African economies hold each other back

Historian Ewout Frankema investigated why Africa’s economic development lagged.
Ewout Frankema Ewout Frankema. Photo Duncan de Fey

The differences between African countries are abundant, but they share a difficult economic development, says Ewout Frankema, professor of Rural and Environmental History in Wageningen. ‘African economies appear to fail in boosting each other. There is no dynamic that helps the economies profit from each other.’

While trade between countries in Europe and South East Asia increased over the past centuries, trade in Africa lagged behind with less than 10% export to neighbouring countries. African countries have not deviated from the export pattern of colonial times; their export consists mainly of minerals and tropical crops for other continents.


To determine regional development, Frankema focuses on three things. First, the mutual trade between countries. Second, the flow of capital (where are investments going?), and third: migration. ‘The latter is a widely underestimated aspect of development. In South East Asia, large groups of labour migrants started settling in other countries from the mid-nineteenth century. They distributed knowledge and started commercial businesses and networks. A part of that community now occupies key positions in the regional economy.’

Africa has very few entrepreneurial migrants, Frankema continues. ‘In colonial times there was a surge in voluntary labour migration, but after the independence many “foreigners” were expelled. Nigeria, for example, expelled an estimated 3 million people at the start of the eighties, In Uganda and Tanzania, the Indian community, which held key positions in the economy, was deported. All of this did not benefit trade and development.’

Read the full interview here.

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