ENCYCLOPEDIC ENTRY

ENCYCLOPEDIC ENTRY

Africa: Resources

Africa: Resources

Africa is a continent rich in resources, including fertile agricultural land and vast mineral deposits.

Grades

6 - 12+

Subjects

Earth Science, Geology, Meteorology, Engineering, Geography, Human Geography, Physical Geography

















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Due to its position on Earth and its climate, Africa is home to many resource-dense natural habitats, including forests, oceans, coasts, deserts, highlands and more. For centuries, these resources have allowed people to live in Africa without degrading the land or its ecosystems. Africa’s diamonds, cobalt and other natural resources help to facilitate the production of technology and other modern conveniences. In the past, colonial powers leveraged Africa’s people and resources for wealth without making significant investments in local communities. In today’s post-colonial world, however, African countries are beginning to take hold of their own futures and grow their own wealth through their resources. Still, African countries face a number of challenges as governments and companies in Europe, North America and Asia continue to vie for control and influence over Africa and its resources. Furthermore, the resources themselves are vulnerable to environmental risks and there continues to be exploitation of local workers and other human rights concerns.

Agriculture

Africa, the second-largest continent, is bounded by the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean. It is divided in half almost equally by the Equator. Climatic zones lie on either side of this line as if it were a mirror, with tropical wet climates closer to the Equator and more arid conditions closer to the north and south. This climatic symmetry is disturbed, however, by Africa’s unequal shape. The continent’s narrow southern section is more influenced by oceanic factors than the bulging northern section.

The climate exerts significant influence on Africa’s agriculture, which is the continent’s most important economic activity. Agriculture employs about half of the continent’s working population, though the percentage of agricultural workers varies widely among individual countries.

Tropical conditions occur along the Equator, the Gulf of Guinea and the eastern Madagascar coast. Temperatures remain above 18°C (64.4°F) year-round. This climate also has significant rainfall year-round, totaling 175–250 centimeters (69–94 inches). Important crops to Africa’s tropical wet regions include plantains, coffee, cocoa and oil palms.

Savanna conditions occur in much of Africa. Temperatures in the savanna are cooler and more varied than in tropical wet regions. The savanna also receives less annual precipitation, with most of the rain falling during a relatively short rainy season. Important savanna crops include the cassava (a root vegetable related to the potato), peanuts, okra and eggplant. Africa’s most important grain crops, millet and sorghum, are grown in the savanna.

Desert conditions occur in northern Africa, especially in the Sahara. The Sahel, also in northern Africa, is a semi-arid region that serves as a transition between the desert conditions of the Sahara and the wetter climates to the south. Temperatures can range more than 38°C (100°F) on the hottest days to below freezing -4°C (25°F) on the coldest nights. Annual precipitation is around 7.5 centimeters (3 inches), though some areas go without rain for years. Important desert crops include date palms, which grow in oases, and cotton, which grows in the Sahel and other semi-arid areas.

Mediterranean climate conditions occur along the northern coast of Africa and the southwestern tip of South Africa. The Mediterranean climate is characterized by mild temperatures, dry summers and moderately rainy winters. Cabbage, tomatoes, oranges, olives and figs are all important crops in this area.

Highland conditions occur at the highest elevations of Africa, with the Ethiopian Highlands being one noteworthy area. Temperatures here are much colder than the surrounding lowlands. Important highland crops include grains like wheat, a subsistence crop that makes up a high percentage of the local population’s diet.

Forestry

Forestry, the management of trees and other vegetation in forests, is an important economic activity in Africa. Forests cover around 21 percent of Africa’s land area, and globally, Africa is the continent with the third largest area dedicated to forests. Most of the forests in Africa are located within the wet tropical climate band in countries like Gabon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Tanzania. In Cameroon, timber is exported to Europe and China, and forestry accounts for anywhere from 4 percent to 6 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP). Gabon is the top producer of processed wood in Africa, and the government is increasing production efforts with the goal of becoming the top producer of wood in the world.

Africa’s forest sector faces many challenges, however, including illegal logging. African nations lose an estimated $17 billion in revenue each year from illegal logging, and much of the wood is smuggled to China. Another challenge is deforestation due to agricultural expansion; roughly 10 percent of Ghana’s trees were cleared for cocoa farming between 2001 and 2014. One major issue limiting the protection of forests is a lack of government safeguards, with only 24 percent of Africa’s forests having sufficient management plans.

Despite these challenges, governments are taking steps to both help protect the forests and address economic concerns. For instance, the Central African Forests Commission was created to regulate Africa’s forestry sector and promote sustainable uses of the Congo Basin’s rain forest products. The commission created the Sangha Tri-National Landscape, a reserve that covers more than 1 million hectares (2.5 million acres) of rain forest in Cameroon, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Fishing

Africa’s fishing industry is valued at around $24 billion per year, accounting for around 1.3 percent of the continent’s GDP. Africa has fisheries on all of its marine coasts, as well as inland. The Great Lakes and Nile River, for instance, support huge freshwater fisheries.

Marine fisheries are important to many coastal countries in Africa. West Africa is one of the most economically important fishing zones in the world, and around 7 million people in the region are employed in the fishing industry. Namibia is also a major fish producer, with increasing amounts of fish being exported year over year. Small fish, such as herring and sardines, are the most common catch on the African coastline.

Much like the forestry sector, Africa’s fishing sector suffers from overharvesting. Some of this is due to illegal fishing, often by fleets from China. Demand for fish caught in Africa is high in China, where it is used as feed for more profitable fish and other animals. Chinese vessels are better equipped than traditional African fishing boats and can garner a significantly bigger catch. Foreign fishermen have been known to destroy African fishing nets. African fishermen say more patrols and stronger regulations are needed to keep foreign ships out of African waters. One group working on this issue is The Partnership for African Fisheries (PAF). PAF also aims to focus on stricter environmental management to help grow fish populations. The goal of these processes is to increase fishery revenue and promote the sustainable use of marine and inland fish resources.

Mining and Drilling

Africa is a major producer of important metals and minerals. Many of the minerals exported from Africa come from countries in the south and central areas, like South Africa and Nigeria. Metals exported by African countries include uranium, used to produce nuclear energy; platinum, used in jewelry and industrial applications; and nickel and cobalt, which are both used for rechargeable batteries, such as the types found in smartphones and laptops.

Africa’s two most profitable mineral resources are gold and diamonds. In 2021, Africa produced 680.3 metric tons of gold. Africa also dominates the global diamond market. The continent produces around 65 percent of the world’s diamonds by value each year.

Unfortunately, several African conflicts and civil wars have been caused and funded by the diamond industry. Diamonds that come from these regions are known as conflict diamonds or blood diamonds.

In 2003, the United Nations created the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPCS) in order to certify diamonds have been sourced from regions free of conflict. The KPCS also aims to prevent diamond sales from financing wars. Though the KPCS has been successful in reducing the production of conflict diamonds, critics say that it does not address significant concerns related to human rights or environmental degradation.

Africa is home to select deposits of oil and natural gas, which are drilled for energy and fuel. The amount of natural gas produced in Africa has doubled since 2000 and continues to climb each year. Nigeria, Algeria and Egypt are major producers of natural gas, and Nigeria is also a consistent major oil producer.

Oil production has also been connected to civil conflict and pollution. In Nigeria, indigenous tribal groups, who have typically been underserved by the government, have raised concerns that oil companies based in North America, Europe and China have exploited the group’s oil resources and their labor while keeping most of the wealth. They also charge that out-of-date equipment has severely polluted air, soil and water resources.

When their protests were ignored, some people resorted to damaging the pipelines and other acts of civil disobedience, which, as time went on, became more and more violent. Some of these groups, like the Ogoni, have been able to stop oil companies from extracting oil from their land. This has caused its own set of problems, however, as the oil companies have left their pipelines in the region even though they are not extracting oil. These pipelines eventually break down and cause devastating oil spills. In 2023, a major oil spill spread over 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) of the Okulu River, an important fishing area for local residents, and took more than a week to contain.

However, in recent years, the Nigerian government has taken stronger steps to protect the environment and the “host” citizens living in the areas where drilling occurs. In 2021, the government passed the Petroleum Industry Act. This act has a wide range of provisions to improve the oil sector, including diverting funds into environmental remediation and support for host communities, and giving host communities more input in decision-making. Experts say this is an important first step in improving issues around oil production.

Industry and Innovation

Africa’s natural resource economy contributes greatly to the continent’s built environment, or its human-made buildings and structures. Many of Africa’s recent famous architectural achievements are related to sustainability and the environment. The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town, South Africa, which was formerly a grain silo, is one such example. Its soaring ceilings made from the storage chambers of the silo are a stunning example of adaptive reuse of materials. The Mapungubwe Interpretation Centre, also located in South Africa, was designed to be energy efficient as well as self-supporting, with no major framework supporting the structure.

Building city infrastructure in Africa is a huge challenge, due to overcrowding, lack of services, climate change and other issues. Lagos, a city in Nigeria, is booming economically and contributes around 25 percent to the country’s GDP. However, the population is expanding so rapidly that residents are pushed to live on the outskirts of the city in areas with little or no public infrastructure, such as running water or electricity. Though residents have shown ingenuity in building housing structures on reclaimed bodies of water, the government has largely refused to create infrastructure and services for those living there. These communities are susceptible to flooding and damage, a danger that only increases as a result of climate change.

City dwellers are creating innovative solutions to combat some of these problems. Due to concerns from flooding, a local architect developed a plan called the Floating School, which consists of school buildings that can adapt to changing water levels so children can continue to attend school no matter the conditions. Urban development projects in cities in Rwanda and Kenya plan to create hubs of sustainable technology that will help their communities come together and plan for the future.

Challenges

Africa is facing many challenges related to both the protection and the use of its resources. The compounding effects of poverty and economic pressures from nations in Europe, North America and Asia exacerbate the challenges of addressing decades-long imbalances that have hampered development in the continent.

One of the most significant challenges is a trade imbalance that is the legacy of colonialism. In recent decades, fair-trade policies have been put in place to remedy this issue. Fair trade is a movement that reached worldwide attention in the 1990s with a goal of making sure that farmers, particularly African farmers, are paid fair prices by Europeans and Americans. During and after the colonial era, Europeans and Americans were buying high-demand products, such as cocoa, from African farmers and reselling them for a much higher price. They profited off of African farmers in a similar way that the colonial powers exploited African workers and resources. Fair trade is designed to address such imbalances by setting a minimum (“fair”) price for products to be paid to the farmers. Fair trade also focuses on human rights and exploitation issues like child labor, equal opportunities for women, sustainability and other issues that affect African farmers. Many fair-trade organizations are based in Europe and North America, including the World Fair Trade Organization, which was an early international network of independent fair-trade organizations.

Different countries have had different experiences with fair trade. Some countries that have greatly increased their participation in fair trade certification have gained profit and improved their industry. For example, Uganda has many coffee farmers who are fair-trade certified, which has improved the production and profits of the export since the 1990s. The cocoa industry in Ghana, however, has not had such success. Farmers there saw their incomes fall in 2023 even though production went up, and despite fair trade cooperatives being quite active there.

Fair trade has helped some farming sectors improve in equity, but there remains much to be done. Critics of fair trade argue that its certification process comes from the global north in the form of large cooperatives and that African farmers have less of a say in how they get certified. This had led to some companies creating their own fair-trade certification. Some of these companies are doing this to have more control and voice in the process, while others may be trying to get around the standards or use the fair-trade label as a marketing technique. Many critics agree with the stance that “fair trade” is overused as a marketing term. They say that the “fair trade” seal of approval is meant to appeal to consumers in North America and Europe and make them feel good about their purchases, without advocating for systemic change. Finding a balance between the African workers’ right to govern their own industries yet be held to an international standard of fair practices is a challenge that individuals, companies, and local and national governments must work together to address.

Another area in which human rights and environmental concerns are coming up against industry and resource management is mining. For example, cobalt mining in the DRC has repercussions for both local populations and the world at large. Cobalt is in high demand because it is used in making rechargeable batteries for devices such as smartphones and computers. Companies based in the global north, particularly China, source cobalt from Africa, increasing the demand astronomically. In the DRC, cobalt mining has been plagued with human rights violations. People living in cobalt-rich areas have been forcibly removed from their homes and told to relocate so that mines can be opened on their lands. Those who refuse to comply may be beaten or have their homes burned down. There are also issues related to safety for cobalt workers. Companies pay workers just dollars a day and provide no job security or benefits. The dangerous work is made more so because workers are using old and outdated tools. The mining process is also toxic. It both damages the environment and makes workers sick. To add on to the human rights issues, child labor is frequently used. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that 25,000 children work in mines in the DRC.

The situation is dire, but experts are pushing for change. If countries that buy cobalt from the DRC, including China and the United States, join together to require mines to institute safety protocols and proper mining procedures, conditions would improve.

Experts point out that other countries in Africa have had success in reducing human rights issues in mining, including South Africa. Until recently, South African mines have traditionally had many fatalities. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the death rate was around 100–300 people per year. Prior to that, the death toll in the mines could be as high as 800 people per year. This was in part because gold and platinum, two of South Africa’s most important exports, are found deep in the ground in the region. The long mining shafts increased the chances of injury and death, as well as poisoning or explosions due to toxic gasses. Another contributing factor was the population that mines chose to hire, a large percentage of whom were migrants from other African countries with little or no formal training in mine work. Since then, however, mining companies in South Africa have improved safety measures, which has decreased the death toll dramatically. The death rate has mostly decreased year over year and was as low as 49 deaths in 2022. Though the death toll increased in 2023—mostly due to a single catastrophic incident where 11 people died in an elevator that fell in a shaft—mine safety has been trending in a positive direction since 2000.

Media Credits

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Writers
Diane Boudreau
Melissa McDaniel
Erin Sprout
Andrew Turgeon
Producer
Kate Gallery, National Geographic Society
Editors
Kara West
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
Educator Reviewer
Nancy Wynne
Last Updated

June 12, 2024

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