African Economic History

African Economic History


Research in African economic history has undergone extraordinary growth over the last fifteen years, manifest in, for example, a special issue of the Economic History Review (August 2014) and in the annual meetings, and energetic online activity, of the African Economic History Network ( This stream of panels is intended both to share current economic history with the broader Africanist community, and to encourage submissions of papers by scholars who perhaps do not think of themselves as economic historians. So far four panels are taking shape within this stream. Besides panels on the histories of migration within Africa, occupational structures and economic change, and the measurement of income and economic inequality, we envisage a fourth, more general provisionally entitled ‘African economic development: historical perspectives’. If you have a paper on migration, occupational structures, or the measurement of income and economic inequality, and if the panel dedicated to that theme already has a full complement of four papers, we may be able to accommodate your paper in the fourth panel.

Panel 1: Shifting Patterns of Migration in Africa, 1800 to the present

Convenors: Ewout Frankema (Wageningen University) and Michiel de Haas (Wageningen University)

Mobility, in a great variety of expressions, is deeply interwoven with a wide variety of human activities. Across geographical space and historical time, Africans have been involved in migration linked to the rise and fall of empires, the shift of internal land frontiers, transhumance and the seasonality of agricultural activities, slave raiding and trading, and colonialism and state formation. Historical research on African migration is highly fragmented, and narratives have been strongly dominated by migration flows out of the continent, in particular the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The papers in this panel are part of a larger project on “Shifting Patterns of Migration in Africa, 1800-present”. This project seeks to generate a novel, cohesive perspective on the changing dynamics of migration within the African continent. The project documents, analyses and compares major flows of migration in the 19thand 20thcenturies, and links them to historical developments in population dynamics, state formation, economic activity and the environmental change. The papers in this session cover two important patterns of migration in 20thcentury Africa: one linked to economic change and labour market formation during colonial rule, the other to state formation and conflict since independence.


‘Temporary urbanites? Industrialization, urbanization and labor migration in colonial

Africa: Southern Rhodesia and the Belgian Congo compared’

Kate Frederick (Utrecht University) & Elise van Nederveen Meerkerk (Utrecht University)

‘Labour migration to the mines in Central and Southern Africa’

Dácil Juif (Universidad Carlos III, Madrid)

‘Cash crop migration systems in colonial tropical Africa’

Michiel de Haas (Wageningen University) & Emiliano Travieso (University of Cambridge)

‘Conflict, crisis and displacement in post-independence Africa’

Ewout Frankema (Wageningen University)

Panel 2: Structural Change in African Economies: Occupational Perspectives

Convener: Gareth Austin (University of Cambridge)

The structure of African economies is generally considered to have changed little since the early colonial period, remaining focussed on primary-product exports and ‘subsistence’ food production. This panel presents four papers-in-progress from an international, Cambridge-based project on the Comparative History of Occupational Structure and Urbanization Across Sub-Saharan Africa since 1830. The project as a whole currently involves twenty scholars currently preparing fifteen national or sub-national case-studies.* It is the first attempt to develop a systematic, quantified, occupational perspective on structural change in African economies, from the moment when the necessary census data became available in the country concerned, to the present. In most cases, comprehensive data on the sectoral distribution of the data originated only in the mid-twentieth century, often around the time of national independence; however, is some information from earlier periods, ranging from a census of the Sierra Leone colony in 1831, to partial coverage of particular sections of the population, such as (mostly) men earning wages in the formal sector. Specifically, the project is intended, first, to produce datasets for countries across the continent, using a system of classification that accommodates the specificities of African conditions, and is commensurable with the datasets developed by parallel projects for other parts of the world. Second, the authors use this evidence to reconsider existing narratives of structural change in African economies. For example, the main expansion in non-agricultural employment has been in services rather than manufacturing. But this does not necessarily imply ‘growth without development’. The dramatic growth in transport and distributive trades suggests increasing integration of national and regional markets. Africa has not industrialized, but its economic structure has continued to evolve.



Panel 3. Measuring Income and Economic Inequality in African History

Convenor: Ellen Hillbom (Lund University)

Over the recent decade, there has been a growing literature concerned with measuring and calculating incomes levels and economic inequality in colonial Africa. This literature includes for example, calculations of real wages (Bowden et al. 2008; Frankema and van Waijenburg 2012), estimates of living standards (Juif and Frankema 2018; Moradi 2008), studies of tax tabulations (Alvaredo et al. 2018) and the construction of social tables (Alfani and Tadei 2019; Bolt and Hillbom 2016). Despite these efforts, there is still much that we do not know about the economic conditions under which the majority of the population lived and worked. Especially, we lack knowledge about incomes and living standards outside the wage sector as well as the way local agency shaped the livelihoods strategies of the indigenous population.

In yet another effort to fill this knowledge gap, we invite to this panel papers based on studies wherein data has been collected to measure income levels (in-kind or cash) and/or economic inequality (income or wealth) in colonial Africa. The methodological and geographical scope is wide, it can be single case or comparative studies and the focus can be on the national or sub-national level. We hope for fruitful discussions based on new empirical evidence that can further our theoretical understanding of patterns of African income trends and drivers of long-term inequality.


Panel 4: Moving out or Falling back into Poverty? Economic Vulnerability in Twentieth-century Africa

Convenor: Erik Green (Lund University

Poverty remains a developmental challenge for African economies and scholars have theorised various causes of ‘poverty traps’ on the continent. Much of the focus has been on those living in absolute poverty, i.e. less than US$1.90 per day (in PPP exchange rates). In recent years we have seen a  decline in share of people living in absolute poverty, a result of high growth rates in many parts of Africa (McMillan and Harttgen 2014). Concerns have been raised about the sustainability of this poverty reduction. Some scholars argue that the growth levels are not high enough and/or is just an effect of a temporary global resource boom that has already come to an end (Frankema and Waijenburg 2018). A worrisome sign is that the group living on US$1.90 to US$5.20 per day, often described as economic vulnerable has remained stable over the last decade (Hillbom and Green 2019). It is believed that this group of people have a high risk of falling back into ‘absolute poverty’ in times of economic shrinking.  

What lessons can be drawn from history? This session takes its point of departure in the recognition that the main difference between poor and rich countries are not their average growth rates, but their capacity to avoid years of economic shrinkage (Broadberry and Wallis 2017). The economic development of the 20th century in Africa can best be characterized by recurrent booms followed by longer periods of economic recession or stagnation (Jerven 2010). How are the periods of boom and busts affecting the people that today would be classified as vulnerable? Studies of long-term changes of poverty in Africa are scarce (Jerven 2018). The last decades we have seen an increased number of studies that in various ways try to measure changes in living standards (e.g. de Haas 2017, Fibaek and Green 2019). These studies show significant differences across time and space, but they do not explicitly link these differences to periods of boom and busts. In his seminal work Africa Poor (1987) Iliffe differs between structural and conjunctural poverty. The former is systematic, while the latter is temporary and associated with economic shocks like wars and droughts. He argues that gradually the people stuck in structural poverty has increased due to land security. This is, albeit indirectly, confirmed in a recent study on Southern Rhodesia (Phimister and Pilossof 2017).

This session may become two sessions. We welcome papers that provide new and innovative ways of studying long-term trends of poverty and vulnerability in Africa. We especially welcome papers that link these changes to periods of growth and stagnation in Africa.

Participants (so far): Carlos Oya (discussant), one paper co-authored  by Maria Fibaek, Erik Green and  Sascha Klocke; a second paper by Ushehwedu Kufakurinani, Rory Pilossoff. So there is room for two more papers.   


Panel 5. African Economic Development: Historical Perspectives

Convenor: Gareth Austin (University of Cambridge)

Please send paper proposals for this general panel. Participants so far: Kofi Adjepong-Boateng (Cambridge), Bryan Umaru Kauma (Stellenbosch).

Organiser: Gareth Austin (