capita income is estimated to be growing at 3.7 per cent, meaning it will take 19 years for Uganda to double its real income. The World Bank says Uganda may achieve middle-income status by 2040.
The Irish embassy study also sounded a note of caution, warning that the sustainability of Uganda’s middle class will depend on its government’s ability to “control population growth, improve productivity through investment in human resource development and addressing the problem of corruption, poor infrastructure and low savings”.