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7.2: Human Geography of Subsaharan Africa

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  • Learning Objectives

    1. Summarize how the core-periphery spatial relationship applies to Subsaharan Africa. Analyze how the concept of rural-to-urban shift applies to the development pattern.
    2. Distinguish between the formal and informal sectors of the economy and understand how each would apply to the various core and peripheral regions of the realm.
    3. Explain how countries fit into the index of economic development model and the relationship between family size, urbanization rates and income levels.
    4. Understand the diversity of languages and religions in the realm. Develop a theory about why, with the increasing population, the number of languages spoken decreases. Explain why many former European colonies still retain the language of their colonizer as their lingua franca, or official language.
    5. Identify the various areas in Subsaharan Africa that have experienced devastating civil wars or political conflict in recent years.
    6. Outline the general pattern of HIV infections in the realm. Understand why it is difficult to contain and prevent the spread of AIDS.
    7. Explain why Subsaharan Africa has such great potential for economic development through tourism. Articulate the difficulties in creating a tourism market.

    Economic Geography

    The demographic data for each country in each region of Subsaharan Africa indicate the region’s human geography. Urban percentages, family size, income levels, and the other data that can indicate the lifestyle or development level are acutely helpful in understanding the trends in Subsaharan Africa. The index of economic development illustrates the dynamics and conditions that exist in the realm. The data indicate the consistency of economic and development trends across Africa. The data does not, however, indicate differences in cultural dynamics and uniqueness in the ways that local people live. The interesting part of studying Subsaharan Africa is the many ethnic and cultural groups in each country that bring to the surface a wide array of global diversity in our human community. Within each and every country are microcosms of human societies that hold particular customs that may be thousands of years old. Globalization and technological advancements challenge every cultural group to adapt and innovate to make a living yet provide continuity in their heritage. The remote cultural groups of Subsaharan Africa are most susceptible to the volatile nature of globalization, which threatens their current way of life.

    Subsaharan Africa is a peripheral world region with neocolonial economic patterns. Peripheral regions usually supply raw materials, food, and cheap labor to the core industrial countries. Most of the population in Subsaharan Africa works in subsistence agriculture to make a living and feed their families. Families are large. In recent decades, there has been enormous rural-to-urban migration to the major cities, which are extremely overcrowded. Subsaharan Africa has more than 750 million people, and most earn the US equivalent of only $1–3 per day.

    There is no single major core economic area in Subsaharan Africa. This realm has many core cities and the rest is periphery. Many of the core cities are improving their technology and infrastructure and entering into the globalized economy. Even so, as much as 70 percent of the people still work in agriculture, leaving little time to develop a large educated group of professionals to assist with social services and administrative responsibilities. The realm depends heavily on outside support for technical and financial assistance. Computers, medical equipment, and other high-tech goods are all imported. African states have formed trade agreements and have joined the African Union to assist each other in economic development and trade.

    Figure 7.10 Informal and Formal Sectors


    The photo on the left is of side-street vendors in Senegal, who might contribute to the informal market system that is prevalent in many Subsaharan African countries. Cash and bartering are the main methods of payment. The photo on the right is of a shopping mall in Zimbabwe, which is part of the formal market system that is regulated and taxed by the government.

    Radoslaw Botev; Gary Bembridge – Zimbabwe Harare Eastgate Shopping Mall – CC BY 2.0.

    Subsaharan Africa has nearly forty urban areas of more than one million people. At the center of the central business districts (CBDs) are modern high-rise business offices well connected to the global economy. Outside the CBD are slums with no services and miserable, unsanitary conditions. The informal sector of the economy—that which is not regulated, controlled, or taxed—has become the primary system of doing business in most of the cities. The informal sector comprises trading, street markets, and any other business without financial records for cash transactions.

    The lack of government regulation and control prevents taxes from being assessed or collected, which in turn diminishes support for public services or infrastructure. The formal sector of the economy—that which the government can regulate, control, and tax—is forced to foot the bill to operate the government and support public services such as education, security, and transportation. In spite of the misery and unhealthy conditions of the slums where millions of people already live, more migrants from the countryside continue to shift to the city in search of jobs and opportunities. African cities are growing rapidly, many without organized planning.

    If the index of economic development were applied to Subsaharan Africa, a clear pattern would emerge. Rural areas would be in the lower stages of development, and only a few developing areas would be higher than stage 3. A large percentage of this realm would be in stage 1 or 2 of this model. Countries with higher standards of living, such as South Africa or Botswana, would be working through stage 3 or 4. This region has one of the fastest-growing populations of the world and economically lags behind countries in the Northern Hemisphere, which have transitioned into the higher stages of the index of economic development.

    Incomes, Urbanization, and Family Size

    The socioeconomic data illustrate well the conditions for people in Africa in comparison to the rest of the world. African countries are at the lowest end of the statistics for development prospects. The larger cities are showing promise for advancement into the higher stages of development. Family sizes in the rural countries are some of the largest in the world. The average fertility rate for much of Africa is about 5; in Mali and Niger, the rate is higher than 7. One-third to half of the populations of these countries are under the age of fifteen. Children make up most of the population in many areas—an indication that heavier burdens are placed on women, meaning that women are not easily able to get an education or work outside the home.

    Figure 7.11 Young Women and Child of the Maasai in Kenya


    Davida De La Harpe – maasai children – CC BY-ND 2.0.

    The populations of West African countries are increasing rapidly and will double in about thirty years at the current rate. This trend places an extra burden on the economy and on the environment. It is fueling one of the fastest rural-to-urban shifts in the world. West Africa is now only about 32 percent urban, and Burkina Faso and Niger are less than 20 percent urban—clear indications that agriculture is the largest sector of their economies and that most of the people live in rural areas or small villages. Personal income levels in West African countries are among the lowest in the world; as far as standard of living is concerned, these are poor countries. Few economic opportunities exist for the millions of young people entering the employment market.

    The United Nations (UN) human development index lists all but two of West African countries in the lowest category of development. Sierra Leone is the lowest of the world. Ghana and Senegal were the two countries listed in the medium range. Senegal is the lowest country in the medium category, just barely rising about the lowest tier. A country listed in the lowest tier of the medium category translates into a region with low availability of opportunities and advantages for its people. As a peripheral world region, the economic base is structured around agriculture with supportive extractive activities. Agricultural activities are renewable, but agricultural profit margins are slim. These countries are in a subsistence mode with a rapidly expanding population and few industrial or postindustrial activities to gain income.

    No Subsaharan African nation is in stage 5 of the index of economic development. Nevertheless, the fact that they are not consumer societies does not negate the rich cultural values and heritage of the realm. The energy of the people does not revolve around consumerism but is instead focused on the people themselves. High levels of social interaction and community involvement bring about different cultural standards than those of a consumer society, which focuses more on the individual and less on community. Unless there is social unrest or open warfare, which does exist in various places, the people work hard to bring about a civil society based on family and tradition.

    Figure 7.12 Population Pyramids of African Countries


    The population pyramids of Niger, Tanzania, and South Africa illustrate the population growth dynamics of Subsaharan Africa. Niger’s population pyramid illustrates large family size and rapid population growth. Tanzania’s pyramid is similar but shows signs of slowing population growth. South Africa, which is more urbanized and industrialized, shows signs of declining family sizes and fewer children.

    US Census Bureau International Programs – public domain.