Africa’s economic history went through various stages, beginning with Stone Age hunter-gatherers, through the Iron Age and the development of agriculture, to sedentary communities with growing and varied economies, bigger and more sophisticated political states, and growing trade activities. Between the 7th and 19th centuries, several large states emerged in the Sahel and in eastern and southern Africa. Key to their rise and prosperity was a growing population and agriculture as well as expanding trade, either through the trans-Saharan trade to the Mediterranean or across the Indian Ocean to Asia and the Arabian Peninsula. Africa’s fortunes dipped with the onset of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, which ravaged the continent and led to Africa losing millions of people to the New World. Following the abolition of slavery in the 19th century, Europe partitioned and colonized the continent and presided over varied economic regimes. These were settler colonies, peasant-agricultural colonies, and concession company colonies. Of the three, settler colonies developed most, although at the expense of the African majority. Independence came after the Second World War and Africa entered its postcolonial phase. After a promising start in the decade of the 1960s, African economies went into decline in the 1970s, necessitating governments to borrow from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in order to revamp their economies. The structural adjustment programs they were required to implement as a condition for the loans proved to be deleterious to African economies. African economic history scholars have generally shied away from the continent’s very early periods, preferring to focus on the period after the 15th century which has more documented history. They have used three analytical approaches: classical economics, dependency theory, and Marxist paradigms. Each of the three approaches has some shortcomings. Recently, the New African Economic History approach is using cliometric techniques to study Africa’s economic past. More economics than conventional economic history, it has attracted some from more history-based scholars as ahistorical.
In the open marketplaces found in cities and villages throughout Africa, women traders usually predominate. This gives women considerable weight as economic actors, because these marketplace systems are the primary distributive networks in most parts of Africa. A large proportion of Africa’s consumer goods and foodstuffs move through their intricate chains of intermediaries, which can include market retailers, neighborhood shops, street vendors, wholesalers, and travelers who collect goods from farms, factories, and ports. Although the vast majority of women traders live at or below the poverty line, some have risen to powerful positions that earn them the sobriquet of queen.
Different regions of Africa show distinctive patterns of trading practices and of men and women’s participation in specific trading roles, reflecting specific gendered histories of precolonial trade, colonial interventions, and waves of national policy. These variations arise not from some primordial isolation, but from traders’ varied positioning within longstanding trade relations that have linked Africans since ancient times between regions, across the Sahara Desert and over adjoining oceans. Women’s trading roles are more highly developed in western Africa than in eastern, northern, and southern Africa, where precolonial trading patterns were more radically disrupted by conquest, land appropriation, and apartheid.
Ideologies and arenas of practice such as Islam, Christianity, modernization, socialism, structural adjustment, and globalization likewise shape the constraints and opportunities facing women traders in any given situation. Because these influences operate around the globe, though not uniformly, they to some extent create parallel or convergent trends in widely separated nations. Deepening economic pressures today push even more women and men into trading to support their families and sustain the hope of prosperity. Market women struggle individually and collectively to keep their communities going under difficult circumstances that make formal economic channels function poorly. Their determined efforts give African economies more resilience as they respond to the challenges of war, political instability, and climate change.
Dmitri van den Bersselaar
Business records are documents routinely produced by employees and management of commercial businesses. They may be part of internal processes or produced to communicate with stakeholders or to meet legal requirements. They usually include a mix of qualitative (reports and correspondence) and quantitative (detailed accounting data) material. Depending on how complete the material is, documents may relate to: strategic management; accounting and financial data; operational matters; legal issues; trademarks; marketing; personnel files; and labor and welfare issues. Business records add a different dimension compared to information from government and colonial office sources by providing a private sector perspective on key episodes of colonial and postcolonial history, including strikes and protests, the relationship between the (colonial) state and business, and decolonization. Historians have used business records as sources for histories of business and trade in Africa, for studies on industrialization and development, and also to inform studies on colonialism and political history, as well as economic, social, and labor history. Business records may be kept in company archives, where they are not always easy to identify or access, kept in public repositories, or privately held. Many business archives have been weeded, whereby documentation relating to special activities, challenges, and crises has been retained, while routine documentation of interest to economic and social historians has been destroyed. Other collections appear to have disappeared altogether when companies went out of business or were taken over by others.
Chris S. Duvall
Cannabis and tobacco have longstanding roles in African societies. Despite botanical and pharmacological dissimilarities, it is worthwhile to consider tobacco and cannabis together because they have been for centuries the most commonly and widely smoked drug plants. Cannabis, the source of marijuana and hashish, was introduced to eastern Africa from southern Asia, and dispersed widely within Africa mostly after 1500. In sub-Saharan Africa, cannabis was taken into ethnobotanies that included pipe smoking, a practice invented in Africa; in Asia, it had been consumed orally. Smoking significantly changes the drug pharmacologically, and the African innovation of smoking cannabis initiated the now-global practice. Africans developed diverse cultures of cannabis use, including Central African practices that circulated widely in the Atlantic world via slave trading. Tobacco was introduced to Africa from the Americas in the late 1500s. It gained rapid, widespread popularity, and Africans developed distinctive modes of tobacco production and use. Primary sources on these plants are predominantly from European observers, which limits historical knowledge because Europeans strongly favored tobacco and were mostly ignorant or disdainful of African cannabis uses. Both plants have for centuries been important subsistence crops. Tobacco was traded across the continent beginning in the 1600s; cannabis was less valuable but widely exchanged by the same century, and probably earlier. Both plants became cash crops under colonial regimes. Tobacco helped sustain mercantilist and slave-trade economies, became a focus of colonial and postcolonial economic development efforts, and remains economically important. Cannabis was outlawed across most of the continent by 1920. Africans resisted its prohibition, and cannabis production remains economically significant despite its continued illegality.
The West African savannas are a major area of independent plant domestication, with pearl millet, African rice, fonio, several legumes, and vegetable crops originating there. For understanding the origins of West African plant-food-producing traditions, it is useful to have a look at their precursors in the Sahara during the “African humid period” between 10,500 and 4,500 years ago. The Early and Middle Holocene Saharan foragers and pastoralists intensively used wild grasses for food but did not intentionally cultivate. Due to increasing aridity in the late 3rd millennium
Promoted by necessity, scarcity, and/or abundance, trade is one of the most essential cultural behaviors that promoted contact and exchange of ideas, commodities, and services between individuals and communities and variously transformed African societies of different regions and time periods. Anthropological, historical (including historical linguistics), and archaeological evidence points to the existence, on the one hand, of intra-African trade and, on the other, of external trade between Africa and those outside the continent. Traditionally, however, trade and exchange involving perishable and organic commodities such as grain and cattle have until now been very difficult to identify due to a lack of well-resolved documentation techniques. By comparison, that some objects such as metal artifacts, glass beads, ceramics, and porcelain are pyrotechnological products, with a high survival rate that makes their trade and exchange easily visible archaeologically. Given the well-known regional differences across the continent, it is essential to combine multiple sources and techniques, in a multipronged way, to provide a dynamic picture of the mechanics of precolonial African trade and exchange of various time periods and geographies.
Freda Nkirote M'Mbogori
The inception of agriculture in eastern Africa is a major topic of discussion among Africanist archaeologists, although very sparse evidence exists. Questions range from whether domestication was a local invention or whether it was introduced from the Near East, Asia, or elsewhere outside of Africa. These questions have remained unanswered because wild progenitors and models of the spread of African domesticates are yet to be established using undisputable data. The paucity of direct data has therefore necessitated the use of objects of material culture such as pottery, beads, burial cairns, architectural structures, and so on as indicators of pastoralism and cereal farming. In addition to the origins of African domesticates, research in eastern Africa has concerned itself with questions of farming technologies from later archaeological and historical times to the present. The remains of elaborate farming systems with extensive irrigation networks have drawn considerable attention. Though not unchanged, some of these farming systems remain in contemporary use in Kenya, Tanzania, and Ethiopia.
Richard T. Chia and A. Catherine D'Andrea
Recent narratives on the origin of food production in the West African forest zone have replaced earlier diffusion-based models with viewpoints that emphasize the diversity of sources for plants and animals exploited and domesticated in the region. Management of indigenous tree species, including oil palm and incense tree, managed first by indigenous foragers, have the longest history in the area, dating back to over 8,400 before present (
Natural and human histories intersect in Africa’s forested regions. Forests of several types cover the continent’s mountains, savannas, and river basins. Most current classifications divide forest by physical structure. Open canopy forests occur in semi-arid regions of western, eastern, and southern Africa, while closed canopy rain forests with large emergent trees cover much of the Congo River basin, the upland forests of Rift Valley escarpments, and the volcanic mountains in eastern and Central Africa. Along the tropical coasts, mangrove forests hug the river estuaries. For much of human history, Africa’s forests have anchored foraging and agrarian societies. In the process of domesticating the landscape through agriculture, Africans modified forests in ways that ranged from large-scale deforestation to forest creation on savanna environments. A boom in forest commodities preceded European colonialism and then continued when foreign governments took formal possession of African territory in the late 19th century. In this context, states ascribed value to forest trees as commodities and so managed them as profitable agricultural crops. Colonial forestry separated people from forests physically and culturally. This fundamental shift in human–forest relations still resonates in postcolonial African countries under the guise of internationally funded forest conservation.
James C. McCann
Ethiopia’s highlands and their lowland peripheries offer a distinctive and, in many ways, ideal setting for human habitation and the evolution of agricultural ecologies. The ranges in climate variability by season and over time framed a sophisticated set of crops, agricultural practices, and local political ecologies. Chief among these was the development and use of the single-tine ox-plow (i.e., the ard or scratch plow) that integrated endemic annual crops with secondary crop introductions and, in some areas, cultivated or intercropped with perennial crops such as ensete and coffee. Animal husbandry to sustain animal traction and pastoral livelihoods in regional ecologies was essential, over time, to regional economies and their political ecologies.
Agricultural patterns existed at the heart of cultural diversities and periods of political conflict and accommodations. In some areas of the south (Sidamo), southeast (Harar highlands), and southwest (Jimma), coffee cultivation complemented annual grain cropping. Yet the plow in its current form as a dominant tool appears in rock painting dating as far back as 500
While Ethiopia’s plow agriculture dominated the region’s political ecology over more than two millennia, in the late 20th century Ethiopia’s agrarian economy began an inexorable set of changes. New crops (such as maize), urbanization, and global migration of peoples and commodities (oil seeds, fibers, and grains) brought new seeds, inputs, and pressures to adapt to change, particularly for smallholder farmers and new enterprises. Heavy investments in dams and irrigated agriculture also foretell new agricultural landscapes of riverain areas that will need to coexist with the classic highland smallholder farms. The story of maize in Ethiopia’s agricultural history is emblematic of the struggle between pressures for change and the inertia of tradition felt by farmers. Their agrarian adaptation to new methods, new materials, and a new climate will play itself out in existing geographies and natural contours.