The Kanuri are sedentary hoe agriculturists, although almost all of the men practice some other occupation as well. The economy is complex, with commerce, transportation, and construction constituting the other main elements of the private business sector. Government and public-service jobs provide another major source of employment today; manufacturing and industry are still relatively unimportant.
Millet is the staple food crop, supplemented by guinea corn (sorghum). Groundnuts (peanuts) are grown for sale. Hunting is of minor significance, but fish are an important resource to villages along the shores of Lake Chad and the Yobe River. Horses are symbols of prestige. Most households use donkeys as draft animals. Sheep and goats are commonly kept. For beef, most Kanuri rely on the pastoral Shuwa and Fulbe (Fulani, Peul) cattle herders, with whom they exchange grain and craft work for the beef they need. In a few areas, the Kanuri keep large herds of cattle.
The Kanuri diet consists of large quantities of millet, served either as porridge or as dumplings. A vegetable soup, also containing meat, groundnut oil, salt, and other condiments —especially red peppers—is poured over the millet. The diet is universal, but the soup contents vary according to socioeconomic class. Cooked foods are sold in the markets, and a wide range of canned foods are available to city dwellers. Goats and sheep are slaughtered for religious ceremonies. Islamic food taboos are observed.