A wide range of economic systems can be identified in Africa, all of which are dependent on ecological as well as on demographic, political, and cultural factors. The indigenous preindustrial economies have conventionally been classified into three main types: hunter-gatherer, pastoral, and agricultural. Few if any economies can be defined as being totally of one or another of these three types, which are remnants of long-outmoded evolutionist theories. Nonetheless, they make a useful starting point for description.
In the traditional past, most arid areas have supported various forms of hunting and gathering, as have parts of the denser forest areas of the Congo region: the Bushmen of the Kalahari and the foragers of the rain forests are the prime examples. Hunting-and-gathering societies necessarily have a low population density, but it must be remembered that none of these societies is based solely on this type of economy. They have also occasionally practiced agriculture and always some trade; they have not been isolated communities, but have been in contact with and usually exploited by their neighbors who live in more fertile areas.
Pastoralism (livestock keeping) is widespread throughout the continent. Domesticated animals include cattle (both the long-horned Mediterranean type and the Indian humped zebu cattle), sheep, goats, camels, donkeys, pigs, fowl, and the ubiquitous dogs and cats. Strict dependence on pastoralism, however, is limited to a few regions, chiefly the northern and southern Saharan fringes, the upper Nile Valley, and the East African plains and semideserts. None of these areas support peoples who depend solely on livestock. There has always been some complementary farming and, wherever possible, fishing. Complete dependence on pastoralism is found only among certain portions of the population, such as the warriors of the Maasai, and then for only limited periods of time (e.g., they subsist solely on milk and blood drawn from the cattle's necks, and they do not kill the beasts for meat). Trade in livestock includes long-distance exchanges of the animals themselves as well as of their hides and skins. The societies that are largely dependent on livestock use them also for sacrificial and other ritual purposes, and the cattle are given great symbolic and emotive value.
The benefits of pastoralism are unfortunately overlooked by African governments, members of which often despise pastoralists as "primitive." Raising livestock remains the only form of production that flourishes in semiarid lands, which are quickly eroded by farming. Pastoralists require large areas of land for grazing and transhumance (there are no "nomads" in Africa). They must therefore maintain low population density. Widespread expropriation of grazing lands for use by agriculturists, on the other hand, has led invariably to desertification, especially along the southern Saharan borderline.
The traditional economy of some 90 percent of the African populations has been one or another form of agriculture. The number of species and varieties of cultivated plants is enormous. Food plants grown in Africa today include not only those that have come from within the continent but also some that have been introduced into it at various times throughout history. Indigenous African crops have also been taken to other world regions. The principal cultivated plants that originate in Africa itself include millets and sorghums, several legumes, cotton, the oil palm, false plantains, sesame, castor, okra, gourds, tamarind, coffee, kola, and khat (Arabic: qāt). From Asia have come wheat and barley, additional legumes, onions, date palms, rice, yams, taro (cocoyams), eggplants, bananas, coconut palms, sugarcane, mangoes, flax, and various fruits and spices. From the Americas have come maize, manioc (cassava), groundnuts, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, cacao, pepper, tobacco, and still more fruits and spices.
Very few of these plants can be grown in every part of the continent. In the savanna regions, the staples are grains, including millets, sorghums, and maize; in the more densely forested regions, they are mainly root crops, such as yams, cocoyams, and sweet potatoes. In some areas, manioc, rice, plantains, and false plantains ( Ensete ) provide the staples. Groundnuts and many kinds of bean, pea, and cucurbit are almost universal. The chief oil plants include sesame, castors, and oil palm; and coconut and other palms are grown on suitable soils. Spices and condiments include peppers, coffee, cocoa, tea, tobacco, sugarcane, qāt, and kola, all widely grown wherever the climate permits. Wild plants, palms, and trees of many kinds are grown wherever possible. A certain amount of livestock keeping, hunting, and fishing is typically found as part of the total local economy.
African farming techniques are small in scale but are highly productive within the ecological limitations of the continent. The traditional technologies are, however, limited in efficiency. Seed is generally of low yield, and methods of storage, transport, and weed and pest control are simple, although everywhere as efficient as can be managed in stringent climatic conditions. In general, African soils are not capable of continual cropping, and various forms of fallowing and shifting agriculture are practiced. Manuring is widely practiced, as are various forms of irrigation wherever feasible; many elaborate irrigation-terracing works have lasted for centuries, mainly in eastern Africa. Fertility is almost everywhere enhanced by burning trees and grass while clearing fields, thus adding nitrogen as well as destroying pests. Traditionally, mixed cropping has been widespread, in an effort to control soil erosion thereby being controlled. However, with the universal growing of cash crops, many of which are grown in pure stands and cannot be fitted into the traditional mixed plantings and crop rotations, and with the widespread land shortage and subsequent lengthening of crop cycles, soil erosion has become everywhere a serious problem. The overcutting of timber for export, charcoal, and fuel has also caused widespread deforestation and soil erosion.
Many culturally determined forms of division of labor are recognized—between men and women, between old and young, and between people of different occupations and ranks. The general principle has been that men are responsible for the heavier tasks of farming and production, and also for warfare, ritual, and government; women are responsible for lighter farm work, for domestic tasks related to household maintenance and child rearing, and for giving personal and informal advice in everyday family and political matters. There are great variations in the apportionment of such work as cattle milking and care, divination, craft production, and local trade. Women are traditionally disadvantaged legally (for example, they may rarely initiate divorce). But much of the description of African gender roles has been based on non-African viewpoints and requires more ethnographic research and understanding. With modern changes in everyday life, these traditionally complementary roles are frequently being redefined and resanctioned. In many areas, labor has always been scarce, and traditional forms of slavery, peonage, and other forms of nonpaid labor have been imposed. Nonpaid labor has been an essential aspect of most of the elaborate and powerful kingdoms, the rulers of which have been able to command a large labor supply for both productive and military purposes. Until the late twentieth century, wage labor seems to have been unknown.
Until about the mid-twentieth century, production had been largely for subsistence, with little surplus. Exchange of kin and gifts has been practiced. Exchange by redistribution of foodstuffs and other items was also widespread, in the forms of tribute to local rulers and in the latters' reciprocal hospitality and protection. The items that were given to rulers included both subsistence items and also those with symbolic value (such as elephant tusks and eagle feathers, both of which symbolize royal power), as well as labor and military service. Local exchange by barter has been almost universal, owing largely to lack of traditional forms of money, except in places—mainly in coastal areas—where there had been early trade with Europeans and Asians.
Where there was exchange by money, it was of various kinds. The most typical involved forms of money that were of limited use and rather than being intended for universal exchange, such as metal bars called "manillas." Markets are found in most areas of the continent, and are typically held periodically. In most of them, even today, some items are exchanged without money. Long-distance trade has always been far more widespread than was reported by early European travelers. Items traded have been animal products, such as ivory, hides, and skins; slaves; salt; gold, copper, and iron; and craft goods of many kinds. Most of the long-distance trade routes were ultimately linked to the extra-African ocean trade at ports along the coasts.
The present economy of Africa is one of rapid change and considerable variation in types of production and distribution. The continent is, to a greater extent than ever before, part of a single world economy, but its role in that economy remains essentially that of a region that is being exploited. Since the late nineteenth century, in particular, the impact of colonial rule by European powers has greatly affected the traditional economies, in addition to the consequences of several centuries of slave trading by European and Asian slavers. Whereas previously the exploitation of metals had been in most areas a marginal form of production, the extraction of gold, copper, bauxite, and diamonds has become paramount. Other factors that have deeply marked twentieth-century African life include the establishment of large-scale plantation enterprises (for such products as cocoa, coffee, tea, palm oil, cotton, hemp, rubber, and sugar); the introduction of modern consumer goods and the establishment of forms of taxation by cash that can be obtained only by ever-increasing labor migration from poorer regions to magnet areas; the increasing inequality between the elite and the poor; the growth of industrial centers and the construction of long-distance road and rail transport facilities; the introduction of widely available forms of money and the lessening of interpersonal forms of exchange; and the appearance of more populous urban centers, that attract impoverished proletariats. The pace of these changes has been more and more rapid: greater and deeper changes have occurred in the years since World War II than had occurred throughout the nineteenth century.