Afropolitans: The face of a modernising Africa

Africa has historically had a very small middle class base, mainly comprised of government workers. Today there is a growing upwardly mobile class that is also associated with the private sector, both globalised and localised in their aspirations and anxieties, proud of being African and ready to bring a new image of the continent to the world.

As a direct witness, Kenyan retail chain Nakumatt keeps expanding with Malls in Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda. “It’s psychological – people want upward movement,” said Thiagarajan Ramamurthy, Nakumatt’s operations director. “The appetite is increasing – the 14-inch TV became a 21-inch. The 21 became a 29 and the 29 became plasma. It’s an aspiration.”

Key trends

  • Mobility is key;
  • Creative soul and trendsetters;
  • An expanding film industry.

Commercial opportunities

  • While Asia and Eastern Europe continue to be the most popular destinations for the expansion of fashion items, the current global downturn and the changing media landscape worldwide will make the Sub-Saharan market more attractive;
  • Following the example of South Africa as reported by Euromonitor International, the mobile phone industry is set for greater growth in 2010 while smartphones become more affordable. This means more advertising space and more need for content, specific to the region;
  • Social networks such as or are expanding further to offer Africans their own space. Although Africans are also clicking into global social networks; According to Facebook figures, in mid 2009 South Africa had 1.1 million users; Nigeria 220,000 and Kenya 150,000;
  • More affordable and powerful mobile payment services in Africa will come as a result of more companies such as Nokia offering mobile payment services, which can work across various carriers and countries allowing customers to make international remittances.


A different image of Africa can already be found in such publications as Arise, Helm, True Love, BHF and Design Indaba. Talking to Robb Young from IHT, Arise editor Helen Jennings says, “Upwardly mobile African readers are crying out for this magazine.

Because the local magazines aren’t as high end or progressive, and no other international titles speak directly to an African readership, Arise has really caused a stir.” According to IHT this Nigerian magazine is distributed to seven other African countries and around Europe and North America.

Meanwhile, South Africa 2010 represents the debut of Africa as a Football World Cup organizer. Africa’s creativity will be put to the test as many African and foreign private and public organizations try to capitalize on the event.

Mobility is key

Taking advantage of the 21.4 million mobile phone subscriptions in Kenya, the government is using an Obama-inspired campaign to inform people on the recently signed East African Community Common Market (EAC). The treaty deals with key issues that will shape the future of the region greatly through policies of free movement, investment, business laissez-faire, immigration rules and labour laws across the countries involved.

The government is sending messages to mobile owners explaining the basics of the treaty in simple sentences. EAC Ministry Permanent Secretary David Nalo says, “We need to explain to them the reasoning behind the various articles in the protocol and mobile phones are a powerful means of communication.”

This measure shows the significant role that mobile phones already play. In an interview with, Mark Davies, Founder of TradeNet/Esoko, BusyInternet & Metrobeat, says, “I think that people trade in Africa based on reputation.

They know that they may not even get the best price from a particular person, but know that they will get paid, and paid quickly.” It is a complex question of trust because, Davies explains: “People in Africa, more or less, are simply not digitized. They don’t exist in a database.”

So Davies suggests following an eBay system whereby, “I, on a mobile phone, could enter the mobile phone of the person I’m trading with, and just establish “does the person exist? Are they on a system somewhere? How long have they been on that system? If they’ve been on it for three weeks, can I trust them? And if they’ve been on for three years, maybe there’s some more credibility there.”

Finally, he says: “I think these tools, and these technologies, can play a very important role in facilitating that, and allowing cross-border trade with people that you might not have traded with before.”

Felix Kitaka, Developer at Appfrica Labs, announced in May 2009 the launch of – a completely mobile gateway for Ugandans to interact with their Facebook accounts. “With around 60,000 Facebook users in the Kampala area, it seems absurd that no one locally has tried to engage the traffic with a local service.” he says.

And talking about a Facebook developer’s event he attended in Kampala, Uganda, in 2009, he remarks: “one of the things that stood out in my mind was the number of people using Facebook unprompted around the local university (good for Facebook, bad for their professors, lol).”

Nevertheless there are challenging hurdles to overcome in Africa such as the low and uneven bandwidth and the need for a social network to adapt to the many languages of the continent. A version of Facebook in Swahili already exists while other small, localised networks are appearing within such platforms as, which target specific communities and interests.

Creative soul and trendsetters

In London, 29-year-old Kenyan Arieta Mujay having worked in fashion for over a decade for companies such as GAP, is currently PR manager for River Island retailers with over 200 stores in the UK. Talking to she says: “[Being an African woman makes me] work harder and longer than my peers.”

And when interviewed by on being African, she says “I definitely feel a very strong connection to Africa as I am African and Africa is in me.

This connection works both ways as Africans influence the world and the world shapes Africa’s trends with such small entrepreneurial examples as Uganda’s Jackson Mubiru who wanted to bring to his city, Kampala, that common picture of Skateboarders found in cities across the world.

Given the lack of facilities, he has set up his own skateboarding park and it is rapidly growing in popularity. Journalist Kristin Young writes on “There’s a separate phenomenon emerging from fashion’s fascination with Africa. Fashion philanthropists who are capitalising on this trend and all the while helping the people who need it most: Africans.”

During the autumn of 2009, curators Jude Anogwih and Oyinda Fakeye put the pieces of this puzzle together in an exhibition at the Centre for Contemporary Art in Lagos, Nigeria. “Identity: An Imagined State” was the first international exhibition of Video Art in Nigeria, bringing together works by twelve artists from different countries in Africa.

The curators write: “As a point of departure, the exhibition explores associations with the label ‘African’. … [It] tells the story of belonging, displacement, uncertainty, visibility and negotiation through the medium of video art.”

An expanding film industry

Africa’s new identity can be found in Nigeria’s film industry. It has become the world’s second largest, having grown into a US$250 million industry employing thousands of people and churning out 500-1,000 movies per year made on budgets ranging from $10,000 to $25,000. It is also looking at new markets and into possibilities of expanding to rival Hollywood.

Thus, for the first time in Africa, Indian Award-winning film and television producer, Parminder Vir, brought Bollywood and Nollywood practitioners together at the ION international film festival held in Port-Harcourt, Nigeria.

The Bollywood song-and-dance format has charmed African audiences for over 50 years. Vir, a fan of both Indian and Nigerian films expects that many of the high profile producers, directors and actors attending the event will meet to explore ways of working together. “I have become a great admirer of the Nollywood film industry which is very similar to Bollywood with their ‘can do’ attitude.

In the absence of government support, both have created an industry which contributes substantially to the wealth of the nation,” Vir said. According to the festival organisers, the four-day event was “a celebration for the people” who believe Nollywood to be one of the greatest things that has come out of Nigeria. Indeed, as journalist Chinyere Okoye says: “Nollywood movies project the country’s lifestyle, culture, local fashion, burning issues and problems plaguing the society.”


Young Africans are developing a new identity in connection with the rest of the world taking the advantage of greater political stability in most countries. They aspire to exert a greater level of influence both at home and abroad with an expanding community of independent creators.

Mobile phone subscriptions, set to increase further in 2010, play an important part on new developments at every level, from trade to billing mechanisms to increase mobile advertising space. According to an ITU document’s Information Society Statistical Profiles 2009: Africa, “The increase in the number of mobile cellular subscriptions over the last five years has defied all predictions”.

Indeed, Euromonitor International data shows that the Middle East and Africa remains the region with the highest mobile phone subscription growth rate. On the other hand Africa’s digital divide in comparison with the rest of the world remains substantial.

Taking into account Euromonitor International figures on education in Nigeria, which reveal that only 3.8% of the population of 154.7 million have completed higher education, it could be argued that only a negligible fraction of the population have access to luxury. Yet, it is nonetheless a large number of individuals in highly populated countries such as Nigeria.