Africa’s northern half is more dry and hot, while its southern end is more humid and cool.
6 - 12+
Earth Science, Geology, Meteorology, Engineering, Geography, Human Geography, Physical Geography
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.
Africa’s physical geography, environment and resources, and human geography can be considered separately.
The origin of the name “Africa” is greatly disputed by scholars. Most believe it stems from words used by the Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans. Important words include the Egyptian word Afru-ika, meaning “Motherland”; the Greek word aphrike, meaning “without cold”; and the Latin word aprica, meaning “sunny.”
A number of factors influence Africa’s sunny climate. The Equator nearly bisects the continent into two equal parts. 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 tropics.
This climatic symmetry is disturbed, however, by Africa’s unequal shape. The continent’s narrow southern section is far more influenced by oceanic factors than the bulging northern section. Africa’s northern half is more dry and hot, while its southern end is more humid and cool.
Climate and Agriculture
Climatic factors greatly influence Africa’s agriculture, which is considered the continent’s single most important economic activity. Agriculture employs two-thirds of the continent’s working population and contributes 20 to 60 percent of every country’s gross domestic product (GDP). GDP is the total value of goods and services produced in a country during one year.
Important climatic regions of agriculture include tropical wet, savanna, desert, Mediterranean, and highland.
Tropical wet conditions occur along the Equator, the Gulf of Guinea, and the east Madagascar coast. Temperatures remain near 27° Celsius (80° Fahrenheit) year-round. Annual precipitation varies from 152 centimeters (60 inches) inland to 330 centimeters (130 inches) along the coasts. Important crops to Africa’s tropical wet regions include the plantain, pineapple, coffee, cocoa, and oil palms. (Oil from this palm tree is the primary cooking oil in Africa, as familiar as olive oil or corn oil in North America.)
Savanna conditions occur in much of eastern and southern Africa. Temperatures here are cooler and more variant than in tropical wet regions. Annual precipitation is between 50 and 152 centimeters (20 to 60 inches). The dry season in the savanna can last as long as six months. Important savanna crops include the cassava (related to the potato), peanuts, peppers, okra, eggplant, cucumber, and watermelon. Africa’s most important grain crops, millet and sorghum, are grown here.
Desert conditions occur in northern Africa, especially in the Sahara and the Sahel. Temperatures can range from 54° Celsius (130° F) on the hottest days to freezing on the coldest nights. Annual precipitation never exceeds 25 centimeters (10 inches), and some areas go without rain for years. Important desert crops include date palms and cotton.
Mediterranean climate conditions occur along the extreme northern and southern coasts of Africa. These regions have mild temperatures, dry summers, and moderately rainy winters. Important crops include figs, olives, oranges, tomatoes, onions, and large vegetables, such as cabbage and cauliflower.
Highland conditions occur in the highest elevations of Africa, particularly in the Ethiopian Highlands. Temperatures here are much colder than the surrounding lowlands. Precipitation depends on the orientation of the mountain in relation to moisture-bearing winds. Important highland crops include alfalfa, potatoes, and wheat.
Forestry and Fishing
Forestry, the management of trees and other vegetation in forests, is an important economic activity in Africa. On average, forest products account for 6 percent of Africa’s gross domestic product (GDP), more than any other continent. This is a result of Africa’s abundant forest cover, with 0.8 hectares (2 acres) per person, compared with 0.6 hectares (1.5 acres) globally. In central and western Africa, where forest cover is heaviest, the forest sector contributes more than 60 percent of GDP.
The export of forest products, especially high-grade woods like mahogany and okoume, brings in significant revenue. These woods are mostly found in the countries of the Congo Basin—Cameroon, Central African Republic, Republic of the Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gabon, and Equatorial Guinea—where there is a dense rain forest. Okoume, for example, accounts for 90 percent of the trees logged in Gabon. These woods are generally exported to Japan, Israel, and the European Union. Mahogany and okoume are used to make everything from homes to musical instruments to lightweight aircraft.
Africa’s forest sector, however, suffers from illegal logging and overharvesting of certain tree species. Many species of both mahogany and okoume are endangered. Experts argue that overharvesting will eventually destroy forest habitats. Saplings planted to replace the logged trees do not grow fast enough to be harvested on a regular basis, and the rain forest habitat in which these trees thrive is being destroyed for agriculture and development.
Today, Africa is torn between developing its forests to their fullest economic potential and protecting these natural landscapes from over-development. For instance, the Central African Forests Commission regulates Africa’s forestry sector and promotes 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 (2.4 million acres) of rain forest in Cameroon, the Central African Republic, and the Republic of the Congo.
Africa’s fishing industry provides income to more than 10 million people and has an annual export value of $2.7 billion. Africa has fisheries on all 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, producing 4.5 million tons of fish in 2000. Namibia and South Africa are also major players in the marine fish market, exporting between 80 and 90 percent of their fish annually. The Eastern African countries of Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, and Kenya have well-established fisheries in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. Small fish such as herring and sardines are the most common catch on the African coastline. However, larger fish, such as tuna, cod, hake, and haddock, are the most profitable.
Africa’s extensive inland fisheries contain more than 3,000 fish species and account for two-thirds of global inland fish production. Unlike marine fisheries, the catch from Africa’s inland fisheries is not exported. It is consumed almost entirely on the continent, forming a major source of people’s protein intake.
Africa’s Great Lakes support the largest inland fisheries on the continent. Lake Victoria is the most productive freshwater fishery in the world, producing more than 500,000 tons of fish worth $600 million every year. The Nile perch, a highly prized catch that can weigh more than 45 kilograms (100 pounds), and the Nile tilapia are Lake’s Victoria’s dominant commercial fish species.
Much like the forestry sector, Africa’s fishing sector suffers from overharvesting. As a result, in the past century, fish stocks have declined by up to half in some coastal zones. The Partnership for African Fisheries (PAF) is being implemented to strengthen Africa’s fisheries sector. PAF will focus on stricter regulations and environmental management. These processes will 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. Metals exported by African countries include uranium, used to produce nuclear energy; platinum, used in jewelry and industrial applications; nickel, used in stainless steel, magnets, coins, and rechargeable batteries; bauxite, a main aluminum ore; and cobalt, used in color pigments.
Africa’s two most profitable mineral resources are gold and diamonds. In 2008, Africa produced about 483 tons of gold, or 22 percent of the world’s total production. South Africa accounts for almost half of Africa’s gold production. Ghana, Guinea, Mali, and Tanzania are other major producers of gold.
Africa dominates the global diamond market. In 2008, the continent produced 55 percent of the world’s diamonds. Botswana, Angola, South Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Namibia are Africa’s largest producers of diamonds.
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 2002, the United Nations created the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPCS) in order to certify diamonds from sources that are free of conflict. The KPCS also aims to prevent diamond sales from financing wars. Countries that do not meet KPCS requirements are not allowed to trade with much of the rest of the world. The Republic of the Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Côte d’Ivoire have all been expelled at some point in the last decade.
Africa is home to select deposits of oil and natural gas, which are drilled for energy and fuel. In 2007, the continent produced 12.5 percent of the world’s total oil production and 6.45 percent of the world’s total natural gas production. Nigeria, Libya, Algeria, Egypt, and Angola dominate Africa’s oil industry. Oil exploration has significantly increased on the continent, and many countries are looking to become first-time producers.
Oil and natural gas production have also been connected to civil conflict. In Nigeria, guerrilla groups have attacked oil infrastructure and stolen oil from pipelines since the early 1990s. These groups, primarily ethnic minorities, say foreign oil companies have exploited their labor while keeping most of the wealth. They also charge that out-of-date equipment has severely polluted air, soil, and water resources. This pollution has lead to losses in arable land and fish stocks. However, the severe actions of these guerrilla groups have also increased pollution as they have damaged equipment. The attacks have also reduced production and local income, as many companies are forced to shut down.
The Built Environment
Africa’s natural resource economy contributes greatly to the continent’s built environment, or human-made buildings and structures. The largest engineering projects and urban areas are directly linked to the production and trade of resources such as water, oil, and minerals. Yet much like the resource economies described above, Africa’s infrastructure suffers from poor management and inefficient government regulation.
Africa is home to a number of engineering marvels. The Aswan Dam, a complex of two dams in Aswan, Egypt, captures the world’s longest river, the Nile, in the world’s third-largest reservoir, Lake Nasser. The Aswan High Dam, the newer and larger of the two dams, produces more than 10 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity every year, enough power for about 15 percent of the country.
The Aswan Dam complex regulates the flooding of the Nile and stores water for agriculture. While farmland has increased by 500 percent as a result of the dam, land fertility has decreased. Nutrient-rich silt is unable to spread over the Nile valley because it is trapped in Lake Nasser.
The Driefontein Gold Mine outside of Johannesburg, South Africa, is one of the largest gold mines in the world. The mine is made up of eight shafts that reach depths of up to 3,352 meters (11,000 feet) underground. One of the shafts is in the process of being deepened to about 4,115 meters (13,500 feet), making it the deepest mine in the world. These extreme depths make mining operations incredibly dangerous at Driefontein, which has one of the worst records of employee fatalities in the industry.
Two urban areas that demonstrate Africa’s uneven growth are Lagos, Nigeria, and Johannesburg, South Africa. Both of these large cities have distinct economic engines that make them favorable for growth. At the same time, each faces similar problems as a result of this growth.
Lagos is Africa’s second most-populous city, with a population of about 10.2 million people. Lagos is growing 10 times faster than New York City, New York, or Los Angeles, California, in the United States. The United Nations estimates that Lagos will be one of the largest megacities in the world by 2015.
Lagos is the commercial and industrial hub of Nigeria, which has a gross domestic product that is triple that of any other West African country. Located on the oil-rich Gulf of Guinea and adjacent to the Niger Delta, Lagos is a center of oil extraction, refining, and export. The city is tied to the rise and fall of oil prices, creating cycles of extreme wealth and poverty.
Lagos’ unregulated growth has created a sprawling and chaotic urban landscape. Poor immigrants from rural Nigeria have flooded the city looking for economic opportunities. Residential zones are overcrowded, averaging six people per room. Slum communities are growing rapidly, taking over unsuitable areas such as nearby lagoons and lakes. Lagos suffers from water shortages, poor sanitation services, and heavy traffic. Government bodies and urban developers are finding it difficult to keep up with Lagos’ rapid growth.
Johannesburg is the largest city in South Africa, with a metropolitan population of more than 7 million. Johannesburg is also the world’s largest city not situated on a river, lake, or coastline. The city developed around the gold and diamond industry situated on a mineral-rich mountain range.
While mining operations are gradually losing importance in Johannesburg, most mining companies still have their headquarters there. The wealth and trade of these companies and other manufacturing industries is supported by Africa’s largest stock exchange, the JSE (Johannesburg Stock Exchange). As such, Johannesburg has become the financial hub for the African continent.
Much like Lagos, Johannesburg’s unregulated development has caused certain infrastructure problems. During the last four decades, Johannesburg’s inner city of Hillbrow has suffered from poor planning and a lack of investment. Hillbrow is known for high levels of unemployment, poverty, and crime. Johannesburg officials are trying to solve these problems by reinvesting in Hillbrow’s downtown businesses.
Residents of Johannesburg make up for the city’s high level of unemployment by participating in one of the world’s largest informal economies. An informal economy is sometimes called a black market. In an informal economy, goods and services are exchanged without taxes, or money going to the government. A large population of Johannesburg, mostly immigrants, have become cash-only vendors who do not work for any official entity. These informal economic activities have caused obvious problems with labor and commerce regulation. Without knowing how many people are employed, how much money they are making, or how they are making it, it is increasingly difficult to track the city’s economic progress.
41.9 people per square kilometer (109 per square mile), as of 2020
Kilimanjaro, Tanzania (5,895 meters/19,340 feet)
Most Renewable Energy Capacity
South Africa (6,065 megawatts), as of 2019
Largest Urban Area
Cairo, Egypt (15.6 million people)
Congo River (4 million square kilometers/1.55 million square miles)
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July 27, 2023
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