Think Africa's 1bn people are too many? Until recently they were too few; lessons from Ethiopia

You will be surprised why Ethiopia defeated the Italians at Adowa in 1896; and how the heroic Maasai hold the secret to Africa's early development.

ONE enduring stereotype about Africa is that it is a place of vast, empty landscapes – the endless sky, orange sun and lone acacia tree are well-worn images of “wild Africa”, so much so that one ingenious photo collection shows that there seems to be global consensus among publishers that there is just one “appropriate” book cover on books about Africa.

Although this myth of wild, empty Africa has been vigorously disputed, the continent had the lowest population density in the world at the time of the arrival of the Europeans, and, due to high population growth elsewhere, was sharply decreasing relative to other regions at the beginning of the late 19th century.

The news today is all about Africa’s recent growth, making it the youngest and fastest-growing and fastest-urbanising continent, but one little appreciated aspect of Africa’s history is just how much the continent’s shortage of people held back development – and whose effects are still being felt today, in some unexpected ways.

Africa is home to 22% of the world’s land area, but just 13% of its population – and even this is as a result of rapid population growth over the past few decades. In the 1700s, Africa was home to 90-100 million people, while Eurasia, twice as big as Africa, had five times its population.

Africa is underpopulated in large measure because of the slave trade and disease. Between 1700 and 1810, conservative estimates indicate that 15 million Africans – 1 in every 6 – was enslaved via the transatlantic slave trade, with some areas hit particularly hard.

Ravages of slave trade

Although the popular imagination tends to associate the slave trade with West Africa, Angola was perhaps the hardest hit, heavily depopulated by the slave trade. The Angolan coast supplied nearly half the slaves destined for the Americas between the beginning of the trade and its abolition in 1836 - some four million people.

By the end of 18th century, the ports of Luanda and Benguela were some of the most active slave ports in Africa, and the once-powerful kingdom of Kongo had been brought to its knees by the Portuguese slavers.

For its soil profile, geography and climate, Angola thus has a much lower population density than would have been without the slave trade, from which it has “never recovered, planting the seeds of future conflict”.

According to these calculations, if the slave trades had not occurred, then 72% of the average income gap between Africa and the rest of the world would not exist today, and 99% of the income gap between Africa and the rest of the underdeveloped world would not exist. In terms of economic development, Africa would not look any different from the other developing areas in the world.

The Maasai’s to the rescue

The same low density can be seen in parts of East Africa, though for slightly different reasons. The legendary fearsomeness of the Maasai in Kenya and Tanzania kept the Arab slave traders away from their territory, forcing  the slavers  to focus their raids further south; in southern Tanzania, Malawi and Zambia, and as far as eastern Congo, but skirting Maasai territory completely. 

The Maasai never submitted to slavery, says this report, and if somehow captured they would “die inexplicably in captivity”.

Still, population density in Maasai-controlled areas was dramatically reduced in the late 19th century by an outbreak of rinderpest (a cattle disease) and smallpox, European diseases which led to the death of about 50% of the population and 80% of their cattle – hence the enduring image of the “empty” Serengeti plain.

In Uganda, the invasion of British forces of Bunyoro in 1893 left the once-powerful kingdom depopulated and overrun by disease. As a result, the Bunyoro suffered low levels of fertility and high mortality throughout the colonial period, with an unforeseen consequence – the traditional heartland of Bunyoro is the area where much of Uganda’s oil deposits have been discovered. 

If the place had more people, the oil might have never been found; people would have built up over the land, and perhaps no one would have found the room to prospect.

Mosquito, tsetse fly as history makers

Elsewhere in Africa, a little insect kept the population sparse and fragmented. Malaria and the mosquito gets all the attention today, but historically the tsetse fly – found exclusively in Africa’s tropical lowlands – had the greatest impact on settlement and productivity in Africa.

The tsetse fly causes trypanosomiasis or sleeping sickness, which is devastating for livestock populations – and has wide ripple effects. One startling study found that tsetse endemic areas are associated with a 46% reduction in population density in 1700, 22 percentage point decrease in the likelihood an African ethnic group had large domesticated animals, a nine percentage point decrease in intensive cultivation and a seven percentage point decrease in plough use.

Africa’s extensive underpopulation, with the consequent difficulty of commanding labour by purely economic means, had already stimulated slavery and internal slave-trading among many African people.

But the tsetse fly made it worse. Without having large animals at their disposal to do the heavy agricultural work, tsetse-endemic areas were associated with a greater demand for human labour - tsetse suitability is associated with a 12 percentage point increase in the likelihood of an African community using slaves to make up for the labour shortfall.

The study even shows that without the plough and oxen, women are more likely to be doing the farm work. Controlling a plough and big animals requires considerable physical strength, that men have a comparative advantage in. But if the agriculture is just using sticks and hoes, there’s really no physical difference between men and women on the farm.

Simulating African development under a lower burden of tsetse indicates that Africa could have supported a population density closer to that of Eurasia, consistent with archeological evidence of civilisations supported by advanced agricultural systems in places where the fly could not survive, such as Great Zimbabwe and the Ethiopian highlands.

People and development

Why is a dense population important in development? Having more people per square kilometre leads to the beneficial economies of scale and increased levels of specialisation alongside higher agricultural productivity, and greater technological change that can spur economic growth.

A sparse population means that people, not land, is in short supply. It is no surprise, therefore, that among traditional African societies the concept of private ownership of land was less defined, compared with more explicit laws regulating marriage, child-bearing and cattle-ownership: all of which have an implication on the availability of labour for production.

In any case, the expansive territory meant the benefits of rules on private property were outweighed by the costs of enforcing them.

Even worse, those areas that did develop significant industries and export goods were often surrounded by low density populations, which meant that they had no one to whom they could sell their goods.

The story of Kano

For example, the emirate of Kano in northern Nigeria has long history in the crafts and cottage industry in leather works, calabash design, textiles, weaving and dyeing, but it was surrounded by areas that had been heavily depopulated to the south – and the Sahara desert to the north.

Because prevailing conditions prevented the development of a mass external market for Kano’s manufacturing goods in Africa, the multiplier effects of long-distance commerce were limited. Although transport chargers per ton per mile were no more expensive than in other parts of the world, they were higher per consumer.

Low population density even had implications for ethnic diversity, says this paper – it dramatically reduced the likelihood that Africa’s diverse ethnic groups would interact with each other intensively, as would happen in a city, where such interaction acts as a cultural melting pot.

By contrast, each group remained relatively isolated from each other, which solidified the formation of narrow ethnic identities.

Ultimately, a low population density put Africans at a severe disadvantage in resisting the onslaught of European imperialism. Indeed, the most prominent example of African resistance to imperialism, the Ethiopian defeat of the Italians at Adowa in 1896, was partially a consequence of Emperor Menelik’s ability to draw upon an army of 100,000 soldiers compared to less than 20,000 for the Italians.

What made Ethiopia different in this regard was her highlands, which contain 4% of total land mass of Africa but almost 20% of its population, and which allowed for a great abundance of population in central and northern Ethiopia.


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