IN the middle of the 19th Century, the vast majority of indigenous people in Africa lived in rural areas and supported themselves through agriculture; living as their predecessors had for many centuries or, in some parts of the continent, for millennia.
Agricultural practices had remained unchanging.
Agricultural production was not merely for subsistence, for Africans.
The Zimbabwean Munhumutapas had long been trading surpluses of what they raised for other foodstuffs or for items produced by craftspeople in other villages.
These trade items, among other things, included iron axes, hoes, salt, baskets, pots, skins, cloth, gold and ivory (MaDzimbahwe).
In fact, since about the beginning of the 16th Century peanuts and cassava had been spreading throughout large areas of the American continent as major crops.
Be that as it may, until the 19th Century, most indigenous agriculture involved producing long-familiar crops and raising familiar animal breeds for consumption at the local level.
By 1850,the long-standing patterns of agriculture were already beginning to change in many parts of Africa.
This change centred on the large-scale production of cash crops for external markets.
This was later to become a principal feature of African agriculture during the colonial period and afterward.
From the earliest days, indigenous African farmers traded or sold some of their surplus food crops in order to obtain tools and utensils or other foods.
Cash crops, on the other hand, are crops grown specifically for sale on the open market.
Farmers used the income they receive from these crops to purchase goods and services, pay taxes and fees as well as meet other needs.
The market is thus a necessary mechanism.
Without a market, there would be no reason to grow cash crops.
The industrialisation of Europe had created a market for agricultural commodities from the tropics; especially oil crops such as groundnuts and palm oil.
African producers, mostly in West Africa, responded by producing crops designated for consumption outside the African continent.
For example, imports of palm oil by the British amounted to 1 000 tonnes in 1810, by 1953 this reached 30 000 tonnes.
The income generated from the sale of palm oil often went toward the purchase of imported European manufactured goods.
In this way, parts of Africa were beginning to become dependent upon world trade.
Prior to colonial rule, while West Africa was becoming increasingly engaged in producing cash crops, two areas of the African continent were undergoing changes in agricultural practices due to the presence of European settlers.
These were South Africa, where colonising settlers had begun to settle and farm during the last half of the 17th Century, and Algeria, where Europeans settlers targetted by the 1820s.
By the 1850s, the white settler-farmers were becoming increasingly well-established and were growing crops mainly for European-style diets.
The local indigenous population, with their land no longer used for traditional purposes, was reduced to working on white-owned farms for wages and had to fight for the right to work small garden areas and graze a few animals.
Thus, with the onset of colonial rule, cash-crop-commodity production for both export and settler-farming expanded dramatically.
Similarly, the foreign-owned plantation emerged as a new feature of the colonial economy.
While groundnuts and palm oil produced by African farmers met local food needs, rubber, sisal and palm oil for export were increasingly grown on large, industrialised plantations.
The vast Firestone Rubber Plantation in Liberia was a prime example of this phenomenal industrialisation.
Increasingly, African farmers also produced new crops strictly for export, including cocoa, coffee and cotton.
Prior to the Second World War (1939–1945), cash crops, whether grown by African peasant farmers, large-scale white commercial farmers or European-owned plantations, constituted the core of African colonial economies.
Colonial governments, therefore, encouraged this production and engaged in agricultural research to improve the output of such crops.
On the other hand, food crops consumed by the people were largely neglected.
The agricultural labour force was often diverted to cash-crop production.
In some areas, such as the cocoa-producing regions of Ghana, this encouraged the cultivation of food crops in neighbouring areas for sale to the workers on the cocoa farms.
In many of the cotton producing areas, however, the intensive labour demands of the crop led to a lack of sufficient labour for food crops.
The colonial economy did not promote the production of African food crops such as sorghum, yams, millet and cassava for marketing to the growing urban areas.
As a result, this often led to severe food shortages and malnutrition among indigenous people and even famine, as was the case in India where over five million indigenous people died of starvation.
Settler-colonial governments, however, supported white settler-farmers in producing crops for markets within Africa.
An example is the South African Government’s support of the large-scale farming of maize for the South African cities.
On the other hand, there was a near total neglect of food crops grown by Africans for market.
Instead, the colonial governments viewed African food-crop production as merely subsistence agriculture.
Africa underwent a dramatic population growth after the Second World War.
Between 1900 and 1950, the population was growing at an already substantial annual rate of 1,2 percent.
However, in the 1950s alone, the population grew by another 30 percent.
The colonial emphasis on the production of export agricultural economies at the expense of food-crop production left much of Africa ill-prepared to increase or even sustain existing per capita food production.
This altered paradigm of African agriculture became another colonial legacy that burdened many of the newly-independent African countries.
Dr Michelina Andreucci is a Zimbabwean-Italian researcher, industrial design consultant, lecturer and specialist hospitality interior decorator. She is a published author in her field. For views and comments, email: email@example.com