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date: 24 June 2017

Africa in the Global Economy

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of African History. Please check back later for the full article.

Tropical Africa has been in communication with the global economy since at least the last centuries bce, either through land travel across the Sahara to the Mediterranean or navigation along the Indian Ocean coast. Despite recent archaeological research, not too much is known about this earliest trade. Only after Islam was firmly established in North Africa and the Indian Ocean do we have evidence of significant trade (slaves, gold, and ivory) and cultural exchange across these frontiers. Entrepot cities now flourished in both the West and Central Sudan and the Swahili coast, where either camel caravans or large dhow vessels received export goods from indigenous Muslim merchants. During the 15th century, European navigators opened up the Atlantic coast of Africa as well as a direct water route to the Indian Ocean. For the next five hundred years, Europeans dominated Africa’s global connections, initially seeking gold, then slaves for New World plantations, and later large quantities of less costly commodities such as vegetable oils, cocoa, coffee, and cotton. Initially, Africa’s trans-Saharan and Indian Ocean commerce continued to operate under the control of Muslim rulers and merchants and even grew in volume, although declining in global significance. By the early 20th century, European powers had established colonial regimes in almost all of tropical Africa, providing new infrastructures of political administration and mechanized transport (mainly railroads) that overcame the geographical barriers impeding commerce between the coasts and the continent’s interiors. However, limited capital and the spatial orientation of colonial transport undermined the dynamism of such advances. In the last stages of colonialism (c. 1945–1960) and the first decades of political independence, greater investments were made in both infrastructure and industrialization, but with poor outcomes from the 1980s, resulting in the global imposition of “structural adjustment” policies upon African states. During the early 21st century, African economies experienced miraculous growth linked to a major new relationship with China.