In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Economic History

  • Introduction
  • The African Economic History Network (AEHN)
  • Journals
  • General Economic Histories of Africa
  • The “New” African Economic History
  • Conceptual and Methodological Reflections
  • Population Development and Demographic Change
  • Economic Growth and Historical National Accounts
  • Poverty, Living Standards, and Real Wages
  • Endowments, Technology, and Institutions
  • Internal Slavery and Forced Labor
  • Wage Labor and Labor Migration
  • External Slave Trades
  • Commodity Trade and the “Commercial Transition”
  • Colonial Economic Policies and Institutions
  • Gender and Inequality
  • Agricultural Development and Land Tenure
  • Industrialization
  • Capital Investment and Infrastructure
  • Fiscal and Financial Development
  • Education and Human Capital
  • Health and Disease

African Studies Economic History
Ewout Frankema
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 August 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 February 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0219


The study of Africa’s economic past has experienced phases of growth and decline. In the 1960s to 1980s scholarly interest in African economic history surged. Major themes, such as slavery and the slave trades, agricultural development, colonial economic policy, demography, poverty, and growth and structural change, invited discussion and sometimes heated debate. Dependency and Marxist perspectives dominated the literature of the 1970s and 1980s and the influential “formalist-substantivist” debate within economic anthropology addressed the validity of Western, capitalist models of rational economic behavior to study non-Western or non-capitalist societies. The early literature did much to recover the making by Africans of their own economic histories, including in internal trade (and commodity currencies) before colonial rule, and in researching the initiative/agency of Africans in expanding agricultural production for the market, especially in West Africa from “legitimate commerce” onward. It also laid the foundation for quantitative approaches, which are currently expanding in many directions. Growing numbers of historians from Africa, Europe, and North America inspired the foundation, in 1974, of the field journal African Economic History, published by the African Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin. In the 1990s the field coped with diminishing interest, and Marxist perspectives lost terrain. Many of the leading scholars of the “first generation” retired or branched off into other emerging fields, such as global history. Historians in the United States turned their backs on number-crunching economic historians. The field may also have suffered from rising pessimism concerning Africa’s economic future. Whatever the causes, the fading attention given to African economic history occurred at a time when Africans themselves were overcoming a period of intensive political and economic distress (see Hopkins 2009, cited under The “New” African Economic History). The foundation of the African Economic History Network in 2011 marked a renaissance within African economic history that became evident in the late 2000s. Scholars of The “New” African Economic History developed new quantitative and comparative approaches, using new data sources. They tended to make lesser use though of anthropological approaches and the rich ethnographic literature of Africa than earlier scholarship had done. Methodologically, the field saw a divide between scholars who combine the qualitative and quantitative approaches common in economic history and a new branch—often referred to as “historical economics”—that leans strongly toward the methods of applied economics, with an increasing emphasis on “causal identification.” Chances that the current wave of interest in the economic past of Africa will wither away again appear much lower these days. International development agencies are focusing increasingly on sub-Saharan Africa as the front line in their fight against global poverty. Climate change, demographic growth, Africa’s “green revolution,” new trade agreements (e.g., the African Continental Free Trade Area [AfCFTA]), and the shifting gravity centers of the global economy in general all forge a broad public interest in the long-term dynamics of African economies. Moreover, contrary to the 1990s, renewed optimism has emerged regarding the opportunities of African economies to outgrow poverty. This article focuses mainly, though not exclusively, on the work produced by economic historians, most of whom are united in the African Economic History Network (AEHN), that can be associated with The “New” African Economic History. This bibliography gives little attention to North Africa, but it does include some key references on the economic history of South Africa.

The African Economic History Network (AEHN)

The African Economic History Network was founded in 2011 by a group of established and talented upcoming scholars. The AEHN aims to foster communication, collaboration, and research as well as teaching among scholars studying the long-term development of Africa from the precolonial era to the present day. The network expanded rapidly to over 300 members within a few years. The AEHN Annual Meeting has evolved out of a series of mini-workshops organized by Gareth Austin at the London School of Economics and the Graduate Institute, Geneva, which have attracted rising numbers of participants since 2011. The founders of the AEHN marked the occasion with an introduction to the AEHN working paper series (Jerven, et al. 2012). The AEHN also publishes a working papers series in African economic history, a well-read blog “Frontiers in African Economic History,” a newsletter, and an open-source, freely downloadable textbook, Frankema, et al. 2011–.

  • Frankema, Ewout, Ellen Hillbom, Ushewedu Kufakurinani, and Felix Meier zu Selhausen, eds. The History of African Development. Wageningen, The Netherlands: African Economic History Network, 2011–.

    The textbook chapters describe and explain various aspects of historical African development trajectories in plain English language. All chapters include a list of suggested readings, data sources and study questions to test student’s comprehension. The open-source environment facilitates a wider diffusion of the knowledge that is generated within the AEHN and supports capacity building among a new generation of African historians and development practitioners worldwide.

  • Jerven, Morten, Gareth Austin, Erik Green, et al. Moving Forward in African Economic History: Bridging the Gap between Methods and Sources. Working Paper No. 1/2012. Wageningen, The Netherlands: African Economic History Network, 2012.

    Reviews ongoing research contributions and notes strengths of contributors in their wide methodological, conceptual, and topical variety. Highlights the mission of the African Economic History Network and the need to bridge the gap between methods and sources and to facilitate intellectual exchanges among the widest possible range of scholars working on African economic history. Outlines current research projects and calls for future research as well as suggesting promising lines of inquiry in the discipline.

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