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Since prehistoric times, the majority of Africans have been farmers and herders who raised crops and livestock for subsistence. In precolonial times, a few African states developed long-distance trade networks based on the exchange of raw materials and some specialized local goods. Starting in the 15th century, European colonization of Africa brought overseas demand for certain agricultural and mineral products. The colonizers built new transportation networks and introduced technological innovations and new crops. At the same time, they exported millions of able-bodied Africans as slaves, exploited African labor within the continent, and undermined local industries, crafts, trade networks, and governments. By the mid-20th century, European colonies in Africa had established one-way trade systems in which Africa’s wealth of raw materials were exported to enrich foreign coffers, with little regard for development within Africa.
As decolonization began in the late 1950s, the African economy was divided into two distinct sectors. Most of the population took part in the traditional rural sector, which featured subsistence production of food and simple manufactured products. The remainder was involved in a relatively modern sector, based in cities and mining and plantation centers. There, Africans worked for wages, producing mineral or agricultural raw materials for export to industrialized countries. Although people in most rural communities earned some money from seasonal work in the cities and modern industrial centers, the two sectors were largely separate.
In subsequent decades, African governments pursued various economic development initiatives in an attempt to improve the living standards of their people. In many countries, these efforts led to the growth of manufacturing of consumer goods and other products. Services—in education, health care, civil services, and other areas—also grew in economic importance.
Development efforts led to a greater degree of interaction and movement of people and money between the modern and subsistence sectors of the African economy. Yet, by the early 21st century, the sectors were still far from integrated. Most of the population still pursued traditional subsistence activities, which continued to provide sustenance for the majority of Africans. At the same time, despite increasing levels of industrialization in many countries, Africa’s raw materials continued to be produced primarily for export.
Mehretu, Afessa, B.A.Ph.D.
Professor of Geograhpy, Michigan State Univercity. Author of "Regional Disparty in Sub-Saharan Africa: Structural Readjustment of Uneven Development" and other publications.