Nigerian currency

Figuring Out African Development

by Elaine Schwartz    •    Dec 21, 2013    •    1238 Views

In Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah, we meet Ifemelu and Obinze. Representative of Nigeria’s upper class, they are a part of a story that takes the reader to Princeton, Yale, Philadelphia, Baltimore and London but always with a home base in Nigeria. Comments from the book’s protagonists about upwardly mobile Nigerians provides what I suspect is a glimpse of reality.

“We are just one step from this life in a slum, all of us who live air-conditioned middle-class lives.”

“Had  it always been like this or had it changed so much in her absence? When she left home, only the wealthy had cell phones, all the numbers started with 090, and girls wanted to date 090 men. Now, her hair braider had a cell phone, the plantain seller tending a blackened grill had a cell phone.”

Ifemelu climbed out of the car and into the loud, discordant drone of generators, too many generators;…no light for the past week…can you imagine?”

“When I came back, I was shocked at how quickly my friends had all become fat, with big beer bellies. I thought: What is happening? Then I realized that they were the new middle class…They had jobs and they could afford to drink a lot more beer and to eat out…”

The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) tells us that the African middle class is young:

African development population pyramid

And the African middle class is growing:

African Development growing middle class from EIU

Further confirming the potential for growth, African GDP stats were impressive this year (although we did do an econlife blog on how they might all be inaccurate).

African development GDP stats


But then, checking the World Bank’s “Doing Business” Index, the low ranking of most African nations revealed the most challenging business environments. Looking at Nigeria, for getting electricity, enforcing contracts, and guaranteeing property rights–all basic to a thriving market– they were ranked among the lowest.

For example, when a business needs to establish an electrical power connection, the difference between Nigeria and Singapore is striking:

Nigeria: 260 days

African Development: getting electricity in Nigeria

Singapore: 36 Days

African Development compared to Singapore getting electricity

Where are we? For a good read and some Nigerian reality, I recommend Americanah.

Sources and resources: For more on African cities from EIU, their paper is good for the statistical perspective while the World Bank “Doing Business” index, still a list of stats, injects more reality because of its detail. And, always excellent, listening to economist Timothy Taylor in one of his Teaching Company lectures on African Development, #19 and #20 in “America and the New Global Economy,” you can hear the ideal overview. (Quotes are from pages 475, 385, 387-388.)


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