Everyday economics A more accurate picture of African Development emerges when we combine statistics and stories.

Understanding African Development Through Stories and Stats

by Elaine Schwartz    •    Aug 6, 2014    •    977 Views

With more than 40 African leaders in Washington D.C. for a conference that President Obama is attending, I wanted to return to our post on Americanah.

Where are we going? To a picture of African development.

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 provide 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 growing:

African Development and Middle Class Growth


And the African middle class is young:

From: The Economist Intelligence Unit

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

African Development and GDP


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 Ease of Doing Business


Singapore: 36 Days

African Development Ease of Doing Business Singapore Comparison


Our bottom line: A more accurate picture of African Development emerges when we combine statistics and stories.

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.) Our content was from an Americanah post during December 2013.

One Response to Understanding African Development Through Stories and Stats

  1. julianfstr says:

    I love the point you’re making here. It’s often just as useful to pay attention to the accounts of every day lives of people as it is to the faceless numbers of data. Although both can tell the same story, the impact of true life accounts can often feel far more deeply relevant. Numbers alone can’t magically transport us to the footsteps of another person.

    It’s also a bit of a revelation you’ve given me: to realize that when reading novels (fiction and non), we are often unwittingly learning about economies and cultures.

    Love it. Thanks.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

« »