NAIROBI, Kenya – James Gichina started 15 years ago as a driver who brought travelers from the airport, worked his way up to the safari guide and, with the help of some bank loans, bought two of his own minivans to transport vacationers.
His customers, like him, were members of the growing middle class of Africa – bankers from Nigeria, technology entrepreneurs from South Africa and other Kenyans who could finally afford excursions to enjoy the beaches and nature reserves of their country.
But when the coronavirus pandemic made the tourism industry and the economy crater, Mr. Gichina removed the seats from his minibus and started haggling eggs and vegetables with them. With what he now earns, he can hardly afford to pay rent, buy food or send his 9-year-old son to school.
“We worked hard to build a better life,” said 35-year-old Gichina of his colleagues in the tourism sector. Now he said, “We have nothing.”
As the Corona virus waves in many African countriesIt threatens to drive up to 58 million people in the region to extreme poverty. World Bank experts say. Aside from the devastating consequences for the continent’s most vulnerable people, the pandemic is also leaving one of Africa’s most important achievements behind: the growth of its middle class.
Over the past decade, Africa’s middle class has been central to school, political and economic development across the continent. New entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs have created jobs that in turn have put a leg up for others.
Educated, tech-savvy families, and young people who have money to spare have met the demand for consumer goods democratic reforms, expanded the talent pool at all levels of society and campaigned for high quality schools and healthcare.
Around 170 million of the 1.3 billion people in Africa are now considered middle class. According to the World Data Lab, a research organization, about eight million of them could go into poverty due to the corona virus and its economic consequences.
It is a setback that could be felt for years.
“The tragedy is that this middle class collapse may take several years to recover because Africa is not growing fast,” said Homi Kharas, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-founder of the World Data Lab.
Africa’s middle class tripled in the past 30 yearsAccording to estimates, due to employment opportunities in sectors such as technology, tourism and production. But now that the region is ahead of it first recession in 25 yearsMillions of educated people living in urban centers could fall victim to the extreme income inequality that has defined Africa for decades.
The emerging middle class was “critical to the future prospects of African economies because they promote long-term growth, social progress, an inclusive and prosperous society, and effective and accountable governance,” said Landry Signé, author of “Unlocking Africa’s Business Potential”. “The coronavirus” will drastically delay wages and hold back the dreams of the African middle class, “he said.
Governments across Africa reacted differently to the corona virus, but Kenya was one of those that closed borders, imposed curfews, and restricted movement between counties. In Nairobi, the capital, shopping centers were once touted as a symbol of an emerging middle class. Now their owners are releasing employees, closing shops and trying desperately to survive the crisis.
When Kenya first announced restrictions in March, there was almost no pedestrian traffic in the Junction Mall, where the middle class of Nairobi was once drawn to eating and shopping in more than 100 stores.
Eastleigh, a busy area with dozens of shopping centers, hotels, lodges and banks, was also completely closed in early May after an increase in reported coronavirus cases.
Maryan Bashir, who has three stores in Eastleigh that sell mattresses and curtains, said dealers like her were concerned about whether they could still get supplies from China when the pandemic hit imports. But the lock staggered her from the lack of customers.
It has also cut employment. Out of 12 of their employees, only three lived in the restricted area and were able to report to work.
The authorities lifted the curfew from Eastleigh in early June, but Ms. Bashir said it would be a long time before shopkeepers like them could make the same profits they had before the pandemic.
“Landlords are still asking for rent,” she said, “but if we don’t earn anything, how do we pay?”
The economic consequences of the Covid 19 outbreak can also be felt in the middle class in Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy. Struck by low oil revenues in the pandemicAccording to the International Monetary Fund, the West African nation is facing rising unemployment rates and a recession that could continue until 2021.
When the demand for goods and services collapsed, small businesses and entrepreneurs who depended on cash flow were increasingly in an emergency.
Biola Kazeem founded his sports marketing company Elev8 Sports Entertainment six years ago and combined his passion for sports with his college degree in communication. But Sports leagues worldwide have canceled or postponed eventsMr. Kazeem said he had lost 70 percent of his business and had to take half of his eleven employees on leave without pay.
Despite financial challenges in the early years, “nothing prepared us absolutely for it,” said Kazeem in a telephone interview from Lagos.
In Zimbabwe, that was in economic free fall For years, the pandemic and the resulting restrictions have threatened the solvency of those who have built a bridge to the middle class.
Madeline Chiveso’s restaurant in downtown Harare, Zimbabwe, has served professionals like bankers, journalists, and engineers flocking to work for years. But as the infections increased and restrictions tightened, there were no customers to serve. She had to close the restaurant.
She used to make $ 350 a day and now does nothing. She used her savings to pay bills, she said, and jeopardized her dream of one day owning her own home.
“The future certainly looks uncertain because no one knows how this would end,” said Ms. Chiveso, 46, a single mother of two, both in college.
Mr. Kharas of the World Data Lab defined the middle class in Africa as households that spend between $ 11 and $ 110 per capita per day.
What distinguishes the middle class from the poor, said Razia Khan, chief economist for Africa and the Middle East at Standard Chartered Bank, is the ability to generate stable income. However, because of the pandemic, many more people across Africa are at risk of being “pushed back into poverty” due to lack of jobs, unemployment benefits or a social security network.
The pandemic is also a threat to emerging industries that have been supported by governments in Africa in recent years to increase the number of middle-income workers.
Rwanda, which announced plans to become a middle-income nation by 2035, supported the local textile and fashion industry Limit imports of used clothing from the United States and boost production.
Matthew Rugamba, 30, founded House of Tayo in 2011 and built it into one of the leading brands in Rwanda’s emerging fashion scene. Mr. Rugamba became so attentive that his designs could be worn in Hollywood. at the premiere of the film “Black Panther”.
However, when Rwanda enforced one of the toughest barriers in Africa, Mr. Rugamba’s business closed its doors to be open to almost no customers a few weeks later. Although he focused on mask making and introduced a delivery service, the business wasn’t the same.
“We were at a point where people value our work,” said Rugamba. But with the pandemic, he said, “You are experiencing times when you are concerned that this is something I have invested nine years of my life in, and will it be there tomorrow?”
More and more governments are offering financial support and tax breaks to companies, and asking owners to stick to their employees, even if they reduce production or services, said Kharas of the World Data Lab.
Economists like Ms. Khan said that emerging markets in Africa, which are familiar with economic shocks, have proven resilient in the past and may become stronger after the pandemic ends.
But that hope is probably still a long way off for Mr. Gichina, the safari guide who is now selling eggs to survive. He works for the Bonfire Adventures travel company, which was founded in 2008 by an entrepreneur named Simon Kabu to specifically serve Africa’s growing middle class.
Mr. Kabu was once a milk supplier and head of the Matatu minibuses used for transit in Kenya. He grew up in the central highlands of Kenya with a mother who was a farmer and a father who was a retired civil servant.
By founding a company that met the ever-growing middle class travel needs, he developed Bonfire Adventures into an award-winning tour operator with 10 offices, 200 full-time employees and 300 drivers and guides.
The corona virus has gutted all of this and forced the 45-year-old Kabu to fire its employees in large numbers. The only employees who are currently working are accountants who process refunds for customers who cannot travel.
Mr. Gichina hopes that business will resume soon, mainly because he fears that he will lose the highest wildebeest migration from late June, which usually attracts tourists from all over the world.
“The banks are putting a lot of pressure on us,” he said of the urgency to pay off his loans. “You say you have to pay,” but he asked, “where should we get the money?”
Lynsey Chutel reported from Johannesburg, South Africa, and Jeffrey Moyo from Harare, Zimbabwe.