Africa's Economic Systems Over Time

Africa’s indigenous economic systems have influenced the current economic models on the continent.

Beyond the image of mud huts and subsistence agriculture, ancient African Kingdoms had economic structures that supported economic activities, before they were overwhelmed by foreign entities. These indigenous institutions and systems served to protect the social, economic and political interests of the people.

The economic systems were characterized by self-reliance and built capacity for self-sustaining development, encouraged broad participation by the communities and consensual decision making, also known as inclusive planning. Social values, rather than formal rules and sanctions, worked to prevent conflict of interest in the socio-economic and political set up of these communities.

Niger-Sahara Medievel routes- Wikipedia
Let us explore how production was organized, goods exchanged and distributed, how the natives obtained finance, and what role the chiefs or native governments played in the economy, and what indigenous technologies were applied.

Historically, these communities and kingdoms were decentralized into chiefdoms. Chiefs operated as custodians of customary law and communal assets, especially land. They dispensed justice, resolved conflicts and enforced contracts. They also served as guardians and symbols of cultural values and practices. They created local markets, and  developed extensive trade routes between villages and kingdoms, including navigating rivers and constructing sea ports. 

The communities engaged in quite a wide variety of economic activities utilizing Africa’s robust natural resources and created an environmentally conscious marketplace that preserved culture, promoting a healthy population through high quality agriculture, food security and social protection. 

While reviewing the indigenous practices of the people of Africa, we learn that early civilization in Africa gave birth to not only passing on traditional survival skills such as the ability to produce food in deserts and scrublands, but also new and innovative ways of increasing productivity and some of these innovations include hydraulic engineering which was used to irrigate crops, iron smelting to make iron tools, and excavation of minerals such as gold, that were used as a form of currency.

Speaking of gold, Emperor Musa the first of the Mali Empire, also known as Mansa Musa, made a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324 along with thousands of his people and tens of thousands of pounds of gold, some of which he gave as charitable donations in Cairo, Medina and Mecca. Mansa Musa gave away so much gold during his famous hajj that it caused inflation and depressed gold prices in the region for years, but in doing so, he also gave visibility to Mali. It is said that his lavish spending led to Mali appearing on the map of the world in 1339.  Mansa Musa also created the city of Timbuktu, a strategic city along the trans Saharan trade routes.

King Jaja of Opobo

In what is now Nigeria, King Jaja of  Opobo was a merchant prince who showed high aptitude for business from an early age. In his prime years, the European “Scramble for Africa” took place, and his kingdom was part of the territories allocated to Great Britain.  It is said Jaja refused to accept British rule, levying duties on British traders and going so far as to shut down trade on the Imo river until one British firm agreed to pay duties.  His rule ended when he was lured into a meeting aboard a British warship, where he was arrested and taken to Accra for trial, found guilty of treaty-breaking and blocking trade, and exiled to the West Indies.

Africa’s abundant natural resources, and the indigenous markets and trade networks developed to exchange them, were among the factors that attracted colonial empires from Europe, eager to assume control of trade. As a result, the economic and political control of indigenous leaders was weakened. 

During the era of colonialism, local production was disrupted, as people feared working on the farms, going fishing or working on industrial processes for fear of being captured and taken as slaves. The economy in the region evolved, with cash crops emerging and taxation structured to serve the colonial regimes.

Communities that were destroyed by anti-colonization and anti-slavery rebellions were left with ruined economic structures including disrupted human resource capacity.  As a result, many post-independence governments inherited fractured communities and tried to create alliances by strategically appointing key tribal representatives to administrative structures. Lingering trauma caused by the slave trade also slowed the process of rebuilding these communities.
The president of the Republic of Uganda, H.E Yoweri Kaguta Museveni with the King of Buganda,Kabaka Ronald Muwenda Mutebi
Today, many African countries are still striving to create macroeconomic frameworks that support sustainable development, including inflation control, increased access to credit, fiscal decentralization, and promotion of investment and gains in productivity and marketing of agricultural produce.  They have also created regional economic integration arrangements such as the East African Community, the Southern African Development Community, the Economic Community of West African States and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa.

African leaders have been called upon to rethink current economic models in a much more comprehensive way during planning, so as to respond to critical challenges that emanate from the new economic reality of a capitalist system in a largely communal society.

NGO Forum, in its submission “Unlocking Uganda’s Development Potential”, notes that policies based on theories and models of purely self-interested “rational actors” are undermining, overwriting and displacing pre-existing norms, values, attitudes and practices among African populations.  This cultural dimension of rapid neo-liberal reforms has negatively affected the previously reciprocal and cooperative relationships and trade practices between smallholder farmers and traders in rural markets.

That said, some leaders in Africa recognize the resilience of the indigenous institutions and practices and have incorporated these structures into their modern governance structures. 

I will end with a quote by the Republic of Guinea’s Dr. Ousmane Dore, an economist with the African Development Bank:

“when policy neglects history, culture, and social context, huge amounts of effort and resources can be wasted on poorly conceived initiatives.”

Vivian Kobusingye Birchall

Some Facts About Africa

Africa’s foundational value for human interaction is “Ubuntu,” characterized by compassion, and restoration of human relations.

 Before I explain why, here are some facts about the continent of Africa:

World Meters reports that the continent of Africa has a population of almost 1.3 billion people, based on the latest United Nations estimates.  If this is broken down into sub regions, the areas and their populations are:
Eastern Africa, 434 million
Western Africa, 382 million
Northern Africa, 238 million
Central Africa, 169 million
Southern Africa, 66 million

* Africa is home to one-sixth of the total world population.
* Among regions of the world - roughly equivalent to continents - Africa is the second most populous.
 * Africa has a land area of 11.44 million square miles, and a population density of only * 113 people per square mile.
* 40.6% of the population is urban
* The median age in Africa is only 19.4

With these statistics, we can see why Africa is a force to reckon with in the global economy, but this is a conversation for another day.

So, going back to attributes that define Africa,

Even with migration within and out of the continent, Africa’s image has been influenced by crosscutting cultural practices that have been carried on by various ethnic groups. These practices include “Ubuntu,” which has historically guided the way of life of the African People in conflict resolution, business negotiations, and trade. It is through Ubuntu that communities have historically managed good relations.

Other cross-cutting practices include sharing household roles, community farming, initiation ceremonies, dances, spirituality, oral education, and crafts, to mention but a few.

Transformations within the continent of Africa have historically been influenced by the changes in the environment, soil fertility and climate. In the past, these changes influenced the community setup, including economic activities.

Pastoralism was carried out in the rift valley region of East Africa.  Agriculture was common in the interlacustrine region, better known as the Great Lakes region, in East and Central Africa. This region is gifted with many lakes, including Victoria, Albert, Kyoga, Kivu, Tanganyika, Edward, and George, which endow the region with fresh water and fertile soils.

Records show that during the great African migration over 3,000 years ago, the Bantu are believed to have migrated from the Cameroon/Nigeria Border to the east and south.  Many settled in Congo and the Great Lakes region, and intermarried with the hunters and gatherers who occupied that area.  They created structured settlements, and elaborate administrative, governance  and economic systems that made them stand out in the region.

Along with other ethnic groupings, this region was home to many kingdoms, including the kingdoms of Buganda, Bunyoro, Burundi, Busoga, Buvinza, Buyungu, Buzinza, Gisaka, Heru, Igara, Ihangiro, Karagwe, Kimwani, Kiziba, Kyamutwara, Kyania, Mpororo, Mubari, Muhambwe, Nkore, Rwanda, Ruguru, Rusubi, andToro

In future episodes, we will learn about how these kingdoms/states were disintegrated at the hands of foreign entities.

Just as a reminder, Africa is home to various ethnic groups speaking over 3,000 languages.  Uganda alone is home to people speaking more than 50 languages.

African history and culture are broad and every aspect of them enables us to understand the continent and its people at home and in the diaspora.

Vivian Birchall