African countries vary considerably in size, levels of economic development, rates of economic growth, economic development policies, and amounts of international trade. This variation is a result of unequal distribution of natural resources, variation in political and economic systems, colonialism, and various other historical factors in countries across the continent. South Africa has Africa’s largest economy, followed by Egypt, Algeria, Nigeria, and Morocco.
Agriculture has long been the mainstay of Africa's economy, subsistence farming being the prevailing type. It was not until the colonial period that commercial farming and mining were introduced. Under European control, Africa became a source of agricultural and mineral raw materials. In many parts of Africa, colonialism led to economic development that generally advanced European objectives, which were not necessarily suited to the needs of Africa itself.
Some diversification came with the decline of colonialism in the 20th century. Nevertheless, many countries remain dependent on the export of one or two commodities; for example, Ghana on cacao, Zambia on copper, and Gambia on peanuts. The economies of such countries are strongly affected by fluctuations in the prices of their products in the world market.
Throughout much of the continent, numerous factors hinder economic development. Among them are the pervasiveness of subsistence farming and accompanying poverty, lack of capital to invest, a shortage of skilled workers and managers, poorly developed transportation systems, and, in some areas, political instability.
Though predominantly agricultural, Africa, in comparison to its large size, has little productive farmland. Much of the land consists of deserts, steppes, and rain forests, where unfavorable climate, poor soil, or dense vegetation make cultivation difficult or impossible. Where farming is practiced, much of the land, over time, has become less productive or badly eroded through overuse and poor farming methods. In some areas, the introduction of modern methods and equipment has increased production; however, much of this improvement has been in the growing of commercial crops for export, rather than food crops. Throughout Africa, population growth has outstripped increases in output. As a result, most Africans have barely enough food to sustain themselves and many suffer from severe malnutrition.
Most farmers work small plots of land. They use primitive tools, little fertilizer, and almost no animal power. Crop yields are low and quality is generally poor. Cassava, sweet potatoes, yams, rice, wheat and plantains are among staple food crops. Cash crops include peanuts, cacao, palm nuts, cotton, tea, coffee, and sisal. Some of these crops are also produced on African- and foreign-owned plantations. Many Africans practice a shifting type of agriculture. One plot of land is used until its fertility is exhausted; then the process is repeated on another.
Farming in northern Africa is slightly more advanced than in sub-Saharan Africa, mainly because of European and Arabic influences. Especially in Morocco, Algeria, and Egypt, there is a greater use of machinery, animal power, and tools. Wheat and barley, citrus fruits, grapes, olives, and many kinds of vegetables are grown in much of this region. In some areas irrigation is important—the classic example is the Nile Valley, where cotton and grains are predominant crops.
In parts of southern and eastern Africa, especially South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Kenya, are Africa's most productive farms. Using modern methods and machinery, some farmers produce a great variety of crops, both for local markets and for export. However, even in these countries subsistence farming is the main type.
Livestock is raised in every African country; however, this activity is not prevalent in equatorial regions, partly due to the presence of disease-bearing insects such as the tsetse fly. For the continent as a whole, there are large, and nearly equal, numbers of sheep, cattle, and goats, but few pigs and horses.
Livestock raising varies from nomadic herding on steppes and deserts to commercial ranching on grasslands in southern and eastern Africa. In some savannas, herding is combined with cultivation. Livestock production varies greatly from country to country. Where commercial ranching predominates, large amounts of meat, dairy products, wool, and hides are produced. Among the peoples for whom herding is a major activity, livestock is often considered a measure of wealth and is not used commercially.
The discovery of diamonds in southern Africa in the late 19th century signaled Africa's rise as a major mineral producer. The continent supplies about half of the world's diamonds as well as large quantities of gold, copper, chromite, cobalt, manganese, antimony, phosphate rock, asbestos, and platinum. Bauxite, tin, iron ore, uranium, tungsten, lead, zinc, silver, vanadium, and coal are also mined.
In most African countries, the utilization of mineral resources has proceeded more rapidly than has any other economic activity. But mining on a large scale requires complex machinery, skilled technicians, and heavy financial investment, and few countries can afford to exploit their resources fully. The bulk of Africa's minerals, excluding fuels, is produced by four countries—South Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zimbabwe, and Zambia. From these countries come diamonds, gold, copper, cobalt, and a variety of other minerals.
Other countries that are major world producers of certain minerals include Botswana and Namibia (diamonds), Morocco (phosphate rock), Ghana (gold), Niger (uranium), and Guinea (bauxite). Nigeria, Libya, and Algeria are major producers of petroleum.
Besides its direct benefits, mining has had important secondary effects. It has introduced wage labor; encouraged road and railway building; and stimulated the development of processing industries and hydroelectric power.
Industrially, Africa is the least developed of all the continents except uninhabited Antarctica. This situation is slowly changing, however, as many countries obtain financial and technical aid and establish industries. In some areas, development of hydroelectric power has been one of the chief steps toward industrialization. Among the principal power projects are the Cabora Bassa Dam in Mozambique, the Inga Dam in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Aswan High Dam in Egypt, the Akosombo Dam in Ghana, and the Kariba Dam in Zimbabwe.
Except in areas where there is heavy foreign investment, African industry is characterized by small workshops that produce relatively simple products. However, such industries as the processing of foods and beverages, minerals and the making of textiles are developing in many parts of the continent. Traditional handicrafts such as leather-working and weaving have long been major activities in northern Africa, and their importance is slowly growing elsewhere. The growth of urban areas has stimulated production of cement, bricks, and other construction materials.
South Africa is the only African country in which manufacturing is highly developed. Here a wide variety of goods—from processed foods to complex industrial machinery—are produced. Several other countries are in an intermediate stage of development, producing light industrial products mainly for consumer markets. These include Morocco, Algeria, and Egypt in the north; Nigeria in western Africa; and the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zimbabwe in central Africa.
Africa's potential fish catch is enormous; however, most nations lack modern fleets and equipment, and the overall catch is small. Traditional fishing methods predominate in most parts of the continent. South Africa, Morocco, Ghana, and Tanzania land the largest catches by tonnage.
Modern transport is poorly developed throughout most of the continent. In tropical regions, large amounts of goods are still moved by porters, canoes, and small barges. Camels and other pack animals are used in the north.
The continent has few railways. Most of them link coastal areas and ports with inland sources of mineral and agricultural raw materials; few extend far inland. Only in southern Africa are there sizable interconnecting networks. By far the most developed system is in South Africa. Railways that serve the copper-producing districts of south-central Africa provide the only transcontinental route.
Roads are far more extensive than railroads but of less use. The greater part of them are dirt trails, and even the better roads are often unusable during the rainy months. Paved all-weather roads are located almost entirely in and around large cities.
Water routes have long been used. River transport is of local importance, but in many areas is hampered by rapids. Along the coasts, goods and passengers are often transported in small vessels, such as the dhows (Arab sailing boats) of the eastern coast. There are few good natural harbors; nevertheless, numerous ports have developed along parts of the coast. With few exceptions, the principal ports lie along the Mediterranean Sea, the Gulf of Guinea, and the coasts of South Africa and Mozambique. The Suez Canal carries international traffic between the Mediterranean and Red seas.
Almost every nation has at least one domestic airline, but many of these lines are too small to operate efficiently. Most of the principal cities are served by major international carriers.
Africa ’s communication system, despite some rapid expansion in the late 20th century, is still quite underdeveloped compared to other non-African countries. The number of newspapers published in Africa has increased significantly since the 20th century, though the radio is still the most popular form of mass communication. The number of public, private, and community radio stations has also grown dramatically. Television access is concentrated in urban areas and remains unavailable in most rural regions. Motion-picture theaters are found only in cities, and few African countries have even small motion-picture industries.
Telephone service throughout Africa has improved greatly since the early 20th century, though telephone ownership remains largely concentrated in major urban centers. However, cellular telephones are increasingly common in smaller towns and villages. In the early 21st century, Africa saw the fastest growth in the cellular telephone market in the world. Computer and Internet use has also grown. However, Africa still lags behind other regions in the development of this technology. Computer and Internet access and usage is concentrated in South Africa and urban areas of western and northern Africa.
The countries of Africa usually account for about 5 per cent of the world's imports and exports. The Republic of South Africa and the countries of North Africa account for about 25 per cent of the continent's total trade. The most important trading nation of sub-Saharan Africa, after South Africa, is Nigeria. Economic cooperation among African countries is fostered by several international organizations, including the Economic Community of West African States and the Customs and Economic Union of Central Africa.
African oil-producing countries also belong to the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), a group of nations that seeks to regulate the world market for oil.
Africa’s leading merchandise exporters are Algeria, Angola, Nigeria, and South Africa. Petroleum ranks as Africa ’s major merchandise export, followed closely by agricultural products, minerals, and manufactured products.
Africa’s merchandise imports have also grown since the late 20th century, though only three countries— Egypt, Nigeria, and South Africa —collectively account for about one-third of Africa ’s total imports. Food imports are increasingly important as agricultural output has failed to keep up with population growth in many countries. Other key imports include fuel and manufactured goods.
Foreign aid to Africa includes grants, loans, and technical assistance in such areas as agriculture, education, and health care. The grants and loans come from a variety of international sources and are usually referred to as official development assistance (ODA). This aid is important for many African countries as they attempt to face their economic difficulties due in part to declining terms of trade
Foreign aid has helped African countries to promote economic and social development. But it has also had some harmful effects, as the loans have left many African countries with large debt and crippling interest payments. The bulk of Africa’s debt is held by the larger countries, including Algeria, Egypt, Nigeria, and South Africa. But in smaller, poorer African countries, the debt load has the most severe impact. These countries must reduce investment in education, health care, and other economic development to repay debt.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, international lending institutions, led by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, imposed strict conditions on African debtor nations. For example, they required borrowing countries to devalue (lower the value of) their currencies to promote exports and to reduce their budget deficits by cutting government funding of health care and education. Many experts believe that these strict conditions, called structural adjustment programs (SAP’s), hurt a number of African economies. Today, lenders have relaxed the policy of SAP’s, with the hope that African countries will return to economic growth.