Africa: Resources | National Geographic Society (2023)

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 m

ore

influenced by oceanic factors than the bulging northern section. Africa’s northern half is m

ore

dry and hot, while its southern end is m

ore

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 m

ore

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

F

orestry

, the management of trees and other vegetation in f

orests

, is an important

economic

activity in Africa. On average, f

orest

products account for 6 percent of Africa’s

gross domestic product (GDP)

, m

ore

than any other

continent

. This is a result of Africa’s abundant f

orest

cover, with 0.8 hectares (2 acres) per person, compared with 0.6 hectares (1.5 acres) globally. In central and western Africa, where f

orest

cover is heaviest, the f

orest

sector contributes m

ore

than 60 percent of GDP.

The export of f

orest

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 f

orest

. 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 f

orest

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 f

orest

habitats. Saplings planted to replace the logged trees do not grow fast enough to be harvested on a regular basis, and the rain f

orest

habitat

in which these trees thrive is being destroyed for

agriculture

and development.

Today, Africa is torn between developing its f

orests

to their fullest

economic

potential and protecting these natural landscapes from over-

development

. For instance, the Central African F

orests

Commission regulates Africa’s

f

orestry

sector and promotes sustainable uses of the Congo Basin’s rain f

orest

products. The commission created the Sangha Tri-National

Landscape

, a reserve that covers m

ore

than 1 million hectares (2.4 million acres) of rain f

orest

in Cameroon, the Central African Republic, and the Republic of the Congo.

Africa’s fishing industry provides income to m

ore

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 m

ore

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 m

ore

than 500,000 tons of fish worth $600 million every year. The Nile perch, a highly prized catch that can weigh m

ore

than 45 kilograms (100 pounds), and the Nile tilapia are Lake’s Victoria’s dominant commercial fish species.

Much like the

f

orestry

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 f

oreign

oil

companies have exploited their labor while keeping most of the wealth. They also charge that out-of-date equipment has severely polluted air, s

oil

, 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 m

ore

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 st

ores

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 m

ore

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.

Fast Fact

Population Density
41.9 people per square kilometer (109 per square mile), as of 2020

Fast Fact

Highest Point
Kilimanjaro, Tanzania (5,895 meters/19,340 feet)

Fast Fact

Most Renewable Energy Capacity
South Africa (6,065 megawatts), as of 2019

Fast Fact

Largest Urban Area
Cairo, Egypt (15.6 million people)

Fast Fact

Largest Watershed
Congo River (4 million square kilometers/1.55 million square miles)

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