Journal Issue

Some Problems of African Development

International Monetary Fund. External Relations Dept.
Published Date:
September 1964
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Andrew M. Kamarck

ECONOMICALLY, Africa’s shape as a gigantic question mark is profoundly appropriate. It is, pre-eminently, the tropical continent, and man has only comparatively recently started systematic research on the tropics and still knows very little about them.

The bulk of the people in Africa still make their living from agriculture; it is not at all uncommon for 90 per cent of the labor force to be so employed. Enough has been learned about African conditions to demonstrate that agriculture in Africa has many problems which do not exist in the temperate climates and that, consequently, the pattern of economic development must be quite different.

African Soil

Mr. Kamarck is a graduate of Harvard University. After service with the Federal Reserve Board, the U.S. Army, and the U.S. Treasury, he joined the staff of the World Bank, where he is now Economic Adviser, Department of Operations, Africa.

It took a considerable time, for instance, to learn that tropical soils are more often poor than rich. Everyone who has traveled in Africa has seen fence posts which have taken root and started growing, telephone poles which have put out branches. The lushness of the plant life in many areas seems to show that the soil must be very rich. The truth is quite the opposite. The tropical soils, with some exceptions, are generally poor and very easily destroyed; even in the dense humid forests the soil is usually shallow and delicate. The plants survive by constantly returning to the supporting soil the elements that they have borrowed from it, so that equilibrium is maintained.

When there is plant cover the surface of the soil is shaded and kept at a lower temperature, and the hard tropical downpours are prevented from striking the soil directly. But when the soil is laid bare, its temperature goes up, the organic matter oxidizes under the sun, the soil disintegrates with the big swings of temperature between day and night, and the rains and wind erode it.

Another trouble is a peculiar soil reaction that takes place in many parts of Africa. With high temperature and abundant rain, the silicate minerals of the rocks are leached out, so that the proportion of iron and aluminum hydroxides is increased. This results in the formation in some cases of bauxite or iron ore deposits (and helps explain why bauxite and iron ore are so important a part of Africa’s economic potential). If drainage is impeded, the iron oxides may easily cement iron-hard, and the passage of a tractor or other heavy agricultural implements may leave behind soil that is unworkable. Associated with this is the abrasion of equipment. An instance has been cited where plowing 80 acres of this lateritic soil in central Tanganyika resulted in wearing 6 inches off the diameter of the 30–36 inch steel discs of heavy plows. Finally, mechanical equipment may plow too deep into the thin layer of fertile soil and destroy the possibility of raising crops.

There are a few important exceptions to the poverty of soils in tropical Africa. The first is the alluvial clay soils, rich in organic matter, found in valleys and along some coasts. The second exception is the very fertile volcanic soils. These are found in eastern Congo, Rwanda and Burundi, the slopes of Mounts Kenya, Kilimanjaro, and Elgon in East Africa; Western Cameroon, and Ethiopia. Finally, the forest soils that are high enough to be out of the heat of the plains also tend to be fertile.

Shifting Cultivation

The Africans over the centuries found a way to cope with these conditions. This is “shifting” or “seminomadic” cultivation, which is still followed in most of Africa and has an impact on all the economic activities of the continent. The cycle of shifting cultivation is roughly as follows. The men of the family cut down the trees and burn them on the soil to be cultivated. This, enriched by the ashes, is then cultivated by the women. After a few years the soil is exhausted and the people move on to a new patch of ground while the old patch reverts to brush or forest. After many years, the people may return to the original area, whose fertility has been restored in the meantime.

As populations increase, however, the periods of “bush fallow” between periods of cultivation must get shorter and shorter, and the productivity of the soil must go down. This problem has already begun to arise in several places where, for tribal or other reasons, the people cannot easily move into new areas where land is still abundant. Even where enough land remains available, increasing productivity under these circumstances is most difficult.

Tree Crops

There are three main ways that Africans have chosen to overcome the difficulties of tropical agriculture and to improve their lot. The first is to go into tree crops: oil palm, cocoa, coffee (largely since World War II) and, in the last few years, tea. The tree crops, where conditions are suitable, quite simply bypass the problems of arable agriculture. Shading and protecting the soil, they achieve the same sort of equilibrium with it and with the climate that the original forest did. Further, it becomes possible for the farmer to have a settled farm where he can apply the results of research, improve his methods, and increase his productivity and income. In general, in tropical Africa it is the tree crop farmers who have succeeded in improving their lot, while other farmers often have difficulty in holding their own.

Migratory Labor

The second way the Africans have followed (mostly in southern, central, east, and parts of west Africa) has been to combine wage labor and agriculture. This is essentially the “migratory labor” system that is so prevalent in Africa.

Shifting cultivation in essence results in what may be called “sociological underemployment.” If men, for example, regard the clearing of the new land in preparation for cultivation as man’s work, and the actual work of cultivation as woman’s work, then the men may be underemployed in the periods when no new land has to be cleared. At such a time a man can maximize his income by going to work in industry or the mines as a migrant laborer, leaving his family to cultivate the land he has cleared and returning home to clear new land when this is necessary.

The extent of this migratory labor in Africa is very large. The economies of Upper Volta, Malawi, and Basutoland are highly dependent on the export of labor and the income remitted to the families by the workers who go out. Likewise the gold mines of South Africa, much of the industry in southern, central, and eastern Africa, the sisal plantations of Tanganyika, the large coffee farms of Uganda, and the cocoa farmers of Ghana are dependent on this migrant labor for their continued output.

While the system of migrant labor was probably a necessary phase in the development of Africa, with time it has become clear that the gains from the system have been exhausted, and that further progress depends on a different kind of development. The disadvantages of the migrant labor system are that, because the migrant moves back and forth between the money economy and the farm, he is unable to become either a more productive industrial worker or a more productive farmer, but becomes stuck on a plateau of relative inefficiency in each kind of employment.


Over the last 15 years various African governments have been searching for ways of replacing the system of migratory labor. They have tried to do this by a third solution of African agricultural problems—creating a system of settled farming that will provide a better income for the farmer.

In Kenya and the Rhodesias, programs of land settlement have been attempted under which permanent mixed farms have been set up with a generous infusion of extension service workers to give advice on improved farming methods. These have had considerable success, helped largely by the altitude, which has made it possible to adopt many of the farming methods used in the temperate zone and so create permanent farms. In this way rotation of crops has replaced rotation of area. And in both countries European farmers and the government have over a period of some 50 years acquired the knowledge of what modifications in farming need to be applied for success, and have passed these on to African farmers.

In some other countries attempts have been made to secure rotation of area within a permanent farm. In the Congo, a promising experiment, the paysannat scheme, was cut short in 1960 by the departure of the extension workers needed to keep it going. Under the paysannat scheme farmers were settled along a road with their farms laid out in strips. These strips were subdivided into 15 or 20 sections, and the peasants were to practice a kind of rolling rotation, moving down the strip section by section in successive years with particular crops and leaving the sections behind to go back into bush fallow.

Climate, Competition, and Disease

While the soils in tropical Africa are usually poor, the climate favors reproduction, growth, and survival. (It is this that explains the mystery of the lush vegetation.) But only a mixed population with varying demands can exist where reproduction and survival are favored by the climate, but where the store of any one requirement is limited and where as a result the competition for survival must be most fierce. It is not surprising that the human population in Africa was also sparse and widely scattered. For man to survive and prosper in large numbers he must be able to meet and beat off assaults from every quarter.

This central fact of the tropics—fierce competition for survival and survival depending on dispersion—has large economic implications. Tropical lumbering, for example, is quite a different kind of operation from temperate zone lumbering. In the tropics there may be only one or two specimens of any particular tree per acre. Consequently, the lumberman is engaged in an activity that is more like hunting than reaping a crop. Another even more important fact is that whenever man undertakes to grow any particular plant over a large area, he runs up against tremendous difficulties. There is a good chance that among the multiplicity of life that exists in that area there is already at least one existing or potential enemy of the plant. Once the enemy discovers and attacks the plant, it will progress at the plant’s expense until both are reduced to a small number of individuals leading a life of precarious coexistence. The enemy that attacks may be a microbe, a virus, an insect, an animal, a bird, or even another plant. Defense against such attacks must therefore be an important part of any major innovation in agriculture in the tropics. Africa is littered with the ruins of projects which did not take this factor into account.

The multiplicity of species in Africa includes the agents of many human and animal diseases, and there is no question but that disease is a major factor holding up development. The diseases that affect animals (in particular the trypanosomiases carried by the tsetse fly, but also the tick-carried East Coast fever, rinderpest, etc.) prevent Africa from using its vast stretches of savanna as the basis for a major meat-producing industry. The economic cost of the human diseases is also immeasurable. Malaria still affects millions of Africans, as do leprosy and “river blindness.” Bilharzia or liver fluke, a debilitating disease, deserves special mention. It is still spreading throughout Africa, and no satisfactory cure has yet been developed.

Lack of Knowledge

Lack of knowledge obstructs economic progress in most fields. For example, the lack of data on river flow over a sufficiently long period of time often hampers decisions on hydropower schemes. When the two Rhodesias had to decide between building a hydro project on the Kafue River or the Zambesi River, an important factor in the final decision was that the engineers knew somewhat more about the Zambesi than they did about the Kafue. But still the Zambesi produced many surprises. The major construction on the Kariba dam began in 1956. In 1957 work was held up because the Zambesi came down in a flood which, according to the engineers, should occur only once in a hundred years. After construction had recovered from this setback, the following year the flood that came down was the “10,000-year flood”! Fortunately, this uncertainty had been taken into account: a large enough contingency reserve had been put into the financial estimates and the process of construction chosen was such that no major damage was done; the dam was completed on time and within the estimates.

Aside from a few instances such as work on yellow fever, there were few significant discoveries of answers to African problems before World War II. After the war there was a substantial increase in research, financed by the metropolitan powers, and much important useful knowledge of the economies of Africa was secured. In the period since most of the African countries became independent, however, research has begun to suffer. The expatriate research officers are tending to depart, and Africans are not yet ready to take up the burden. The newly independent governments find themselves faced with so many demands on their resources that research almost inevitably receives a lower priority than the need to build a new road or a new school. The total amount of research now is less than it was a few years ago, and this is bound to have repercussions on the pace at which development will take place in the future.


Another important and growing problem in many of the African countries in recent years is the increasing number of young men in the cities without regular work. These are usually young men from rural areas who have acquired a minimum of education and who consequently feel themselves to be above the occupation of farmer. This is the so-called problem of the “school leavers,” and it is a complex one. One of its causes is a wage and salary structure that has gotten out of line with the economic facts. At present this applies particularly in some countries to the lower clerical jobs. The salaries for these were established when there were very few people who had the small amount of education necessary to fill them, and the salaries assigned to them were consequently high compared to the average per capita income in the country. Now that there are in many countries a large number of primary school graduates qualified to fill these posts the salary structure is distorted. The result is that a primary school leaver will prefer to stay in a town without a job for months or years, waiting for an opening to turn up, rather than resign himself to going back to farm work and missing the glittering prize of work in a white collar. Moreover, his family, which has sacrificed to send him to school, would regard him as a failure if, after all that education, he were to become a farmer like his uneducated brothers.

This phenomenon is not unique to Africa: Italy has experienced a somewhat similar “unemployment” during the postwar period, as the peasants, principally from the South, moved from the country into the cities ahead of the time that regular jobs could be provided for them. The reason they moved was that the chance of eventually getting a much higher income, even at the cost of months of difficult existence in the city, was more attractive to them than the continuation of the poverty-stricken life their fathers had led.

The “10,000 year flood,” during the construction of the Kariba Dam.

Family Solidarity

In Africa, the number of men who can live in town without regular work is, in part, determined by the number of opportunities for picking up odd bits of work or money, as in the Italian parallel. But another factor, perhaps much more important, is also at work in Africa. This is the nature of African society. One important reason why it is possible for so many men without jobs to continue to live in African towns is the responsibility Africans feel for their “brothers.” A man in town with what is regarded as a good income by his country cousins often finds himself having to support the relatives who come and live off him. In this way a man who has a good income in town may continue to acquire dependents until his standard of living sinks to something like the standard of living of his rural relatives and there is, then, no further inducement for them to come to town and give up working.

This human feeling of responsibility for one’s extended family is also, of course, an important factor in inhibiting the development of African entrepreneurs. It is difficult for an African to build up his capital, since any success tends to attract more and more dependents to him. John D. Rockefeller was once asked the secret of business success. He replied, “Never let your wife know how much money you are making.” In Africa, perhaps, the secret of economic development will turn out to be: “Never let your relatives know that you are making any money.”

There is a recent book of Romain Gary’s that takes as its theme a quotation from a Russian poet, Sacha Tsipotchkine. This quotation, freely translated, runs somewhat as follows:

Man—certainly. We are perfectly in agreement—one day Man will appear. There is still needed a little patience, a little perseverance, he cannot be more than 10,000 years away in the future. At the moment, there are only a few traces, a few presentiments, a few dreams. At this instant, the being who exists is only a pioneer of Man himself.

In other words, a part of the economic development problem in Africa may be that human beings have evolved somewhat farther along the road to becoming “Man” than may be economically desirable. And it may be that to attain more rapid economic development a temporary retreat may be necessary. A similar process took place in Europe when industrialization first started there; witness the many hostile references in the literature of the period to the “New Men” when they appeared. Dickens’ Hard Times is just one example that comes to mind. As one consolation, it may well be that this is an instance where it is necessary for human beings to fall one step back to leap forward farther.

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