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10 Reasons Why Africa Is So Poor

10 Reasons Why Africa Is So Poor

10 Reasons Why Africa Is So Poor
10 Reasons Why Africa Is So Poor – image via answersafrica.com

Africa, particularly its tropical regions, is frequently given as an example of economic failure. And this isn’t without cause, however, since 35 out of the continent’s 54 countries have a GDP per capita lower than $2,000. This is at a time when the average GDP in the world is somewhere over $10,000 per person, and some fortunate countries have above $100,000.

To be fair, though, the entire planet is on an upward trend of economic improvement. But the problem here is that these unfortunate countries are moving far slower than the rest of the world. The reasons for this unfortunate situation are multiple and complex and we will not be able to cover them all. But these are, in our opinion, some of the most important reasons, both old and new, that make sub-Saharan countries so poor.


10. Isolated throughout History

The Sahara Desert in Africa acting as a barrier between the rest of the continent and Eurasia
The Sahara Desert in Africa acting as a barrier between the rest of the continent and Eurasia

Human civilisation in the Old World developed and managed to surpass both Sub-Saharan Africa, as well as, the Americas, mainly because, for better or worse, they were in contact with each other. If it weren’t for the Chinese who invented gunpowder, Herman Cortez may have had a harder time in defeating the Aztecs in the first place. In any case, the famous Silk Road has been in use ever since the second century BC, connecting the Orient with the far reaching colonies of the Roman Empire.

A representation of Fra Mauro’s map. Africa is in red.

Along the Silk Road, the East and West, as well as everything in between, were in a constant, yet indirect contact, exchanging materials and ideas for more than 1,600 years. That was up until the Ottoman Empire who boycotted commerce to the west. This boycott was what eventually led to Venice’s downfall and the start of the colonial era when the Europeans were trying to find an alternative route to China and India. The Silk Road also extended down the African east coast via the Indian Ocean Trade, but even so, this exposure was minimal.

Africa is huge, you see, and modern maps don’t do it justice. And only with Bartolomeu Dias in the late 15th century, did Europeans begin to have an idea and a basic outline of the huge continent. There was a previous map made in 1459 by a Venetian monk and cartographer Fra Mauro. His work was the most detailed map of its time and showed a rough outline of the African continent based on some stories. There was also another Egyptian funded voyage around Africa as early as the 5th century BC. But despite all of these, Africa south of the Equator was largely isolated from the rest of the world. And even though the continents are connected, the largest desert in the world, the Sahara, coupled with one of the largest jungles to the south, the Congo Basin, were as impassable as any ocean was at the time.


9. Scarce Livestock and the Tsetse fly

The Guinea Fowl – one of the few domesticable animals native to Africa

It’s no real mystery that civilisation was built largely on the backs of domesticated animals. Cattle and horses are primarily what made the Old World into a real powerhouse when compared to the rest of the world. Not only were these animals a great source of food in the form of meat and milk-based products, but they also helped people in agriculture, with clothing materials like wool and leather, as well as getting around, or during warfare. In fact, horses were the most powerful and feared war machines for thousands of years.

In fact, horses were the most powerful and feared war machines for thousands of years. Now, like pre-Colombian America, sub-Saharan Africa had almost no viable animals for domestication. The cattle found here were once believed to be endemic to Africa. But more recent research has shown that they were actually brought by migrating peoples from the Middle East long ago.

The infamous tsetse fly.

The only other animals viable for domestication on the African continent were two species of guinea fowls and two species of cane rat. Other animals, like the ostrich, snails, or even crocodiles, have only been semi-domesticated over the past decades. The African elephant, as opposed to its Asian counterpart, is not so easily domesticated. Furthermore, tropical Africa has, throughout time, been plagued by one big scourge in particular; the tsetse fly.

This fly, found only here, can knock out livestock and people by the hundreds. It makes them sleepy and inactive and it has a tremendously negative impact on the wellbeing of the local community even to this day. Because of the tsetse fly, people from sub-Saharan Africa had a terribly difficult time in developing technology or increasing agricultural productivity like the rest of the world had thanks to their domesticated animals.


8. Africa isn’t particularly suited for Agriculture

Tropical regions of the world are not particularly suited for agriculture in general. The region is always at the mercy of erratic and oftentimes excessive weather events like severe droughts or flash floods. The soils are also problematic, oftentimes lacking essential nutrients or being exposed to high levels of salinity. And even though the continent is large and holds about a quarter of all arable land, it is only able to generate about 10 percent of all agricultural output worldwide.

This, coupled with the many crop and livestock diseases and parasites found in the region, make Africa the only continent in the world not able to feed itself. Even though 70 percent of the population is engaged in agriculture, it makes up for just 30 percent of the entire GDP. For instance, Vietnam, the second largest exporter of coffee in the world after Brazil, has borrowed much of its coffee growing expertise from Kenya. But while plantations in Kenya are only able to generate some 550 pounds per hectare, Vietnam can produce up to 4,850 pounds over the same area.

A farmer and business woman tending to her coffee plantation in Kenya

There are, of course, other issues that influence Africa’s poor agricultural productivity. The lack of a proper infrastructure like roads or markets, as well as the lack of better technology in the form of irrigation, resistant seeds, and fertilisers, also play an important role here. There is also a problem of administration, with up to 80 percent of all arable land being untitled and part of a communal ownership.

This is seen as an impediment in increasing agricultural productivity since farmers aren’t motivated to invest without proper contractual assurances. As a result, much of the land is unutilized and its irrigation potential largely untapped. Furthermore, land degradation and the onset of desertification is already causing big problems on the continent with an estimated of 30 percent of arable land being under severe stress as it is. In countries like Burundi and Rwanda, some up to 70 percent of the land is degraded.


7. Diseases

One reason for why Africa was the last place to be colonised by Europeans is malaria. While many African people have a slightly higher resistance to some strains of the disease due to the Duffy antigen found in their genes, white people are more susceptible to it. This mutation, however, does make them more susceptible to HIV. Anyway, only after some malaria medicine was discovered in the 19th century, could Sub-Saharan Africa go under colonial rule. But this doesn’t mean that Africans weren’t affected by it; on the contrary. Malaria has always been a driving force in keeping Africa in its poor economic state.

But besides malaria, there are countless others arboviruses, bacterial infections and parasitic diseases like the Rotavirus, Ebola, Cholera, E-coli, Yellow fever, Elephantiasis, Cysticercoids, Leprosy, Lassa fever, Dengue fever, Marburg, Giardia lamblia, Sleeping sickness, Rift Valley fever, and many, many others; some of which have no known cure. All low-income countries all across the world are affected by at least 5 such diseases at once.

And most of them, unsurprisingly, are located in tropical regions. These diseases most often affect populations living in poverty that don’t have access to proper sanitation, clean water, and adequate medication. They infect well over one billion people every year and cost their governments billions of dollars in expenses and damages; not to mention the loss of life. As a result, many international businesses avoid developing in areas with high potential outbreaks, keeping the vicious cycle in place.


6. The Scramble for Africa

This event in Africa’s history utterly changed its destiny forever. African empires like Ghana and Mali were indeed wealthy and were open to the world trade particularly with gold, prior to the colonialism era. With the arrival of the Europeans and the slave trade, Africa was also introduced to more sophisticated systems of credit and exchange. And as the demand for slaves grew, so did the development of some African nations. These nations were primarily in charge of capturing the slaves themselves from various tribes or settlements in the vast interior of the continent. In exchange, these states would receive manufactured goods like textiles or weapons from Europe, becoming somewhat dependent on them and paving the way for what was to come.

By 1807, it became illegal for British citizens to engage in the slave trade, and the era of “legitimate trade” had begun. With the Industrial Revolution in full swing, Africa became fully integrated into the global trade via the raw resources it provided and many African states began to prosper and develop. A notable example is the Fante Confederation which formed in Ghana in 1868 that aimed to improve internal affairs and develop a modern infrastructure, industry, and education system. This also meant that these emerging African states also began having a fair amount of influence on the trade. European interests, however, were to keep these prices low.

With the Berlin Conference in 1884-5, the major European powers negotiated the division of Africa among themselves in the attempt of safeguarding their material interests for their own growing industries. The following period of land-grabbing is known as the Scramble for Africa. The aftermath was utterly devastating for the continent and ensured no possibility for any further economic or social development. As the Europeans took control, they focused solely on export production, basing the African economies on one or two nonfood cash crops like cotton, mining, rubber, or palm oil. This led to a major shift in the workforce from food production to only these exportable goods, resulting in countless deaths and famine.

This made Africa even more dependent on Europe for any manufactured goods, since the local industry or any other kind of development was completely abandoned. The full extent of long-lasting negative effects created by the Scramble for Africa and the subsequent European colonial control over the following 80 years is too long and complex for this list. But it’s safe to say that if it hadn’t happened, Africa’s economic and social development would have been significantly better than it is now.


5. Bad National and International Connections

As we mentioned before, the African continent is huge, but because it’s placed on the equator it appears smaller in relation to regions further away towards the poles. In any case, in today’s world where good international connectivity is a key factor for a thriving economy, Africa hosts 15 landlocked nations; more so than any other continent in the world. This means that they don’t have access to a port in order to better facilitate trade.

And unsurprisingly, many of these nations have an average GDP per capita of around or below $600. This phenomenon can be seen in other regions of the world as well. For instance, Bolivia and Paraguay in South America are also landlocked and are the poorest nations on the continent; with the exception of Venezuela which is going through a severe recession at the moment. Similarly, in Asia, Afghanistan and Mongolia are in a similar situation. In Europe, the poorest nation is Moldova, also landlocked.

Sub-Sahara African railways connecting a resource rich area to a port

Other seemingly landlocked nations in Europe, like Austria, Serbia, or Hungary, make use of navigable rivers like the Danube. But in Africa, the only major navigable river is the Nile and it mainly facilitates trade in Egypt to the north. Furthermore, many Sub-Saharan African nations try to make do with a highly inadequate railway network that serves very little in the transportation sector and overall economy. These train tracks were mostly built during the colonial period and in many cases, they aren’t even connected to each other. They were used solely for the shipping of raw materials from a mine or cotton plantation to the nearest port and don’t pass through any major town or city.


4. Cultural Factors


The way a society thinks and interprets the world around it is also an obvious factor in becoming prosperous. Many believe that there is a series of traits a society needs to have in order to become economically successful. Things like a sense of competitiveness between peers, a well-defined middle class, and a strong work ethic coupled with patience, as well as an increased literacy rate, and less individual appetite for violence, can make a society notice and take advantage of economic opportunities as they arise.

This is why it’s believed that the Industrial Revolution could not have happened anywhere else outside of Britain. Other societies at the time did not possess the necessary traits to notice the steam engine’s potential and take advantage of it; even if it were to be invented there. But it should be noted that these social attributes did not appear overnight. They were developed over many centuries prior to the Industrial Revolution, and in some respects, they are as random as Darwinian evolution. And like the British and other well-developed societies, poor African cultures need time and somewhat similar conditions for these traits to grow and entrench themselves into the common consciousness.

Another cultural factor that goes hand in hand with poverty is religion. Almost all top richest countries in the world have about 60 to 70 percent or more of the population saying that religion is not an important factor in their lives. The United States is the notable exception that makes the rule here. Its form of Protestant Christianity promotes material wealth, more so than in other parts of the world.

Nevertheless, on the other end of the spectrum, the poorest nations have almost the entire population believing in one form of religion or another. Religion does offer great relief in the idea of a better afterlife by comparison to the harsh and squalor conditions of everyday existence. Now, it is relatively safe to say that religion doesn’t actually create these conditions and is merely a side effect. But it can also hinder people from escaping their impoverished situation in the first place.


3. High Corruption

All impoverished countries around the world are subject to high levels of corruption, and Sub-Saharan Africa is no exception. Corruption basically translates to a slow rate or, in some cases, complete inability to gather enough finances to reinvest in the community in the form of a much-needed infrastructure and escape the poverty trap. By making use of embezzlement, money laundering, and tax evasion, criminals and corrupt government officials syphon out up to a trillion dollars each year from poor countries all around the world. This wealth inevitably ends up in offshore accounts where it can’t be tracked or taxed.

It is estimated that since 1970, Nigeria has lost some $300bn and the Ivory Coast at least $141bn into these offshore accounts. This estimate also shows that a total of between 21 and 32 trillion dollars are hidden away in this manner all over the world. And $9.8tn of which is owned by just 92,000 people. Hypothetically taxing that $21tn would generate a yearly $189bn; more than all the rich economies spend on aid in the entire world. These figures also point to the fact that these huge sums of money stolen from impoverished countries far exceed their own international debts. Moreover, the extremely rich and very poor are almost never taken into consideration when calculating global inequality.

Other usual intrinsic elements of corruption are nepotism and favouritism. Instead of taking advantage of what a nation has to offer in terms of skilled professionals, corrupt governments in Africa, as well as the rest of the world, usually place family members, friends, or business partners in high-ranking positions.


2. The Valuable Resources Paradox

In a well-developed country, stumbling upon a natural reserve of precious metals is like a sign that someone up there loves you. A well-organized government and an infrastructure to match will take advantage of the reserve and put it to good use for the betterment of the country as a whole. But, paradoxically, under-developed countries finding one such reserve is oftentimes seen more as a scourge; a scourge fueled by greed and a catalyst for armed conflict. This is not always the case, though, but Africa is well known for such unfortunate events.

And the continent is particularly rich is all sorts of rare elements. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, for instance, is one of the richest countries in terms of minerals. It holds the largest deposits of coltan, a metal ore used in the production of cell phones, laptops, and other electronic devices. Because of its high demand and scarcity, its prices are high, reaching as much as $400 per kilogram. In 2013, Kenya discovered similar niobium and other rare metal deposits worth up to $100bn.

coltan ore

The problem of these raw materials is just that; they don’t need a sophisticated industry or infrastructure to be properly exploited. Elites and rebel forces have often taken advantage of the situation by not needing many people or resources to exploit these raw materials. All that’s needed is a small labour force, probably some armed guards and a way to quickly ship those minerals away; preferably an airstrip close by. The funds generated are either placed in offshore accounts or used by various rebel forces to fund their cause. These conflicts are yet another driving force for the persistence of poverty in these areas, regardless of the riches taken away illegally.


1. Rapid Population Growth

image via explainedwithmaps.com

Another problem facing many developing countries, and not just those in Africa, is a rapid population growth. Because of all the above-mentioned reasons, coupled with a lack of education, no access to birth control, as well as overall high mortality rates among infants, people tend to have a large number of children. Africa is leading the world in population growth at a rate of 2.8 percent per year, also aided by the economic developments already made. As we said before, all countries in the world are developing, but not at the same rate. There is no debating the fact that over time, and with better economic conditions, fertility drops.

This trend is evident all around the world, including in some African countries, and has been discussed and analysed numerous times. A gradual population growth of 2.1 to 3.4 children per family is a good thing for any economy depending on its level. The working population is able to support its children and the elderly, and at the same time offer the possibility for future economic growth. But a rapid growth results in too many members not yet economically active for the working population to sustain. Unemployment and rising tensions will also become a problem.

An artificial drop in fertility rates, like the “one-child policy” in China may have some equally advantageous effects. This gave a one-time opportunity for the working population to outnumber the inactive part of society and give it a potential economic boom, and at the same time save on expenses like healthcare or education. China took advantage of this demographic strategy, as well as the, so called, Four Asian Tigers: Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Hong-Kong.

But there’s a backside to this strategy and these four countries are beginning to feel it. If they once had a majority of people between the ages of 15 to 65, the situation has now more or less reversed. With a better economic situation, birthrates dropped while life expectancy has risen. The shrinking workforce has now an ever increasingly difficult time in supporting the economy and the elderly population. This is why China has stopped its one-child policy and upgraded it to two children.

Written by Gipsy Ninja

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Co-founder @gipsy_ninja