LOOK out from the cafés of Accra’s financial district and you could be almost anywhere. In the shadow of glassy skyscrapers, American-accented entrepreneurs order lattes and ponder spreadsheets. “You couldn’t have imagined this even five years ago,” Joseph Baffour, a local financier, says of his surroundings. “There’s been an astronomical change.”
On a continent once synonymous with war, famine and poverty, a middle class has started to emerge, propelled by growth and urbanisation. Its rise has much to do with the spread of democracy and greater rule of law—countries with such attributes tend to generate more economic opportunities than those in which a few rulers line their pockets. In turn, the new middle classes have raised their voices in demanding clean and accountable government and public services. A study by Nic Cheeseman of Oxford University, found that in Kenya the richer people were the more likely they were to support democracy (and vote for the opposition).

Yet step beyond the air-conditioned malls that are popping up like meerkats across the continent, and it is clear how thin this emerging middle class is. Just a few miles down the road from Accra’s coffee-connoisseurs are the columns of smoke that billow above Agbogbloshie, a digital dumping ground. Here hundreds of men risk their health burning old electronics for useful parts. Leave the capital altogether and the celebrated middle class grows harder still to spot: high-rises give way to huts, suits to shoelessness.
So too with much of Africa. Good data on the exact size of the middle class are hard to come by, but it remains small across most parts of the continent. The Pew Research Centre, an American outfit, reckons that just 6% of Africans qualify as middle class, which it defines as those earning $10-$20 a day. On this measure the number of middle-income earners in Africa barely changed in the decade to 2011.
More recent data from EIU Canback, a consultancy (and sister-company of The Economist), show some growth (see chart) in the decade to 2014 but it is painfully slow: 90% of Africans still fall below the threshold of $10 a day and the proportion in the $10-$20 middle class (excluding very atypical South Africa), rose from 4.4% to only 6.2% between 2004 and 2014; over the same decade, the proportion defined as “upper middle” ($20-$50 a day) went from another 1.4% to 2.3%. Other surveys are also disappointing. Standard Bank, a South African lender, thinks that though the number has increased, there are still only 15m middle class households in 11 of sub-Saharan Africa’s bigger economies (excluding South Africa and using a range of $15-$115 a day).