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Kenya in Motion 2000-2020

Marie-Aude Fouéré
Marie-Emmanuelle Pommerolle
Christian Thibon

Chapter 3

Emerging Elites, Oligarchy, and the Kenyan Middle Classes

Christian Thibon
Traduction de Felix Lambrecht

Texte intégral

1The topic of emerging elites raises many questions and arouses multiple interests. What is brought to light through these elites is the significance of the ongoing economic, social and political changes as well as their historical trends and their nature. The approach adopted in this chapter extends and completes the above presentation (cf. introduction to the volume). General trends in Kenyan society are often analysed in terms of risk-tensions and following a fatalistic view of society stalled by inequality, while the changes within the elite circles are cast in a rather positive light through the lenses of renewal and opportunities. Moreover, there is a lack of statistical proofs as the question of emerging elites is mainly approached through qualitative and biographical research methods or through prosopography. These methods nevertheless benefit from a stream of academic research on social configurations, the national classes and the elites, and on the nature of economic development, all initiated in the 1960s and 1970s and still underway (Leys 1975; Van Zwanenberg 1972; Swainson 1980; Kaplinsky 1980).

1. Capitalism, Bourgeoisie, Peasantry, and the Middle Classes in Debate

2In the 1970-80s an important academic debate left its mark on the social sciences. It involved the question of Kenya‘s unique brand of capitalism—in comparison with that of its neighbours—and what it represented more broadly, not just in relation to the nature of economics but in terms social history. This debate borrowed from the dependency, Marxist, liberal, and developmentalist paradigms then in vogue. While it did not escape the theoretical hypotheses of the time about modes of production, it questioned and contributed knowledge about the social dimensions of development and its chaotic performances, the growth of the 1960s, and the slump of the 1970s-2000s interspersed with a few periods of growth (notably the coffee boom in 1976–77, and the years 1980–83 just before the drought of 1984). Important for our purpose, then, are the questions of accumulation, the existence of a national and multinational agrarian power, of a national bourgeoisie, be it comprador or not, of a petite bourgeoisie, of African or Indian bourgeoisies (Himbara 1994), and finally of the entrepreneurial spirit and capitalist ethos of certain groups. The same is true of research on the small and medium peasantry, on its rise from the colonial period—whether this peasantry was captured or not—and on peasant-state relations (Kitching 1980; Hyden 1980).

  • 1 On the debates about enterprises, see Jean Copans (1991).

3This collective reflection continued in the years of transition, in the midst of the economic crisis, which were also a period of hope and questioning of economic policies and their state rationality. These times signalled the return to the market and privatisation, the rise of civil society and the democratic experiment, but also a succession of major politico-financial scandals. The “Kenyan malaise” (Gibbon 1995) was thus questioned. It had two sides: on the one hand, the economy was in the process of liberalisation, struggling with inherited burdens, including corruption and social predation; on the other, the resources of entrepreneurship were brought forward, including the capacities of the informal sector based on the strength of jua kali and its expected resources.1

4These past and continuing scholarly debates are important for two practical reasons: they raised questions and built knowledge that are still relevant today, all the more so as the hypotheses put forward and the prospects evoked have or have not been confirmed in the course of the history of the last twenty years, which allows us to understand current events and even their evolution. The somewhat historical method used here—proceeding from the present to the past—could only meet these debates, yet requests the adoption of a double historical perspective: firstly, that of the present time dating back to the post-World War II colonial period; and secondly, that of the “immediate time,” from the 1990s up to the present, and particularly of the acceleration of the last two decades.

2. The Formation of a National Political and Economic Oligarchy?

  • 2 Presented as a form of dependency on a peripheral economy inherited from the colonial period durin (...)

5Understanding the nature and evolution of economic development and capitalism sheds light on the formation of a national elite and its current social embodiment—“political economic entrepreneurs”—and, beyond that, on a social class that can be characterised as more oligarchic than bourgeois. The defining feature of this social class is that economic development and modes of accumulation were intertwined through the politico-economic elites—a phenomena referred to as straddling that was partly inherited from colonial dependency.2

6It is possible to reconstruct the history of straddling and its different times. From independence onwards, the overlap between the state, public interests and private interests, between private business and public administration—which was already in its infancy in colonial dependency—was reinforced because of the significant economic power of an interventionist state at the head of a public economy controlling the economic machinery. During the time of Daniel arap Moi, this system was reproduced through the strengthening of state power and the protection of a nascent industry. But the economic results of this economic management were mediocre and irregular. The international context (energy crisis, price of major exports) was partly to blame. The double economic predation of the state and its public servants through—depending on one’s perception—corruption or weak governance aggravated the situation. The lack of return on investment of financial aid, public debt, and difficulties in food security were visible manifestations of this dire economic situation.

  • 3 The first Africanisation of services (shops) dates from the presidency of Jomo Kenyatta.

7The turn of the 1990s with authoritarian decompression, democratisation of the transition, and the imposed new liberal economic order (the opening of the market, privatisation, adjustment programs…) did not change this established politico-economic system. On the contrary, the public-private link was maintained through a strategist state, admittedly advised by the international financial institutions, that pursued its own strategic interests. It then privatised a modern public sector in order to respond to national entrepreneurial owners who purchased certain public goods and public shareholdings in private companies. This was de facto a second wave of Africanisation3 (Aseto & Okelo 1997; Thomas 1998, 40–53).

8From the 2000s-2010s, straddling became subtler, more complex and more competitive. Mirroring private-public partnerships in major projects, it adapted to new economic contexts (with the return of growth), regional transformations (with the growth of the East African Community) and international change (characterised by the rise of funding and of non-Western partners). It also adjusted to new commercial and technological opportunities, notably in the field of communications. This showed that even if the economic situation improved, neither predation nor corruption nor bureaucratic red tape disappeared. Dirty business and scandals continued, some of them even reaching a peak, but they did not affect in the same way the economy, growth, financial results, and attractiveness (the public debt/GDP ratio fell below the 50% mark in the mid- 2010s). On the contrary, a steady flow of international and domestic investment was betting on the Kenyan economy as a regional economic hub, on its liberal management and on the expected payoffs they may have had in resources and domestic productions as well as in its domestic market.

  • 4 In reference to Thomas Mann’s novel about the decline of the third generation of families.

9The economic history of the straddling is sometimes limited by many unknowns, notably its external relays and the levels of its international dependence, and it keeps grey areas when it comes to financial exchanges. Yet, its social history can be written by looking at the experience of accumulation. From independence to the present day, successive political and economic systems have given rise to a neo-patrimonial managerial elite with both political and economic power. These “political economic entrepreneurs” have grown rich in connection with political cycles, while the circle of beneficiaries has widened with ethnic renewals or alliances at the highest level of power—first Kikuyu then Kalenjin. This circle of beneficiaries has also become more diverse since the transition and political reforms have opened up the political game. The paths to success were varied. Primitive accumulation followed different scenarios: some resulted from heroic self-made individuals—of the adventurer and “coal-merchant-become-millionaire” types—while others were draw from historically and family predestined situations, thus benefiting the kin-heirs of political dynasties or the descendants-heirs of chiefs from the colonial period. The various economic cycles and proximity with the regime turned to their advantage. They also owed their trajectories to the allocation of real estate, public contracts, concessions, positions in international companies, and positions at the State House and in other institutions (Central Bank, Stock Exchanges, ports, transport, commercial banks, etc.) as well as to access to public funds (Simiyu 2012). Some of these success stories took on a quasi-dynastic form by following a diversified strategy. Others, often achieved through land accumulation, came to an end after a generation in a manner reminiscent of kleptocratic trajectories or because they were broken by family quarrels. But the majority of these political entrepreneur families have been able to overcome the pitfalls of generational change, although some have been increasingly confronted with the Buddenbrooks effect.4

10The success of these “political entrepreneurs” came from their ability to take advantage of various public policies, both interventionist and liberal, of agreements with foreign companies and also of privatisations. It also lay in lucky or rational choices to invest in booms or speculative cycles, to react to various business environments, and to circumvent the political setbacks while retreating into economies of affection and making use of their ethnic and regional network. Finally, as internationalisation and the financial opening of the 2000s progressed, these great fortunes discovered the resources of regional markets with sub-regional, Eastern and Middle Eastern partnerships, and with deals and investment. It was then that Dubai eclipsed London as their business destination. At the end of this evolution, the impression was that on turning “millionaires,” these “political economic entrepreneurs” have become economic entrepreneurs only, and that as wealth has built up, economic interests have had more importance than political interests.

11This overlap between political and economic calculation is also found in a game between closure—a nationalist temptation to Africanise and protect markets—and openness, that is, association with foreign companies, or in other words between independence and dependence. This state of mind also explains the association of these political entrepreneurs with professional entrepreneurs, whether Indian or Kenyan (mainly Kikuyu), who have been somewhat independent but competent in their field and who ensured the recognition of politicians through donations or political commitments.

12Paradoxically, distance from power has been a vector of accumulation and an explanation for the success of some families. This was first the case for the Indian elites who, faced with competition from the Africanisation of trade and transport, moved in the 1960s towards the technical and industrial sectors, partly abandoning their historical model of the retail shop—the duka system—which had allowed them to prosper. Next, this was the case for the Kikuyu elites, especially for the generation carried by the Kenyatta period but discredited during the Moi period or divided during the time of transition-democratisation. The same was true of the new circles promoted and then deposed by the successive powers, but which retained their assets and escaped the legal fallout of financial scandals. Political decline did not automatically translate into economic decline, while the learning of new techniques and new industrial, commercial and financial processes or their imitation, helped by the capacities of locally trained executives, was quickly mastered in contact with the White Kenyan large landowners, with representatives of foreign companies and with the Asian masters of industry. This interweaving and circulation of the economic and political elites can be seen in institutional networks, professional chambers and the Kenya Private Sector Alliance (KEPSA), created in 2004, or through more informal forms of sociability, such as the large national and regional agrarian events (Agriculture Shows), the promotional networks of prestigious schools, corporate associations or more exclusive associations such as clubs (Connan 2013).

  • 5 This section uses Damien Thibon’s data and analyses (2014).

13The conclusion is hardly moral, but today one could say that neo-patrimonialism, after having prospered in a parasitic way on the economy, is accompanying growth and benefiting from the development of a national and regional market. This evolution, common to several emerging economies as shown by scholars (Bach & Gazino 2012), is illustrated and confirmed by individual and collective trajectories, and accumulations and investments. Indeed, through case studies, biographies and prosopography5 and as testified in the increasing number of autobiographies (Ndegwa 2006; Wanjui 2013), one can grasp the various generations or historical cycles of accumulation, and ultimately, the pace of the formation of an oligarchic elite in Kenya.

14The first cycle of accumulation was carried out under the presidency of Jomo Kenyatta. His family and the dignitaries and collaborators of the regime, from KANU and KADU, benefited from the public income. Paradoxically in this neo-colonial period, businessmen and their families, although nationalists, imitated, at least got closer in their way of life, their sociability (clubs and networks of sociability) and land accumulation, to the colonial aristocracy of “gentlemen capitalists” and agrarian landowners. In similar ways, they exploited land, financial assets, and services. The model of success that is representative of this period, apart from the Kenyatta family, is exemplified by Kikuyu dignitaries: Sir Charles Njonjo, Njenga Karume, John Michuki, Duncan Nderitu Ndegwa… and more generally by large Kikuyu owners and their associates (GEMA: Gikuyu Alliance, Embu, Meru) often referred to as “mafia,” that is, a network of businessmen and politicians relying on their relatives, their clients and their dependents to negotiate with state power.

15The second cycle coincided with the arrival in power of Daniel arap Moi in 1978. It marked a turning point in Kenyan political life with the coming to power of the Kalenjin and their allies, but also with a drift towards a more authoritarian and dictatorial regime. Wealth accumulation in this period followed the path of the previous cycle and developed by taking advantage of urban growth, major construction projects, the tourism boom and a partially protected private consumer goods and processing industry. Yet it expanded to include new families which, besides the Moi family, included the first circle of the faithful, often Kalenjin. In a practical way, the Moi system, as under Kenyatta but in a more systemic way, surrounded itself with allies and local potentates—“big men”—who relayed the central power to the periphery and the regions. The latter, in return for their affiliation and their political and electoral support, ensured protection in access to land and in particular urban land (Bourmaud 1988). This politico-economic context also saw the prosperity of an Asian industrial bourgeoisie that discovered in Kenya a haven of peace (compared with the expulsion of the Indians from Uganda in 1972) and invested in the basic industrial sectors, agribusiness and consumer goods which were then protected. Individuals from this period who represented success were, for example, Nicholas Biwott, Joshua Kulei and some large Indian families.

  • 6 See in this volume Hervé Maupeu: “State, Economy and Development in Kenya.”

16Paradoxically, the 1990s—characterised by the economic crisis and political instability—were the glory years of this politico-economic oligarchy. This period coincides with the second generation: those of the sons then building upon the work of the founding fathers and matriarchs (the wives of the founding fathers). Indeed, the new political and economic context presided over two noticeable changes: on the one hand the privatisation of cooperatives, public enterprises, commercial enterprises, and hotels turned to the advantage of the established great fortunes which then recovered industrial, tertiary or agribusiness tools which they later cannibalised and added value to. On the other hand, the political stakes of the time renewed the political class: there were new leaders, new opposition parties and a new generation in the image of the “young Turks of KANU.” In a context of bargaining between the ruling politicians and the opposition but also of ethnic clashes, these newcomers took advantage of the prevailing instability and of the opportunity it created to access power and enrich themselves. This was the time of the big yet consensual cases of corruption, “the Goldenberg era,”6 and of many new promoted fortunes, following the example of the new barons of a regime that co-opted them. The newcomers to the powerful circle included George Saitoti, William Ruto, Ole Ntimama or former opponents like Raila Odinga.

  • 7 Coming from Muranga while those who preceded came from Kiambu or Nyeri.

17From the 2000s, the return of growth and the economic take-off confirmed the economic reputation of these several established families. They comprised political families including allies-customers-parents (Kikuyu, Kalenjin) close to Kenyatta and Moi, and local entrepreneurs, mostly Indians and Kikuyu but also a certain number of established big men who were Kisii, Kamba, Luo, Masai, Luhya, Kikuyu7 and from the Coast. However, the novelty of this period lay in the emergence of businessmen attached to the urban market and involved in transport (matatu networks), real estate, finance and insurance, and services. They were joined by new personalities from the world of media, Internet, and new technologies. These new entrepreneurs, who for some came from the informal sector, were certainly supported and sponsored, but they were foreign to previous generations. Some of them came from the upper middle class promoted by growth. They were either skilled educated individuals who had often studied in international universities and possessed prestigious Kenyan school degrees, or entrepreneurs in the digital economy and the services sector, having started in their careers as senior civil servants in national agencies or as executives in foreign companies. Last, there were some scandalous trajectories of success through transit and regional or international trafficking using informal and illegal ways. The politico-economic oligarchy and this new generation were connected to Foreign Direct Investments (FDI) respectively through private/public partnerships and major construction projects and through investments participation in the new digital economy.

18This broadening and diversification of politico-economic elites can be seen in the use they made of symbolic and cultural capital. Great families, like the “great notables,” maintained their traditional symbolic capital and identity affiliations, relied on patron-client and religious networks, invested in local anchorage in their region of origin and in compassionate activities (e.g. through humanitarian associations like the Red Cross, Saint John Kenya…), and controlled large press groups—print and audio-visual media that proved to be economically very profitable (Nyanjom 2012). Contrastingly, the new notability was present in social media, radio, university spaces, civil society, and even in certain religious spaces in connection with the rise of the new Born-Again churches, Pentecostalism, etc. For some, notably those who had emerged recently, opportunism and commitment to the regime were no longer the rule.

19Recently, through cross-investments or even alliances, these different generations and different political, economic and ethnic circles have been working together in business associations and consortiums, as if the class logic of a national “de place” or “réticulaire” capitalism was now prevailing! A “depoliticised” type of capitalism has emerged, which has become autonomous from the political sphere and escaped from the practices of straddling from which it was born. This trend, which only the future may confirm, is perhaps a guarantee of political stability, but it owes its success to the somewhat forgotten history of Kenyan capitalism: that of the “non-political entrepreneurs.”

3. A Second Overlap: Society and Entrepreneurship

20This longer history highlights a second overlap, this time between business and society. Here, social mobility and low-intensity accumulation in an economy of affection, where sociability, often built along ethnic lines, plays just as much a role as public protection or the invisible hand of the market. The socio-historical and cultural roots of this economic history take the form of a spirit of capitalism and an individual moral achievement perceptible through various—both long and short termed—collective trajectories.

  • 8 As shown by the latest works of social history on the colonial period, following on from Bruce Ber (...)

21Colonial history reveals the existence of business associations that already had a cultural dimension (Kikuyu, Luo, Kamba…) as well as of cooperatives. These two opposed types of organisations competed or entered into relations with Indian entrepreneurs, already well established, and participated in the emergence of an “economic” proto-elite and a comprador proto-bourgeoisie. As early as the 1960s, their members were running for associate-dealers or were co-opted by Western companies, and then invested in new economic sectors. The same goes for a “rural petite bourgeoisie”—often accused of loyalty during the Mau Mau insurgency—that benefited from the boom in coffee growing, land privatisation, and urban market demand. Moreover, social mobility was taking place in cities. From the 1950s, new urban categories emerged made of the educated, a working class and working aristocracy, and in the public space the Black staff of the colonial state (clerics, officials, police, military, etc.).8 From independence, these social groups—some of them somewhat marginal or out of step with the new power—were still very active because they were essential elements. A few among them were called upon for the construction of public power and the state apparatus and for economic revival. This happened at several moments throughout the period: firstly, in the 1960s, due to the Africanisation of certain economic sectors (through business licenses); then, in the 1970s, through the entry of civil servants into business (Ndegwa 1971). And finally, in the 1990s, in the mobilisation of the informal sector—jua kali—through the entrepreneurial performance or resilience of this sector in certain areas of the urban market. These micro-accumulations stumbled on technical or financial limits, yet others succeeded and testified to a creative energy. This was the case in artisanal production for tourists (Chouabi 2009), in industrial subcontracting, and in innovations in tourism services. These promotions, equally understood as ways of life and as careers, evolved between survival logics that resulted from the hazardous paths of migration and social opportunism, between meritocratic ambitions leading to successes and resourcefulness, between individual adventures and family strategies through domestic and community relays. It is therefore not surprising that some of the successes and accumulation paths of the 2010s have been grounded upon these experiences and continued to be part of such trajectories.

22Moreover, to the extent that the moral economy of affection framed and normalised these industrial-commercial adventures, one may wonder whether certain inherited or acquired anthropological models shaped such an evolution by distilling a certain spirit of capitalism. The topic has given rise to stereotyped tribal analyses but it deserves to be addressed. Some populations traditionally lived in densely populated areas and some ethnic groups fed into the groups of migrants and social dependents (cadets) who would leave, clear the land and follow a logic of expulsion and expansion. Since the colonial period, both fed professional migrations, clearing the margins of rural areas in the past and of the cities since independence. The same is true of groups who relied on family networks that were fit for dispersion and the maintenance of commercial networks, such as Kenyan Asians and Somalis. These cultural predispositions—alternatively called “ethnic ethos” or “ethnic habitus” (Droz 1999)—become important and decisive when, for geopolitical and historical reasons, some of these ethnic groups benefited from services, training, openings and employment opportunities. This first happened under colonisation with schooling-cum- evangelisation, controlled mobility, then access to the state, and it continued more so with public modernisation after independence, favouring certain territories and certain ethnic groups. Such environments associated with a culture of mobility gave them an “entrepreneurial” bonus, forging modern models of social ascension and accumulation, at least social primacy. This was particularly the case for the Kikuyu, who benefited first from this.

23More generally, the historical existence of a social ascension outside the oligarchic circuits—even marginal promotion with or without the umbrella of the political and economic elites in power—raises the question of grassroots opportunities, capacities and potentials. Such mobility contributed to a renewal of the economic oligarchy from below. We find this problem of upward mobility in the rise of the middle classes as will be shown now.

4. The Emergence of the Middle Classes?

24The question of the middle classes, already at the heart of past debates, has recently resurfaced for economists particularly as well as for all those who, in marketing or commercial potentials, examine the consumer habits of these new classes and of their related sub-constituencies, like the youth, women, urban households and specific generations. This first approach takes into account and favours economic data, income and consumption levels.

  • 9 The US poverty line is estimated at 17 USD a day.

25To date, however, macroeconomic data and their analysis have been unsatisfactory for measuring the weight of the middle classes. While the GDP that was reached and re-evaluated in 2014 ranks the Kenyan economy within the “middle-income countries,” this does not allow for a mechanical conclusion that there exists a middle-income class. The link between the GDP and the emergence of a middle class has been verified in many national contexts, yet a striking phenomenon is also at play: inequality distorts income redistribution. In addition, standards defined according to international criteria and identifying thresholds, such as that of a “global middle class” defined by an income of 16,800 USD to 72,000 USD per year per household, are not relevant. Relative thresholds are more informative as they estimate, depending on the country and economy considered, a floating daily consumption of between 2 USD and 20 USD per capita for emerging countries.9

  • 10 See the “Middle Class Study” and its presentation by Ivory Ndekei and Kwame Owino from the Institu (...)

26Practically, definitions and sufficiently precise trend data for the recent period starting from 2005 are lacking. For instance, the KNBS sets the middle-class in the range of 23,000 KES to 199,000 KES monthly income. Such an overly broad approach cannot therefore quantify the share of the middle classes, except through a vague consensus figure of 10% to 20% of the population, depending on the source used, which is corroborated by household wealth surveys about assets and equipment targeting the first quintile of “the richest 20%” (KIHBS and DHS). These regular national surveys make it possible to classify and better capture an improvement in household lifestyle and household wealth in the two top quintiles (from 20% to 40% of the population), but with strong regional differences. Only estimates10 based on labour income (both formal and informal) appear to be accurate. These are based on a threshold taking inflation into account—evaluated between 76,000–100,000 KES monthly in 2015—and places about 270,000 people into this category. This figure is currently growing as it is said to double every 5 years—i.e. 2% of the 15.2 million active employees in 2015—while high-income earners above 100,000 KES would correspond to 2.9%, giving a total of middle and upper classes of 4.9%, that is, 700,000 active employees. By extrapolating these figures into a number of households, this would represent more or less 600,000 households for a population of around 4 million. However, these data do not take undeclared income into account such as rent, real estate income, undeclared activities, and non-taxed trade.

27This statistical weakness can be compensated for by using sectoral or microeconomic surveys and by studying supply, the economic, social and cultural environment and consumer practices. They reveal a process of general enrichment, distributed regionally, but do not distinguish social variations. Yet, they can help to draw a positive general context. This is the case in surveys about financial inclusion for the middle classes as well as the poor. For example, they show that the number of bank accounts increased from 4.6 million in 2005 to 33.6 million in 2014 while the number of mobile accounts rose from 1.3 million in 2007 to 25.2 million in 2014 (Gubbins 2015). Even if multiple factors—including the boom in mobile phones, access to secure transfers, the importance of exchanges on the part of domestic and international migrants, and the evolution of the banking system—played in favour of this take-off, this indicator of the financial environment reflects a general improvement in living conditions.

28The same is true of studies that focus on the lifestyle and consumption of the middle classes, the demand for housing and construction (Arvanitis 2013), consumption patterns and consumer perceptions that give priority to quality criteria or appearance (Deloitte 2013), the level of Internet connection and use of social networks including Facebook, and the number of vehicles and imports…. even if these are goods of distinction that households only display on certain days and on special occasions. Other indicators confirm this trend. The increase in wage and employment in the tertiary economic sector and in the private sector—and particularly in national and regional commercial services—that followed on from new public policies in the fields of education, local administration, and national security testify to a growing number of intermediate socio-professional categories, among them the managerial staff even though their income is not stable.

  • 11 See the Barometer data for May 2017, and the Ipsos Public Affairs opinion polls.

29Finally, the polling and surveys institutes11 in need of data for their sampling frames use two thresholds: a monthly income of 25,000–40,000 KES and a high income of above 40,000 KES per household, respectively 11% and 5% of the population. The former estimate corresponds to the 10% “rich” of urban surveys conducted in working class neighbourhoods. It confirms the extrapolation from employment statistics, that is, 10% and 16% of the population.

30In all the cases studied, one constant emerges. The search for intermediate variables highlights two key factors: the education of heads of household, whether male or female, and urban residency (among which Nairobi stands out). The middle classes are aware of this prerequisite, which has a positive influence on social advancement and accumulation of domestic wealth. Having themselves benefited from the ambitious school policies from 2002, they in turn invest in the training of their children and in their continuing education, as well as in urban estate, at the risk of going into debt.

31The aggregated and cross-tabulated quantitative data thus refute the hypothesis of a pivotal middle class, even if average intermediate incomes only provide imperfect data about the emerging middle class—and considering also that this income is relative: the majority of Kenyans are in survival while the levels of wealth accumulation are very high among the oligarchy.

32As a consequence, the sociological qualitative approach can be of help in identifying social configurations. It notably helps us to distinguish and model three situations. Firstly, there is an “upper middle class” with high monthly household incomes, owning one or more real estate properties and that is westernised in its way of life and consumer patterns. In this group there are successful small-scale entrepreneurs in the informal and service sectors, employees in certain private sectors, and high-ranking civil servants or employees of the Nairobi hub. Secondly, there is a large array of employed “managerial middle class,” following on from the petite bourgeoisie of the 1980–1990s but at the limits of the poverty line as they are “neither poor nor rich.” Although they are assured of income and have accumulated wealth, they are impacted by price variations and inflation, to economic conjuncture and to the instability of professional statuses. In practical terms, this second group, an erratic middle class, has access to malls, franchised restaurants, etc., but they consume little. The remaining group are “social entrepreneurs.” Studies have particularly focused on them (Ontita 2015) because they exemplify the Kenyan top-down growth that takes into account the market of both the urban and the rural poor. This group, limited in size but very visible in the media, tells about Kenya’s double history of the middle classes. Indeed, these economic actors are present in the services (financial, personal, production assistance…) where they implement the modernist efforts of the managerial petite bourgeoisie, of bureaucrats imbued with development ides—or at least who see development as a moral goal—but are also innovative because they master the new tools, use the new technological opportunities and walk the lines between commercial logic and moral vocations, between private interest and collective interest.

33These three categories, that is, the “upper middle class,” “managerial middle class” and “social entrepreneurs,” share the same social model, but without all having the same means. This is confirmed by the study of the new demographic behaviours and their evolution within households. A minority of households (corresponding to the two upper quintiles) have common consumption behaviours and attitudes and refer to a typical middle-class family model valuing the nuclear household, the couple and the individual (Thibon 2015). This reading is corroborated by the more qualitative studies of sociologists, anthropologists and geographers on lifestyles. These studies reveal, among other things, the spread of new consumer patterns and of practices of social distinction and appearance geared towards branded products, new services, safe housing, but also new types of interest such as sea and national parks domestic tourism (Rieucau 2014). In all three cases, modernisation does not call into question the links with peasant and provincial kinship based upon economic exchanges (through investment, intergenerational transfers or cultural transactions during family ceremonies), yet it gradually distends them (Resnick 2015). These diverse and complex middle classes sharing common denominators (family model, lifestyle, etc.) reflect how much its current formation is a difficult process: the middle classes are learning to live in relative ease and are becoming urban, yet they retain their peasant character.

5. The Middle Classes, an Ongoing Process of Formation

34Therefore, to better understand the ambiguities of the middle classes and overcome statistical and conceptual vagueness, if not a hesitant and approximate foresight, it is necessary to put this topic into historical perspective. This means, among others, reconnecting with scholarly works on the social classes and on a two-sided social structuring: one side is about the social biography of a group in formation, and the other concerns the ways in which these new classes relate to society and the regime, and the perceptions they have of these as well as of themselves.

35Such history of social representations helps us to grasp continuities as well as innovations. It begins at the end of the colonial period. Its starting point is the end of the colonial period. The question of the middle classes appeared in the 1950s and since then, the public policies put in place have consistently aimed to promote the “intermediate classes,” then the “national elites,” and now the “middle classes” that are expected to be at the foundation of society. All these policies, from the Swynnerton Plan to Vision 2030, have also carried political projects in search of economic leaders, then political leaders who could act as intermediaries or mobilisers depending on the projects considered—colonial, nationalist mixed with African socialism, democratic, and last, liberal. In this respect, the abundance of concepts used to describe these classes is an advantage, yet it can also be risky if one uncritically makes use of the “social entities” which political or technocratic discourses designate with terms such as “executive managers,” “modern sector,” and “national elites” or of the sometimes ideological theoretical tools of academic works.

36The contribution of the prehistory and history of the middle classes, from the 1950s to the present day, is useful to grasp the historical movement and its current effects. It can be found in different social figures—similar to ideal-types—that each period has promoted. Three figures emerge that correspond to three different moments: “the evolved,” “the bureaucrat,” and “the entrepreneur.” In reality, the social actors combined a bit of each of these three roles depending on the historical context. Yet, their experiences and representations converged and participated, together with income and heritage, in the formation of a social class.

37Thus, colonisation, in its last decade, implemented a policy targeting the “evolved.” This term is borrowed from other colonial experiences yet it is appropriate to qualify the Kenyan case—although the condition of the Asians and that of the “non-native” somehow blurred the racial colonial vision of society. This policy was coherent: it aimed to reinforce social intermediaries in rural areas through the creation of an enlightened “rural petite bourgeoisie,” as Gavin Kitching observed in the 1950s-1970s when studying the social structuring of peasant property. It also aimed to supervise its auxiliaries—the African bureaucracy—in the cities as they had become essential for colonial action. Such a developmentalist and modernist project, weakened by the Mau Mau insurrection that divided the rural world between nationalists and loyalists, was pursued and defended by the supporters of Western modernisation and of a “third political path.” They advocated the promotion of a meritocratic urban-rural petite bourgeoisie and the formation of intellectuals, aiming to make up for the structural constraints that had delayed the creation of national civil servants. The broader objective was the emergence of Kenyan capitalism and the creation of liberal urban elite. Such a project was part of the search for a third political path (Diouf-Kamara 1991; Charton 2000, 27-48). From independence, such a vision had its political supporters but they were contradicted by an increasingly authoritarian power in search for hegemony, with its ethnic governance and the elitist management of Kenyan universities. This does not mean that these “historical losers” disappeared: some emigrated, and the majority nestled in economic activities, including coffee production. This was the case of the average Kikuyu peasantry who invested in real estate in Nairobi (Charlery de la Masselière 1997, 7-8). They also retreated into intellectual and legal activities. They initiated internal immigration or were taken in by the regime, thus becoming its servants-clients, spokespersons and organic intellectuals.

38It is in the independence context that the figure of the “bureaucrat” was foregrounded and replaced the neo-colonial image of “the evolved.” The national elites in charge of an interventionist and regulatory state that promoted them and who were reinforced by the single party then fit best into the nationalist projects of President Jomo Kenyatta and even more of Daniel arap Moi. A small directorial bourgeoisie then appeared. It was quite diverse and hierarchical, and maintained (or not) links to the rural petite plantation-holding bourgeoisie and the bureaucratic class of the colonial period. Its emblematic professional figures ranged from the school teachers to high-ranking civil servants—thus reproducing the colonial wage hierarchy. They also ranged from the askari to the district or provincial commissioners, in continuity with a colonial public order turned national order… They all benefited collectively but unequally from public employment, jobs in the politico-economic system or in the formal parastatal sector, and the welfare state—more precisely from the salaries that the welfare state provided as well as from some privileges in health and housing, bridges between the public and the private sector, the Africanisation of employment, and access to commercial licenses. This managerial petite bourgeoisie, endowed with intellectual capital, inherited respectability and a somehow symbolic capital of command that compensated for limited income. Yet in the 1990s, such social advancement stalled. The economic crisis and adjustment programs, followed by political and ethnic struggles, changed the situation: they weakened the managerial petite bourgeoisie, hindered its evolution and destabilised it. Confronted with reduced resources and with economic and adjustment programs, it became divided between resilience, corporatist withdrawal, and ethnic temptation. A first group, dismissed, was tempted by the promise of private enterprise and fell into informality. A second group, impoverished, downgraded by inflation and prey to general instability, protected itself as best it could according to the power of the professional unions they could rely on. And a third group supplemented their insufficient wage by resorting to related sources of income, such as public/private duplication, a return to the private sector, and corruption. Since 2002, this declining managerial petite bourgeoisie has unevenly benefited from growth while it has rubbed shoulders with the social ascents of certain private activities. Only a part of it—the high civil service, the liberal professions, and some professions in education and health—has managed to maintain its symbolic and cultural capital as well as its revenues through traditional areas that could be safeguarded (the university, the exercise of law) and through new services to business which the new economic and political contexts had enhanced.

39The growth of the 2000s legitimised a new dominant figure among the middle classes, if not a whole new generation: “the small entrepreneur.” The social rise of “micro-entrepreneurs,” caught between survival and desire for accumulation, has played out on several levels: public and private resources, wage income, and investments in the informal sector (mechanical, electrical, computer repairs, etc.), agriculture and its new commercial productions and outcomes (e.g. foodstuffs kiosks), services (e.g. matatu), land and property return, and speculative urban and rural income. These entrepreneurs without an enterprise—who, since the 1990s, research on the informal sector has tried to understand by going beyond the image of the jua kali (handicraft and informal sector)—have taken advantage of new markets, new technologies and a high-tech D system with the intelligence of survival. They did it through new services and even through illegal activities that ensured a quick return on limited investment in an untaxed informal sector. These entrepreneurs can be found in the city where the most opportunities are available, including in the slums (where they play the role of “little big men”) and in the countryside where petite peasant landowners—following the former model of peasantry or in break with it—have occupied production niches linked to the urban market (horticulture, dairy farming, khat, meat…). These post-coffee modes of exploitation are often at odds with those of the elders, so much so that these innovative rural entrepreneurs are very often young people and women. Could this be an effect of the demographic dividend? Indeed, this educated youth familiar with digital technologies has quickly adapted to new products and marketing. Or could it be an effect of the gendered dividend? However, this energy overflow is not enough. In addition to skills and domestic mobilisation, the economy of affection and relationships have become necessary to reap the benefits of new interdependencies and new jobs and opportunities (Mbataru 2009).

40As spectacular as this emergence of the new middle classes may be—with its social markers and models, its car fleet, its material culture, its sociability, its modernity, and especially its role in the civil society and through the intellectuals—, they remain the minority, both in the city and even more in the countryside. Taking up Marxist phraseology, they are a “class in itself,” in gestation, not a “class for itself.” Certainly, the boundaries and social practices defining collective identity are gradually solidifying, but they remain porous. The new middle classes are confronted either with dangerous popular classes, at least perceived as such, or with networks of poor rural kinship, from which they come and to which they are related and often indebted. Yet the risk of overflow and downgrading still lingers, and the control of rural elders is still significant. Moreover, the new middle classes are also limited in their social ascent by the shortcomings of the Kenyan political economy, by the reserved domains of the higher political-economic elites—although some can access them—and by cyclical variations. This in-between situation and this social mobility are a source of anxiety, all the more so as the public systems and services and the liberal economy do not offer them any guarantee. Hence the cautious behaviours they develop by multiplying socio-economic, spatial and moral protections. It is noticeable that they embrace political modernity and the defence of human rights, which both serve as security for their acquired rights, but also the defects of political life such as ethnic residency, ethnicity and tribalism (Maupeu 2012). Moreover, these attitudes vary according to the power relations—of a quasi-demographic nature—that the middle classes can exert in some urban spaces. They also depend on associations with some groups, on more or less close contact with their Asian social neighbours, and on their ability to transcend ethnic divisions through inter-ethnic marriages, which enables them to become cosmopolitan and urban Nairobians and to release from family and community constraints.


  • 12 According to the expression and image of the discrepancy of changes used by historian Fernand Brau (...)
  • 13 Sectoral policies were launched for the youth and vulnerable people based on both common type and (...)

41This reading of the social changes within the Kenyan elites—that is, within both the oligarchy and the middle classes—and of their historical trajectories completes and modifies the bipolar or tripolar analysis of an exclusive society in accordance with and inherited from the past. It reveals a society that is as unequal as in the past, with a continually high level of poverty. It is a conflictual society, but a society in motion that is constantly changing the lines of social partition and collective identities. Changes are very real within the social structures, with frequent and commonplace discrepancies12 between the rapid pace of economic and technical changes, the slower social practices experienced by societies as well as the slower trends or weight of collective representations. Such discrepancies are reflected in variations between social norms and individual and household practices, which sometimes involves authoritarian cultural constraints. They also result in cultural tensions that crystallise on social issues debated by the press but also experienced within households (the freedom of the youth, clothing…). Public opinion delights in gauging the scope of individualism’s moral pitfalls, and though social mobility imperceptibly shapes and creates new opportunities for generations to come, it also imposes a debt from the fallout of such growth. The nature of economic growth, however, even if it benefits all but unequally, remains poorly integrative. It leaves to the political power and public policies the task of redistribution and the creation of national solidarity, a new political economy (Bourguignon 2004), a social protection policy 13 and the maintenance of a national community bond that is hampered by identity and ethnic biases that modernisation has not yet erased.

  • 14 Among them the danger of separatist claims on the Swahili coast (phrased as “Pwani Si Kenya,” “the (...)

42The challenge ahead lies in the political capacity of the elites to cushion the social effects of liberal growth and to accompany the stratification or social mobility processes. Ultimately, those living in periphery societies that had long been confined to particular space-times remain in the shadow. In these societies, there has been a rapid advancement amongst the elites thanks to structural and politico-economic changes, and the numbers of university graduates are high. The question now becomes: will they come soon on to the scene of Kenyan society, or will they conversely be tempted to break away?14


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1 On the debates about enterprises, see Jean Copans (1991).

2 Presented as a form of dependency on a peripheral economy inherited from the colonial period during which the white racial minority negotiated with the government

3 The first Africanisation of services (shops) dates from the presidency of Jomo Kenyatta.

4 In reference to Thomas Mann’s novel about the decline of the third generation of families.

5 This section uses Damien Thibon’s data and analyses (2014).

6 See in this volume Hervé Maupeu: “State, Economy and Development in Kenya.”

7 Coming from Muranga while those who preceded came from Kiambu or Nyeri.

8 As shown by the latest works of social history on the colonial period, following on from Bruce Berman (1990).

9 The US poverty line is estimated at 17 USD a day.

10 See the “Middle Class Study” and its presentation by Ivory Ndekei and Kwame Owino from the Institute of Economic Affairs (2016). [archive].

11 See the Barometer data for May 2017, and the Ipsos Public Affairs opinion polls.

12 According to the expression and image of the discrepancy of changes used by historian Fernand Braudel, who speaks of “the delay of culture on the social,” and of “the delay of the social on the economic.”

13 Sectoral policies were launched for the youth and vulnerable people based on both common type and innovative programs, including cash transfers to OVC and the elderly.

14 Among them the danger of separatist claims on the Swahili coast (phrased as “Pwani Si Kenya,” “the Coast is not Kenya,” see Willis & Gona 2013) or of a Greater Somalia (Kennedy Wagura 2019).


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