The Next Asia Is Africa: Inside the Continent's Rapid Economic Growth

As African economies grow, its societies are changing as well.

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Zambians gather to welcome home the national soccer team in Lusaka. (AP)

LUSAKA, Zambia -- The teenagers started arriving at the Arcades outdoor shopping center here just as the sun began to set. They took over the parking lot first, then the sidewalks. Within half an hour, the strutting and preening groups occupied just about every available pedestrian space.

Joshua Banda, a 15-year-old who wore green Converse All Stars with matching laces, sat with two friends at the edge of a gurgling fountain, surveying the crowds of girls. He proclaimed himself a fan of Lil Wayne and then told me he wants to be a lawyer.

Joshua's parents moved to a Lusaka shanty when he was small. His father is a watchman, his mother cleans offices. Seeing Joshua's education as the best guarantor of their own future, they saved from their measly earnings to pay for school for him and an older brother. Joshua has learned a bit about sacrifice as well, though of a different sort. Since he can't afford a cell phone on his own -- and since, in Lusaka, teenagers are nobodies without cell phones -- he shares one with his best friend.

The new mall culture in Zambia's capital, which I've watched expand almost exponentially in visits over the last three years, is booming all over Africa, in places like Accra and Dakar, Windhoek and Gaborone, Nairobi and Maputo. Driving it are young people like Joshua and his friends, a generation that is growing up like none that preceded it: a bulging new cohort of young people with disposable income, however modest, a keen and up-to-the-minute sense of youth trends and of consumerism around the world, and, most importantly, the expectation that life that will continue to get better and richer and fuller of choices.

Africa, with a population expected to roughly double by mid-century, has become recognized as the world's fastest growing continent. But the less-told story is of Africa's economic rise. In the last decade Africa's overall growth rates have quietly approached those of Asia, and according to projections by the IMF, on average Africa will have the world's fastest growing economy of any continent over the next five years.

Seven of the world's 10 fastest-growing economies are African. The continent is famously resource rich, which has surely helped, but some recent studies suggest that the biggest drivers are far less customary for Africa, and far more encouraging for its future: wholesale and retail commerce, transportation, telecommunications, and manufacturing.

A recent report by the African Development Bank projected that, by 2030, much of Africa will attain lower-middle- and middle-class majorities, and that consumer spending will explode from $680 billion in 2008 to $2.2 trillion. According to McKinsey and Co., Africa already has more middle class consumers than India, which has a larger population. Goldman Sachs recently put out a report, "Africa's Turn," making similar points.

American media have largely failed to pick up on these trends, hewing instead to their long-running traditional narratives of African violence and suffering to the exclusion of most other news. Corporate America, though, is proving itself increasingly attentive to Africa as a big new growth story. Big companies, from retail to technology, are approaching Africa as a promising new growth frontier. Many are already investing heavily there.

In March, a South African court approved Walmart's $2.4 billion takeover of Massmart, one of that country's largest retailers. IBM has opened offices in more than 20 African countries. In 2009, AES, one of America's biggest private suppliers of electricity, became majority owner and operator of the national grid in Cameroon. In Ghana, a large American data processing company called ACS now employs over 1,800 people. And around the continent, Google is investing in web infrastructure and is launching search pages in a growing number of African languages.

The African Development Bank report defines lower-middle-class as those with a daily per capita expenditure of $2 to $20 in 2005 dollars, a threshold so low that skeptics worry it may have created some possibly premature exuberance about the continent's improving fortunes. But the report's authors point out that the definition includes other variables such as education, aspirations, and lifestyle. Throughout sub-Saharan Africa, investment in education has risen sharply over the last decade. Enrollment in secondary schools jumped 48 percent between 2000 and 2008, according to the United Nations, and higher education rates grew by 80 percent.

Isaac Nilongo, a 17-year-old in a plaid shirt with yellow highlights, had come to Arcades with his friends to see a movie at the five-screen multiplex, which that weekend was showing Transformers and Captain America. The high school junior hopes to become a pilot. He likes coming to the mall, he told me, because "it just feels good when you come out and see a lot of people just like you."

When I asked him how he sees Zambia in the future, he paused to survey the lively mall scene around us. "It will definitely be different," he said. "There will be lots more shops, and lots more goods. Sort of like this, but much better."