Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The basis of the economy is farming, with the main food crops being yams, cassava, plantains, and cocoyams, as well as beans, rice, okra, peppers, and gourds. Oil palms are cultivated for wine production and kola trees for nuts for hospitality rites. Farming is not an exclusively rural occupation, as many city dwellers own farms on the outskirts of the capital and commute regularly to work on them. Domestic animals include cattle, goats, sheep, dogs, and chickens. Most villages have markets, and there are also several large regional markets supplying Benin City and the other towns. In the precolonial period trade was in foodstuffs and locally manufactured products, but in the colonial period cash crops were introduced; by World War I Benin had begun to prosper from the commercial growing of timber and rubber trees. Whereas shifting cultivation used to prevail, with the introduction of cash crops it has begun to disappear in favor of crop rotation. Today all farmers grow food crops for their own consumption as well as cash crops. Rubber processing and the preparation of tropical hardwoods are major industries in the state. As Makinwa notes (1981, 31), Benin City's unique position as the state capital, coupled with the discovery of oil and a tremendous increase in its production in the late 1960s and early 1970s, drew financial resources and industries to Benin.
The urban economy is dominated by government in the formal sector and trade in the informal one. Because Benin is the capital of Edo State, the government and its agencies are the main employers for the wage-earning portion of the population. At least half of the urban work force is in clerical and, especially, sales-and-service professions. Men are typically involved in tailoring, carpentry, or electrical and mechanical repairs, and women tend to be hairdressers, dressmakers, and petty traders. Women dominate in the street and local markets in the city. Youth unemployment has become a growing problem as the influx of migrants from the villages and other parts of Nigeria steadily increases.
Industrial Arts. According to oral traditions, craft guilds have existed since the ogiso period. Members of these guilds (carpenters, carvers, brass casters, leatherworkers, blacksmiths, and weavers) live in special wards of Benin City and produce ritual, prestige, and household objects for the king and court. In the villages, there were also smiths, carvers, potters, weavers, and basket makers who created ritual paraphernalia like masks, cloth, and utensils. In the twentieth century local production of cloth, baskets, and other useful items has almost died out because of competition with European products. The changing social and economic situation has adversely affected the patronage of many of the traditional crafts, although some guild members, especially the carvers and casters, have made a successful transition to production for tourists and the Nigerian elite.
Trade. Archaeologists have uncovered evidence of long-distance trade from at least the twelfth century, but the best documentation commences with the arrival of the Portuguese in the second half of the fifteenth century and spans from that time until the present. Throughout the history of European trade, one of the sources of the king's wealth was the monopoly that he held over ivory, pepper, and certain other exports. His control extended to the markets and trade routes, which he could close whenever he wished. High-ranking chiefs of the Iwebo Palace Society administered European trade for the king, and various trading associations controlled the routes to the interior that brought products to Benin for export. These exports varied over time but also included cloth, palm oil, and slaves. In exchange, Benin imported European goods such as cloth, mirrors, coral beads, and brass and other metal objects. Since the colonial period, Benin has been tied in to the Western capitalist system.
Division of Labor. In precolonial and colonial villages, adult men tended the principal crop, yams, clearing and working the land together with male relatives, affines, or friends. Women cared for their households and grew subsidiary crops. Marketing, at least in precolonial times, was entirely in the hands of women. Within the city, the labor was divided in a similar way, that is, male guild members did the craft or ritual work, and women sold some of the products of the guild in the market. Since the colonial period, men and, to a lesser extent, women have been involved in the administrative and economic sectors of what became a regional capital.
Land Tenure. The king is considered "the owner" of all the land in the kingdom. Although this prerogative has mainly symbolic significance, the king could actually revoke rights to land in cases of insurrection or treason. Today he plays a role in the allocation of building sites in Benin City and the use of land and resources by strangers in the Edo region. The actual landholding unit is the village; its elders act as the custodians. Approval must be sought from the elders and chief for the right to use certain plots. Land is abundant, and new settlements are still being founded in the reserves of wooded land. Patterns of land use are changing, however, and, especially in the city, individual purchase is increasingly common.