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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Primary Sources and Methodological Contributions
  • Business History of the Transatlantic Slave Trade
  • Precolonial and Early Colonial Business Institutions
  • Colonial Corporate Histories
  • The Development of Colonial Industries
  • South African Businesses and Apartheid
  • History of Consumption and the Role of Business
  • Business and Independence
  • Postcolonial Business History
  • Business-Government Relationships and Neocolonialism
  • African Entrepreneurship
  • Women and Informal Business in Africa

African Studies Business History
Stephanie Decker
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 April 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 April 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0239


The business history of Africa has not been widely researched. As a subject area, it has seen engagement from different disciplines: business and economic history, African history, and imperial history. The general perception of Africa as a continent needing development may have contributed to a lack of interest in the role of business in African history. Nevertheless, from the 1970s onwards, the subject has had more engagement from scholars. Larger economies and regions with longer-standing intercontinental trade relationships have seen more research (e.g., South Africa, Nigeria). As both the private and higher education sectors are not consistently strongly developed across African countries, there are substantial differences in how much research has been conducted on a given country or industry. North African states are sometimes included in the historiography of the Middle East and only rarely included in the history of African business. As the subject area crosses disciplinary boundaries, research controversies and questions can be somewhat disconnected, and contributions to one field may not always be referenced by researchers from another. Research has also tended to differentiate between business actors, such as African and expatriate (with domestic ethnic minority trading diasporas such as the Lebanese in West Africa and the Indians in East Africa being included in this binary distinction or researched separately) and types of business, such as formal and informal enterprises, which usually require different methodological approaches as informal economic activities are more difficult to research archivally.

General Overviews

General discussions of African business history fall into two categories: research synthesis, including edited volumes, and literature review articles. Over the years, there has been a noticeable shift in focus from researching imperial or multinational companies towards domestic, entrepreneurial, and, increasingly, informal businesses. The earliest reviews, Hopkins 1976a, Hopkins 1976b, and Hopkins 1987, illustrate these trends; the most recent review, Austin 2016, highlights the importance of informal business. The review by Tignor 2007 unusually includes North African countries; Verhoef 2017 is more focused on South Africa and African entrepreneurship. Jalloh and Falola 2002 considers African business history in the context of black business more globally. Hopkins 1973, an economic history of West Africa, focuses on markets and therefore reflects business activities in its account.

  • Austin, G. “African Business History.” In Routledge Companion to Business History. Edited by J. Wilson, 141–158. Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2016.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203736036

    A useful introduction to specifically African forms of business activity that may not normally be considered by business historians.

  • Austin, G., C. Dávila, and G. Jones. “The Alternative Business History: Business in Emerging Markets.” Business History Review 91.3 (2017).

    DOI: 10.1017/S0007680517001052

    A general discussion of the rise of emerging economies business historical research; more focused on Latin America and also Asia than Africa.

  • Hopkins, A. G. An Economic History of West Africa. London: Longman, 1973.

    The standard work on economic history in West Africa also covers some business history. Republished 2019.

  • Hopkins, A. G. “Imperial Business in Africa Part I: Sources.” The Journal of African History 18 (1976a): 29–48.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0021853700014754

    The first part of a review on business in Africa, with a focus on multinationals rather than indigenous businesses.

  • Hopkins, A. G. “Imperial Business in Africa Part II: Interpretations.” The Journal of African History 18 (1976b): 276–290.

    The second part of a review on business in Africa, with a focus on multinationals rather than indigenous businesses.

  • Hopkins, A. G. “Big Business in African Studies.” The Journal of African History 28.1 (1987): 119–140.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0021853700029455

    This a follow-up to Hopkins 1976a and Hopkins 1976b, which changes the focus to a wider set of businesses.

  • Jalloh, A., and T. Falola, eds. Black Business and Economic Power. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2002.

    An edited volume with important contributions that also speak to some of the themes identified in this entry.

  • Tignor, R. L. “The Business Firm in Africa.” Business History Review 81.1 (2007): 87–110.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0007680500036266

    A review article that incorporates the business history of Northern Africa.

  • Verhoef, G. The History of Business in Africa. Studies in Economic History. Cham, Switzerland: Springer, 2017.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-62566-9_1

    An overview book that focuses on entrepreneurship in Africa and also covers South Africa in greater detail.

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