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Despite economic development efforts, the traditional subsistence sector is a constant in the African economy. In general, the majority of African people farm, herd livestock, fish, make handcrafted products, and trade their goods much as they have for hundreds of years.
Farming is by far the most important subsistence activity, and it dominates rural production in the tropical forest and tropical savanna zones of West, Central, and southern Africa. Traditional agriculture is basic and at best yields enough food and income for the household to survive. The average rural household has no access to scientifically improved seeds, farm machinery, or sophisticated methods of farm management. On most African farms, the soil must be worked with hand tools or small, animal-drawn plows. Use of artificial fertilizers is almost nonexistent. Insects and vermin are constant threats, sometimes eating away more than half of the crops. Farmers raise crops primarily to supply food for the family. However, there may be small surpluses, and these are sold to purchase other foods and essential goods.
Cottage industry employs close to one-third of the rural labor force, not counting the many farmers who also engage in this activity on the side. It is largely responsible for the local supply of clothing, footwear, farm implements, and construction materials, as well as for processed foods. This sector also produces crafts, cloth, jewelry, and decorative artifacts to sell to tourists in urban areas and at tourist attractions.
Small-scale commerce, taking place in small, often periodic, markets, is vital to people's sustenance in Africa's rural areas. At these markets, rural Africans sell crop surpluses and cottage industry products to traders who, in return, sell them goods such as spices, condiments, kerosene (for domestic lighting), soap, matches, batteries, clothing, and spare parts for bicycles and carts. The small-scale traders then sell the crops and manufactured products to larger-scale traders. These small-scale traders have played a crucial role in bringing the subsistence sector into the larger economy by buying farm products and making consumer goods available to the rural producer.
Migratory herding, based on extensive and frequent movement of livestock, declined in importance over most of Africa in the second half of the 20th century. The area required for migratory herding has been greatly reduced as pasturelands have been taken over for agriculture—particularly modern plantations—and wildlife reserves. Fishing is a minor subsistence activity in most of Africa because of a general scarcity of good fishing grounds and because most of the continent’s rural population lives in the interior.