The ancient texts housed in Timbuktu. Photo: Candace Feit

Much like the continent’s rapidly growing economies, the study of Africa’s economic past is gaining momentum. But this was not always the case. After much interest during the 1960s and 1970s, African economic history had largely disappeared from the scholarly radar by the 1980s, aside from a few monumental contributions by people like Tony Hopkins and Gareth Austin. This was not entirely coincidental: the fortunes of many African countries were wavering on the back of large debts and several supply-side shocks. Just like the Cold War and colonisation created political factions that resulted in devastating civil wars on the continent, an intellectual war between liberals and Marxists was brewing, suffocating the lasts gasps of a dying scholarly field. When The Economist labeled Africa ‘The Hopeless Continent’ in 2000, it wouldn’t have been unfair to ascribe a similar adjective to the study of African economic history.

Yet the high rates of economic growth achieved by many African countries in the 2000s have been mirrored by a revival in the quest to understand Africa’s economic past. Rekindled by a new enthusiasm for the long-term impact of historical events, leading scholars began to explore the root causes of Africa’s stagnation. These contributions, like Acemoglu, Johnson and Robinson’s The Colonial Origins of Comparative Development (the 38th most cited paper in Economics) and Nathan Nunn’s work on slavery, led a new generation of economic historians, using large datasets and the economist’s standard tool set, to explore colonial records and, increasingly, long-neglected African archives. Several economic historians are busy constructing new series from these records, including African population numbers, prices, real wages and GDP statistics.

Morten Jerven, for example, recently wrote ‘Poor Numbers: How We Are Misled by African Development Statistics and What to Do about It’. He shows how historical African statistics, because of incompetence, weak resources and political interference, rarely reflected reality, which have had serious implications for development policies. Ewout Frankema and Marlous van Waijenburg calculate real wages in nine British colonies to show that the populations of several African countries, notably in West Africa, attained real wages at the end of the nineteenth century higher than those of Asia. Ewout and Marlous’ efforts were recently rewarded with the prestigious Arthur H. Cole Prize for the best article in The Journal of Economic History (June 2012- June 2013).

As African countries continue to grow, the interest in its economic past will grow too. This is why the African Economic History Network (funded generously by Sweden’s Riksbank) has decided to put together a beginner’s textbook that will invite future generations of economists and historians into the field: the textbook – The History of African Development – is available for free on their website. The book provides a simple introduction to the economic changes that has happened in African history, with special chapters on the slave trade, the Scramble for Africa, and urbanisation, for example. It is currently being trialled at the Mountains of the Moon University in west Uganda.

I’ve written the chapter on the history of education in Africa. It begins with the very basics of economics: how education allows us to specialise. Instead of using thousands of workers to build the pyramids of Ancient Egypt, we can build similar structures with fewer but more skilled workers. Education makes each individual more productive. I then plot how formal education in Africa can be traced back to the influence of Islam and the later Christian missionaries. I also highlight how important education is for the future success of the continent. The chapter is available here.
It’s not inevitable that all African countries will continue to prosper. But as we unearth more of the continent’s rich economic histories, the belief that Africa is destined to be poor looks increasingly implausible. The more we look to the future, the more we will want to understand our past.