What Rising TV Ownership Reveals About Africa's Future

A shopper views televisions for sale at a Makro store in Johannesburg

Photograph by Nadine Hutton/Bloomberg

A shopper views televisions for sale at a Makro store in Johannesburg

The usual story about African development over the last few decades is, simply, that it hasn’t developed. It is a region mired in permanent poverty—destined by geography or disease burden or corruption or ethnic division to everlasting misery. That story should be placed in the fiction aisle. Quality-of-life measures have been improving for decades across the continent, more recently followed by official measures of economic output in a number of countries. And recent analysis of survey evidence suggests that households across the region have become far wealthier than even those improving official output statistics would suggest.

It is true that some parts of Africa—Liberia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo—remain as poor as Gaul in the time of Caesar, according to official statistics. But quality of life has been improving in leaps and bounds: Senegal cut its child mortality rate from 12.1 percent to 7.2 percent in the five years leading up to 2010, for example. Across the region, countries are edging toward 100 percent primary school enrollment rates. More and more boys and girls alike are getting access to basic literacy and numeracy. Perhaps connected to these trends, more African countries are at last starting to report rapid gross domestic product growth. Six out of the 10 fastest-growing countries in the world at this moment are in Africa.

Even those statistics may underplay dramatic improvements in economic well-being across the continent. Alwyn Young of the London School of Economics looks at evidence on consumption from household surveys across Africa over the past 20 years, measuring ownership of such goods as radios, televisions, refrigerators, cars, and telephones, alongside schooling and the division of women’s time between child rearing and income-earning and health outcomes. He concludes that household consumption in the region has been growing from 3.4 percent to 3.7 percent per annum over the last couple of decades, compared to the 0.9 percent to 1.1 percent suggested by income statistics. He finds a very similar level of growth of consumption goods in non Sub-Saharan countries–but of course, these countries by and large have grown faster, according to traditional GDP-per capita measures.

Stephan Klasen at the University of Göttingen has co-authored a rebuttal of Young’s work in which he accepts that “there has been considerable growth in asset ownership in African households, not dissimilar to the growth observed in households elsewhere.” But, he notes, “the relationship between asset growth and per capita income growth is very weak in African and non-African countries … assets accumulate at the household level even in the absence of income growth.” He takes this as damning evidence of the weakness of Young’s approach. Others might take it as one more reason to question the utility of income statistics in Africa.

According to Klasen’s data, for example, Kenya was, at best, marginally richer in 2009 than it was in 1993; GDP per capita climbed from $1,092 to $1,206. Still, the proportion of households with a TV increased from 6 percent to 29 percent, the number with electricity climbed from one in 10 to one in four, and the percentage with a phone rose from less than one percent to 60 percent. The proportion of households with high quality flooring went up by half, the proportion with a flush toilet doubled, and the average years of education increased by over two years. Which set of statistics–income or assets—gives a more accurate impression of economic dynamism is surely an open question.

It should be noted that some countries have made dramatically slower progress–take Cote d’Ivoire, where the average number of years a citizen had been educated fell from 1994 to 2005, according to survey evidence. And thanks to the continuing impact of the HIV-AIDS crisis, life expectancy in Kenya was actually lower in 2009 than in 1993, according to World Bank data. Clearly, far from all elements of the quality of life have been going up everywhere. Nonetheless, the African assets and quality-of-life picture is a strongly positive one, and it is more positive than might be expected from the official accounts.

Why the disconnect? One reason is that the data on national accounts that produce GDP statistics across the region are terrible. Simon Fraser University’s Morten Jerven has looked at the reliability of African economic statistics and concluded that “estimates of an annual growth rate of 3 per cent may be consistent with a reality between 0 and 6 per cent growth” across countries in the region, and “with the exception of some resource-rich enclaves, a few island states, and South Africa, the income of one African economy is not meaningfully different from another.”

Brown University’s Vernon Henderson provides a further measure of income performance that echoes these concerns. He notes that electricity use has been spreading across Africa in a way that suggests that while a few countries have been growing more slowly than advertised, many have been growing much faster. Henderson uses satellite pictures of the Earth at night to see where there is light—and how much of it there is. Countries and regions that shine brightly produce more, while areas that are dark are low-density in terms of economic production. Based on his analysis, while such countries as Nigeria, Angola, and Sudan are poorer than suggested by official GDP-per capita data, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Republic of Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, and seven other Sub-Saharan countries have been growing significantly faster than official statistics have recorded over the last couple of decades.

An additional set of factors explaining the disconnect between assets and official statistics is provided by Klasen and his colleagues themselves. Some of the goods being purchased by poor people are getting a lot cheaper (think: mobile phones), in ways that may be poorly accounted for by national income calculations. Again, poor people’s preferences change regarding what to buy, especially as some goods become cheaper. And certain assets (including education and piped water) are provided by governments—leading to more wealth, even without more income.

Whichever set of statistics you believe, many Africans are still desperately poor. They face cruel challenges from insufficient nutrition through disease, lack of opportunity, and both a grim quality and limited extent of public services, from education through health to security and justice. Nonetheless, images of an African continent based on some combination of Heart of Darkness, Blood Diamond, and Kony 2012 are increasingly off-base. Considerable evidence of growing wealth, health, and education shows that Africa is on the move.

Kenny is a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development and author of The Upside of Down: Why the Rise of the Rest is Great for the West.

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