Environmental change and socioeconomic factors in Africa

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A composed satellite photograph of Africa in orthographic projection. (NASA, via Wikimedia Commons).


Various human factors drive, influence and affect environmental change at the global, regional, national and local levels. Drivers of environmental change vary in nature and scope but can be broadly grouped together as demographic; economic and social; science and technology; conflict; and governance. Critical social dimensions include poverty and health. Policy and institutions, although most often thought of as the response to mitigate such change, may also drive environmental change and impact directly on human vulnerability. Although each driver is discussed individually, there are links between the different drivers – sometimes acting in concert to maximize negative impacts and sometimes producing positive change.

Demographic change

People in Africa are at the center of sustainable development – in rural and urban areas. Although still largely rural, the region has been experiencing major transformation in terms of population composition and distribution, with positive and negative implications for the environment and development. The challenge is not to arrest development but to use the available resources in a more productive and efficient manner, ensuring better and more equitable returns to people while at the same time lessening pressure on the environment.


Changing demography and particularly the changing age structure of the population, a high rate of urbanization, and a faster rate of population growth in relation to economic growth are major drivers of environmental change in Africa, with significant impacts on the natural resource base (Figure 1). Due to this, it is imperative that population growth and its structural changes are addressed to reduce environmental degradation. Each year, the number of people increases, but the amount of natural resources with which to sustain this population, to improve the quality of lives and to eliminate poverty remain finite, increasing the challenge of sustainable development. Demographic change is the major driver of land-cover change: its primary and most direct impact is through opening new land for agricultural, settlement and infrastructural development, although other extractive activities such as logging and mining are also significant.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the total population of Africa was about 118 million, accounting for 7.4 percent of the global population. From 1980 to 2000, it grew from 469 million to 798 million, representing 13 percent of the world population in 2000. By 2020, the urban population is expected to be 646 million up from 302 million in 2000. While insufficient data exists to accurately ascertain the magnitude of urbanization, available statistics indicate a current rate of urbanization in Africa of around 3.5 percent per year. This rate is the highest in the world, and is resulting in the rapid growth of urban agglomerations throughout the region. By 2030, the proportion of Africa’s urbanized population is expected to reach 53.5 percent, compared to 39 percent in 2005. This fast rate of urbanization places strain on infrastructure and other services. Many of the newly urbanized live in slums. There is a growing and urgent need for integrated approaches to environmental planning and management.

In the absence of alternative livelihood opportunities and strategic management of the environment, this rapid population growth and urbanization has resulted in environmental degradation and resource depletion. Between 1990 and 2000, Africa lost 52 million hectares of forests: this amounts to a decrease of 0.8 percent per year and 56 percent of the global total. It is estimated that 60 percent of the tropical forest areas cleared in Africa as a whole between 1990 and 2000 were converted to permanent agricultural smallholdings. However, migration to urban areas is not inevitably destructive, nor does it necessarily lead to the formation or growth of dangerous and unhealthy slum areas. It is important to recognize the valuable role urbanization can play in stimulating the economy. The challenge lies in reversing the current pattern, and enhancing the efficiency of and the value derived from natural resource use.

Over the last 20 years, Africa’s population has gotten younger, primarily as a result of the impact of HIV/AIDS, but also due to other setbacks. In 2003, more than 40 percent of the region’s population was below the age of 15 years. Given this, the youth are becoming increasingly important in natural resource management. The lack of employment and other livelihood opportunities, as well as setbacks in education, health and other capabilities, may mean that this generation will have increased natural resource dependence and pose new threats to the sustainability of marine and terrestrial ecosystems. Degraded environments may spur further social and economic conflicts and hardships.

Population growth presents a major challenge because of the patterns of production and consumption that shape the world, as well as the problems of pervasive poverty. Population growth affects the natural resource base in many ways. First, it causes increased demand for food, water, arable land and other essential materials, such as firewood, in all areas. Second, expanded agricultural activities encourage encroachment into forests and woodlands. These consequences are more pronounced in the context of high levels of poverty. Third, the degradation of the natural resource base in turn impinges on the livelihoods of all, but particularly rural, communities. More small farmers are forced to work harder, often on shrinking farms on marginal land, to maintain household incomes. The option of migration to new lands is virtually closed. In most cases, the impacts vary for men and women depending on the gender relations within the social unit (household, community, livelihood system) that regulates access to and control over resources and management responsibilities. Fourth, global population growth and the increasing demand for fossil fuels and other resources, also places new stress on Africa’s environment.

HIV/AIDS has had a significant impact on human capacity with severe economic, social and environmental consequences. Of the 45 most affected countries globally, 35 are in Africa. More than 25.8 million Africans are living with HIV/AIDS. Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) is home to just 10 percent of the global population but has more than 60 percent of all people living with HIV. In SSA, the adult prevalence rate has gone down marginally from 7.3 percent in 2003 to 7.2 percent in 2005. There is considerable variation between countries. In Zimbabwe, the epidemic is declining (from 26 percent prevalence among pregnant women in 2002 to 21 percent in 2004) and there is some suggestion of a similar trend in Kenya, Uganda and Burkina Faso. For other countries the threat continues to grow and is particularly severe in South Africa, Nigeria and Mozambique. In Northern Africa, several countries are experiencing an increase in the prevalence of HIV/AIDS, including Algeria, Libya and Morocco. Life expectancy at birth in SSA has been reduced from 50 in 1990 to 46 in 2002. The productive labor sector has been particularly hard hit by the high mortality in the 20-50 age bracket. The loss of productive capacity is monumental and results in a decrease in disposable income, increased food insecurity and an increased dependency on the natural resource sector. At the same time, the loss of the most knowledgeable and productive age groups impacts on environmental managerial capacity. There is a significantly higher prevalence among women, due to unequal education and inequitable gender relations. The disproportionate impact of HIV/AIDS on women is particularly significant from and environmental perspective, as women in many parts of Africa assume major responsibility for natural resource stewardship. This demonstrates the importance of meeting Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 3 — to promote gender equity and empower women — not only from a rights perspective but also because of its environmental significance. The realization of this goal is closely related to MDG 2 on achieving universal primary education. Health, food security and environmental degradation are closely linked, and a negative change at any of these levels may have implications for the others.

Conflict affects population distribution and is a leading cause of internal migration. Africa now has more than 7.3 million refugees, 3 million more than in 1990. This places new pressures on environmental resources. In crisis situations, a large number of people may be displaced in a short period of time, causing a high level of environmental stress in the place where they are relocated due to increased demand and lack of preparedness. The depletion and deterioration of the areas in which camps are located are often related to the high demand for wood for shelters and energy. The inherent competition between local groups and forced migrants over access to natural resources may polarize social relations in refugee settlement areas and undermine opportunities for collaborative environmental management. State-initiated resettlement initiatives to make way for development and conservation, such as dams and national parks, may also result in large-scale displacements that impact negatively on environmental resources and well-being more generally.

Migration has important implications for development, both positive and negative. Although it contributes to the transmission of disease, the introduction of alien species and the loss of skilled personnel, it may also bring new economic opportunities. The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimate that between 1960 and 1975 more than 27,000 highly skilled Africans left the region for industrialized countries. This rose to 40,000 between 1975 and 1984 and then almost doubled by 1987, representing 30 percent of the highly skilled labor stock. It is estimated that since 1990, at least 20,000 highly skilled and qualified persons leave the region annually. Although the loss of skilled people has negative impacts on the economy and other sectors, it also contributes to development through significant remittances and the enhancement of capacity of those that have left, in terms of skills and experience, potentially building an important human resource for Africa. Internal transnational migration in Africa is significant – the profile of such migration has changed from being unidirectional and permanent to being increasingly temporary, seasonal and circular. Africa has the most mobile populations in the world: there are many reasons for migration – one important motivation is to cope with ecological and economic problems.

Social change

Improved human well-being is a crucial objective of sustainable development and is closely linked to environmental goods and services. Human well-being is multidimensional and requires access to resources to live a good life in good health, such as income, food, clean water, and energy; personal security through the absence of conflict, the ability to mitigate environmental disasters, and good governance; good social relations which include all people and promote fairness and equity; and the opportunity to make choices. This implies a condition in which people are not just physically well, but have choices and live in dignity. The extent of well-being, as reflected in income, health, education and inequity, is an indication of how successful or unsuccessful development policies have been. In turn, the well-being of people affects their ability to effectively and sustainably manage resources. How these social factors impact on the environment is a product of a complex cultural milieu.

Gender and divisions of labor

caption Figure 3. Masai women, who support themselves by selling beaded artwork and jewellery, welcom WAVE participants to the Ngong Hills, Kenya. (Source: UNEP)

Gender relations and the divisions of labor are important factors in the economic development, human well-being and environmental stewardship in Africa and therefore need to be part of an integrated environmental management approach. Gender inequity, and its impact on resource management, is shaped by many factors including unequal access to basic facilities, such as education and health care, differences in income, the extent of social and political inclusion, as well as social and cultural factors. All these impact upon the choices and opportunities women have, and ultimately on how they use and manage natural resources. African countries generally rank very low on the Gender-related Development Index (GDI): they constitute 35 out of the 40 countries with the lowest GDI ranking. However, African countries perform much better in the Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM) with, for example, several African countries having higher rates than the global average for participation of women in parliament.

The differential access and control of natural resources by men and women determine how much influence they have on environmental management. In many African societies, productive and parenting roles are clearly divided along gender lines. Gender roles, however, are complex and shaped by other factors, such as age and position in the family. For example, rural women in many parts of Africa are responsible for child rearing, the nutritional and health needs of the family, food production and weeding of crops, while men open up the land. In many places, women are the primary custodians of environmental resources by virtue of their position in the household, giving them responsibility for managing energy, water and farming among other things. They are often the repositories of indigenous knowledge and the promoters of biodiversity conservation and environmentally-friendly management.

Labor divisions may also be gendered. In rural Africa, for example, women and girls are almost always the exclusive suppliers of water for household use. They play a lead role in the provision of water for animals, crop growing, and food processing. It is often women who decide where to collect water, how to draw, transport and store it, what water sources should be used for which purposes, and how to purify drinking water. Women make a disproportionately high contribution to the provision of water for family consumption in comparison to men. In many countries, women and children spend much time on water collection, effectively reducing the time for other valued activities. Gathering non-timber forest products (NTFPs), such as edible foods, is predominantly children and women’s responsibility. For example, in the mountain areas of east Africa, women expend close to a third of their daily calories in collecting and supplying water to their homes and communities. Degradation, deforestation or the extension of prohibitions on resource extraction may further penalize women in rural areas who already have to travel long distances to collect water or fuelwood. Collection activities compete for time spent in food preparation, child care and providing for the household’s nutrition and reduce free time and thus limit the opportunity for women to pursue other interests. Technological developments are changing the gender landscape of labor. Where water collection involves long distances, men may now use bicycles or carts for water transportation, freeing women from this task.

In some instances, however, the divisions of labor and respective roles give men the opportunity to be custodians of some environmental knowledge. Among nomadic pastoralists, it is the men who take the cattle out on two-day watering regimes and to far-off grazing lands, and deal with predators and raiding.

In urban areas, many women are involved in urban agriculture to supplement household food security and income. Many also participate in markets, selling produce and other wares derived from natural resources.

Given the multiple ways environmental management is gendered, policies and technologies must be gender-sensitive. Women need to be empowered to be able to participate more effectively in policy processes and environmental decision-making.


Good health is essential for people to maximize the opportunities available and is closely linked to the state of the environment. Poor environmental management exacerbates the incidence and negative health impacts of many "natural occurrences" such as floods, droughts and cyclones. Degraded environments also place strain on the ability to meet needs for medicines, food and energy—all central to health. Certain development activities, including agriculture and industry, may strain environmental systems through pollution and environmental degradation, which in turn affect human health.

caption Figure 4. Child diseases and clean water. (Source: B. Gordon et al.)

Environmental hazards comprise a significant portion of the health risks facing the poor, and children bear the brunt of this. Although children constitute only 10 percent of the world’s population, they suffer 40 percent of the environment-related burden of disease. This disease burden is closely associated with environmental management practices and the opportunities available to poor people. Malnutrition is a crucial contributing factor to the impact of disease and is linked to land management and productivity, which in turn are related to environmental changes such as salinization and climate change. In Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), infant mortality showed a decline from 143 per 1,000 in 1970 to 105 per 1,000 in 2003. However, in parts of SSA, child mortality is still increasing. The overall reduction is largely due to a decrease in deaths from diarrhoeal diseases and the increased use of vaccines. Acute respiratory infection and malaria, alongside neonatal mortality, remain primary causes of death for children under five. Inadequate sanitation and unclean water are still major threats, causing the deaths of an estimated 1.8 million people worldwide each year, of which 1.6 million are children. Improving water quality can produce major improvements in child mortality rates as shown in Figure 4. In most of Africa, more than 75 percent of households depend on biomass for energy for cooking; in some countries this rises to as much as 90 percent of households. Indoor air pollution presents a major health risk for poor people dependent on fuelwood for energy, and children under five account for more than half of the related 1.6 million deaths per year.

Although Africa has some of the lowest per capita emissions of greenhouse gases that cause global warming, it carries the greatest burden of climate-sensitive diseases. Vector-borne diseases, such as malaria, dengue fever, schistosomiasis, and chagas disease, could expand their ranges as temperature and rainfall patterns change. Malaria is a major cause of death in Africa. Mosquitoes are among the first organisms to expand their range when climate conditions become favorable, so cases of malaria and dengue fever may increase their already heavy toll among the poor. Higher temperatures and humidity may promote the growth of diarrhoeal organisms increasing health risks and reducing human well-being. This high disease burden is in part due to Africa’s low capacity to adapt to the new risks and the challenges associated with a high incidence of poverty. Global climate change not only presents new region-specific health risks, but also a global ethical challenge.

Many African countries prioritized the development of health services from as early as independence. Efforts included the expansion of access to primary health-care facilities, increased spending in the health sector, and investment in human capacity. This prominence has continued with the implementation of health sector strategies and, since 2000, programs to meet the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) health targets. In many countries, significant improvements have been made in selected health-care indicators, like infant mortality rates and life expectancy. However, cutbacks in health budgets, privatization of health services, and structural adjustment programs, which diverted public spending away from social sectors, have reversed the gains made over the past two decades in many countries. In addition, many African countries have lost health professionals to the developed countries where they are able to obtain better benefits. It is estimated that 23,000 health-care professionals emigrate annually from Africa. For example, between 1993 and 2002, Ghana lost 630 medical doctors, 410 pharmacists, 87 laboratory technicians and 11,325 nurses; in 2002 alone, 70 doctors, 77 pharmacists and 214 nurses left Ghana. Zimbabwe, South Africa and Nigeria have all suffered significant losses of health-care personnel. The 27 most powerful countries – also members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) – saved a “staggering” US$552,000 million by employing professionals trained in developing countries.

Unless there are significant inflows of external financial support to complement national health budgets, the situation is likely to worsen considerably, especially given the unabated threats from malaria and HIV/AIDS. Health challenges are monumental given pervasive poverty, the high rates of fertility, maternal and childhood mortality and malnutrition. Africa has two-thirds of the world’s known HIV/AIDS cases, 90 percent of the world’s yearly malaria fatalities, and half of its female population is illiterate. The ability of African governments to meet the demands for providing basic services and utilities has decreased tremendously, aggravating social conditions as reflected in the low Human Development Index (HDI) status of many countries.

Education, knowledge and information

caption Figure 5. A wide variety of non-timber forest products (NTFPs). (Source: Katerere,Y. and Mohamed-Katerere, J.C. (2005)

Knowledge and access to information are essential for effective environmental management and have significant impacts on the economy and the livelihood choices people make. Indigenous knowledge systems based on centuries of observation and continually developed in response to changing social and environmental conditions are an important resource for many rural people. This knowledge base offers opportunities not only for conservation but also for the commercialization of wild resources, as demonstrated, for example, by the increasing markets for non-timber forest products (NTFPs), such as Prunus africana, Harpagophytum procumbens (devil’s claw) and Kigelia africana (African sausage tree). Trade in devil’s claw, a traditional medicinal plant, supports a US$100 million industry, but most benefits go to processing and transformation actors along the marketing chain, and only a very low proportion goes to domestic producers. This pattern will continue as long as there is low investment in improving community skills and access to relevant information. Literacy and the level of formal education is also an important factor affecting the kind of information people have access to, and thus the range of opportunities at their disposal.

The adult literacy rate is 67 percent for people above 15 years of age, with women having a higher illiteracy rate compared to men. There is considerable variation between literacy rates in African countries, with Zimbabwe having 90 percent adult literacy, Morocco 50.7 percent and Burkina Faso 12.8 percent. Improved literacy increases the capacity of people to communicate and to be reached through the electronic and print media, the capability to effectively participate in their communities and in broader governance issues, and provides new opportunities to engage effectively in the productive sector and the market.

In the absence of improved access to formal education, a considerable reduction in illiteracy rates, and accessible environment-related and functional education, opportunities available to most people will continue to be limited, with possible negative influence on the environment. Choices made in one sector may have a direct bearing on the environment. UNAIDS suggests that gender inequality in knowledge about HIV transmission is a key factor in the high levels of infection among African women. Given the important role women play as managers and as custodians of indigenous knowledge, this has ramifications for environmental management.


caption Figure 6. Woman using an improved energy cooking stove introduced by the Department for Women in Agricultural Development in Ghana. (Source: FAO 2003)

Pervasive poverty and social inequities remain major constraints to sustainable development in Africa. Poverty is a cause and an effect of environmental degradation. The equitable, efficient and productive use of natural resources offers important opportunities for sustainable livelihoods which can contribute to reducing poverty.

Poverty is multidimensional: it is more than just the lack of access to financial resources – even though income is the most commonly used indicator of poverty – and material resources. It includes the lack of capabilities that enable a person to make choices to live a life that she or he values. This includes access to income, health, education, empowerment and social inclusion, and human rights. Poverty may be synonymous with powerlessness, with a lack of access to information, institutions and voice. There is considerable variation among poor people and the extent to which they are disempowered. This is affected by various factors including gender, location (urban or rural), culture and ethnicity. Global inequity, particularly in trade, continues to be a major contributor to continued poverty in Africa.

In much of Africa, income poverty is particularly severe. There is, however, considerable variation between income poverty levels: less than 15 percent of Morocco’s population lives on less than US$2 per day, compared to Mali where about 91 percent of people live on less than US$2 per day. Between 1981 and 2001, the number of people living on less than US$1 per day in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) nearly doubled from 164 million to 313 million. Seventy-eight percent of SSA’s population live on less than US$2 per day. The proportion of people living below the US$1 poverty line has declined in north Africa from 2.0 percent in 1999 to 1.9 in 2001, while it has increased in SSA from 42.7 percent in 1999 to 46.4 in 2001.

The UN Millennium Project identified the improvement of small-scale agricultural production, through the use of techniques which preserve natural assets, the restoration and improved management of desertified lands, and the protection of surrounding natural habitats, as an important strategy for addressing Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 1 of halving the proportion of people living on less than US$1 per day. It also recommended actions in forest management, freshwater resources, fisheries and marine ecosystems, and climate change that could make a contribution to addressing this target.

caption Figure 7. The many measures of poverty. (Source: WRI and others 2005)

Across Africa, poverty is more prevalent in rural than in urban areas. The link between environmental resources and the livelihoods of rural people is widely acknowledged. Rural people rely on the environment for a range of goods and services. These services include provisioning (food, medicines and energy) and regulating services (such as water purification). Environmental goods may have important cultural and aesthetic values. Natural resources may serve as important safety nets during periods of stress. However, poor people are also more vulnerable to environmental disasters and risks, such as insect-borne diseases, including malaria, and unsafe water. Social and economic shocks from conflict, ill health, falling market prices and so on, exacerbate overall vulnerability.

Poverty may contribute to unsustainable resource use. Policies and institutions are major factors which limit the value poor people can obtain from a resource, effectively forcing them to harvest or use more in order to meet basic needs. Policies and laws that restrict use to subsistence deny poor people access to value-adding activities which could generate significantly more income. Bureaucratic measures and inefficient economies may limit access to markets, financial resources and other support. Moving towards a regime which acknowledges natural resources as assets of poor people and which empowers people to use these resources efficiently and productively can have positive impacts on equitable growth and for sustainable development.

Economic change

Equitable and environmentally sustainable growth can improve human well-being and increase the range of opportunities available to people, including those who are most disadvantaged.

Africa has experienced its best economic performance in many years. In 2004 Africa grew at 5.1 percent, up from 3.7 percent in 2003. Between 1990 and 2003, Africa’s economies grew at an average of 2.6 percent annually. This improved growth has had a mixed bag of consequences, increasing opportunities to meet key Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) targets and improving human well-being, which can have positive spin-offs for the environment as options increase. However, Sub Sahara Africa (SSA) must grow on average at 7 percent per year to reduce income poverty by half by 2015. Only six African countries, mostly in north Africa, are likely to meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) of halving the number of people living on less than a dollar a day. The MDGs remain underfinanced – by more than US$40,000 million overall. For more information, see Africa Environment Outlook 2, Annexes in the Further Reading section.

There is considerable variation between the economic achievements of countries in the region – with prices of oil and metals, low cotton and cocoa prices, dollar depreciation and euro appreciation, the locust plague in the Sahel region, rainfall, corruption, and political conflict and instability being important contributing factors. Solid growth is expected to continue between 2005 and 2007 at an average rate of 4.7 percent as the effect of new oil fields in Central Africa wears off. The high level of vulnerability to external shocks (such as prices and the loss of preferential treatment), environmental factors such as weather conditions, and conflict make these key areas for policy focus and collaborative initiatives. This close relationship to the environment is indicative of the need for better environmental monitoring and, in particular, risk and disaster warning systems to support greater preparedness and more effective responses.

Production and consumption

caption Figure 1: Fisherman pulling their nets in Cape Verde. (Source: M. Marzot/FAO)

Changing production and consumption patterns, globally and in Africa, and the way in which growth is achieved have direct implications for African livelihoods and their sustainability.

Global economic policy dealing with tariffs, import quotas and crop subsidies has direct impacts on the livelihoods and opportunities of people in Africa.

At the national level, growth of the economy can result in both positive and negative effects on well-being and environmental resources. For example, economic expansion may provide new livelihood opportunities to more people through job creation as well as through diversifying livelihood options. Growth must be equitable and specifically focus on delivering benefits to poor people. However, growth may endanger the sustainability of livelihoods depending on how it is carried out with respect to environmental integrity. For instance, when fishing is done in an unsustainable manner, short-run benefits will be accrued, but at the same time sustainability of catch will be impaired through depletion and, therefore, affect long-term benefits.

Although in 2000 Africa accounted for 13.6 percent of the world population, its gross domestic product (GDP) was just under 1.7 percent of the world’s GDP. For SSA, GDP per capita, using purchasing power parity (PPP), amounted to US$1,856 compared to the average for countries with high human development of US$25,665. This is significant for purchasing power, savings and investment growth rates as well as resources available to governments and individuals, making them more reliant on the natural resource base for their basic needs. The GDP per capita (PPP) across the region varies considerably, with Equatorial Guinea having an average GDP per capita of US$19,780, South Africa US$10,346 and Sudan US$1,910. Inequity within a particular country is clearly important for how this benefit is actually spread. Unequal growth remains a major challenge for Africa – income distribution is highly skewed, with 40 percent of the population receiving only 11 percent of income, while the richest 20 percent gets 58 percent of income. Income inequality is particularly evident across the urban-rural divide.

Export of natural resources remains a major factor in the economies of many countries. Instability and adverse price trends drive countries to exploit more resources to meet their domestic and foreign obligations, including debt servicing, at the expense of long-term sustainability of the resources.

Africa’s economies are more reliant on agriculture than those of any other region, with around 70 percent of Africans working in the agricultural sector. About three-fifths of African farmers are subsistence farmers tilling small plots of land to feed their families, with only a minimal surplus that can be sold. Although agriculture is a major employer, employing 56.5 percent of Africa’s total labor force, it contributes only 14 percent of GDP, while industry and services contributed 29 percent and 57 percent respectively. Also, agricultural productivity, in terms of value-added per agricultural worker in 1995 dollars, declined between 1988-90 and 2000-2002 periods from US$382 to US$360. This means that, with high dependency on agriculture and falling productivity at the same time, poverty is increasingly entrenched in rural Africa. The contribution of natural resources to GDP is often undervalued. See Africa Environment Outlook 2, Annexes in the Further Reading section for more information.

In terms of mining and drilling, Africa’s most valuable exports are its minerals and petroleum. These activities are concentrated in only a few countries. South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have substantial reserves of gold, diamond and copper. Nigeria, Angola, Gabon, Libya, Algeria and others export significant amounts of petroleum. These areas make up the vast majority of mineral and petroleum exports from Africa. This has been the focal point for foreign direct investment (FDI) which has been driven primarily by developed countries’ needs. With respect to manufacturing, Africa is the world’s least industrialized region. Despite large local supplies of cheap labor, almost all of the region’s natural resources are exported elsewhere for secondary processing. The lack of value-adding activities means that the full potential from natural resources is not being earned within African countries. Only about 15 percent of employment is generated by the manufacturing sector. Industrial sector restructuring and reform measures have led to a collapse of industries in some countries and hence the declining share of manufacturing to total economy. While industrial development offers important opportunities, it also creates certain risks, particularly in the management of pollution and human health. There is evidence that developed countries are relocating their chemical industry to developing countries.

The 1980s and early 1990s witnessed serious economic decline or stagnation in most African countries. Agricultural productivity failed to keep pace with the growth of population and suffered particularly from falling productivity in the export sector and from declining markets and prices. Population growth rates in the period 1990-2003 were higher than the growth of GDP per capita in 2003 at 2.5 percent and 1.3 percent respectively. Food imports were and still are essential in most countries to maintain an adequate total food supply and, in certain cases, to keep food costs down. Debt has mounted and pressures on resource use have increased.

In response to the economic hardships of the 1980s, many African countries undertook programs of economic reform with guidance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. These reforms, spearheaded by the Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs), aimed at stabilizing the economies, liberalizing exchange rates, freeing the productive energies of the private sector and opening up to trade and investment. As the negative impacts of these policies were realized, new approaches to economic planning and development have been adopted, including the now widely used Poverty Reduction Strategies (PRS).

Impacts of economic change on livelihoods and the environment

Macroeconomic reforms in Africa, epitomized by the Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs), have had mixed impacts on the environment, mainly through the processes of livelihood diversification and increased human mobility.

A key response to the poor performance of the formal sector has been the diversification into and intensification of informal sector activities as people try to make ends meet. Many of these activities are based on natural resources and include carpentry and craft production, charcoal manufacturing, collection and trade of non-timber forest products (NTFPs), artisan mining and metal works. Although entry into many such activities is easy, their profitability and efficiency is undercut by bureaucratic controls, lack of investment and inadequate support for market engagement. There is little incentive for users to invest in technologies and to manage resources sustainably. Since the 1990s, there has been a growing focus on other livelihood activities that could more effectively combine conservation and development interests, such as ecotourism and community-based conservation initiatives.

Livelihood diversification has always played some part in providing a “pathway” out of poverty for poorer groups of people. Since the mid-1980s, it has become evident that livelihood diversification has increased as a response to economic and social changes. These changes have led to a saturated agricultural labor market, reduced access to common property and increased mobility. In general, these programs resulted in an increase in the number of people living in poverty and decreased access to social services, such as health and education.

caption Figure 3: Agriculture is an important economic activity for many urban dwellers. Urban farmers in Nairobi, Kenya. (Source: Urban Harvest CIP SSA)

Within the agricultural sector, many rural dwellers have sought to intensify their agricultural activities. Pastoralists in Tanzania, for instance, have adopted crop cultivation to supplement livestock keeping. Other activities include trading in a range of products including milk, firewood, animals and honey; wage employment, both local and outside the area, including working as a hired herder, farm worker and migrant laborer; renting property; and gathering and selling wild products, such as gum arabic, firewood, game trophies, bushmeat, live animals or medicinal plants. Market failures and the need for consumer items have become an important force pushing pastoralists into diversification using wildlife, ecotourism and consumptive utilization.

As good as these activities are in sustaining household livelihoods in the short-run, if poorly managed they may have detrimental impacts on environmental resources. The indiscriminate felling of trees for agricultural expansion and timber products has laid watersheds bare, threatening the water catchment functions of forested watersheds. Pressure on water resources for various uses including domestic, livestock and industrial use, among others, has increased due to more extensive economic activities and population congestion in river basins, causing water allocation and use conflicts. Other alternative income activities, such as artisan mining, have also been affected by economic changes. Artisan mining in Africa has been in existence for centuries, but its magnitude has increased since the mid-1980s as a result of livelihood diversification strategies and opportunities created by trade liberalization. An estimated 20 million people depend on artisan mining in Africa. In a number of countries, including Mali, Tanzania, Ghana, South Africa, Zambia and Mozambique, the role of artisan mining in improving livelihood for rural poor communities has been recognized and has accordingly been factored into national planning strategies. Artisan mining has been a major source of income, increasing the wealth of rural populations. This new income supports investments in agriculture and nonagricultural pursuits, and thus increases the options available to rural communities. Inadequate regulation and enforcement in the artisan mining sector has, however, led to serious environmental problems and risk to humans. Toxic chemicals are sometimes used in the extraction of minerals, such as gold, which end up in the rivers. Toxins bioaccumulate in fish and wildlife, which are sources of food for the same communities. Other environmental problems include deforestation, soil erosion, silting of rivers, landslides and mining accidents. It is estimated that the rate of occurrence of fatal accidents in small mining activities is six times higher than it is in larger operations.

Migration as a livelihood diversification strategy is important in providing much needed resources for investment in rural production through remittances. In Ethiopia and Mali, for example, migration is widespread and in both countries it is linked to income generation strategies. This is also the case for many countries in Southern Africa. Migration may represent a rational allocation of total household labor to maximize household utility. In some communities, an increasing scarcity of traditional male labor, due to migration, has also promoted new roles for the women left behind. These women become the main decision-makers, particularly within the agricultural sector. The gendered division of family labor has in some instances changed as a result of the loss of male employment through urban job retrenchment, forcing women to seek additional income-generating activities to support the family. The consequence has been that problems induced by environmental degradation, such as deforestation or declines in water quality, have far-reaching consequences on entire families as time spent on looking for wood or water directly affects household incomes. Various policy responses seek to address these problems. Currently, several African countries are involved in the World Bank-initiated Poverty Reduction Strategies (PRS), whose second phase includes the environment as an important aspect of poverty reduction.

Technological change

Research and the development of new technologies can drive environmental change in positive and negative ways. They may increase the demand for natural resources, their application may impact on the integrity of ecosystems and they may offer an opportunity for more efficient use of natural resources, cleaner production techniques and improved environmental management. However, new technologies may also pose new risks to human and environmental health.

In the last 20 years, the advances in technology have been monumental. Key areas of development include more effective monitoring and assessment techniques, such as remote sensing, the transformation of information and communication technology (ICT), biomaterial engineering, rapid advances in biotechnology and genetic modification, and more efficient and faster transportation. Technological innovation can offer important opportunities for responding more effectively to challenges in areas such as economic productivity, agriculture, education, gender inequity, health, water, sanitation, energy and participation in the global economy.

The pace of technological change in Africa has been slow and is mostly linked to foreign direct investment (FDI); it has not contributed significantly to enhancing the availability of products and services required by Africa to promote development. The Johannesburg Plan of Implementation commits the global community to making technological investments in Africa, particularly with a view to increasing the pace of industrialization, but also for improved management of resources, such as water and energy, and the improvement of service provision in these areas. Industrial growth without complementary investment in monitoring systems and health services is likely to create new levels of vulnerability for poor people.

Expenditure on research and development activities, as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP), is very low for African countries. However, there are inadequate statistics available for proper analysis. Developing country investment in research averages 0.9 percent of GDP, compared to 2.5 percent for Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries.

Information and communication technology at the global level have been significant drivers of economic change, but access to communication technology remains very low despite significant growth in this sector between 1990 and 2003, which increased economic opportunities and participation in global markets. In Burkina Faso, for example, in 1990 there were only two telephone main lines per 1,000 people, but by 2003 this had more than doubled to five lines per 1,000 people, compared to Equatorial Guinea where there was a 450 percent increase over the same period from four lines per 1,000 people to 18 lines per 1,000 people. Other countries, such as Zambia and Uganda, show no growth and Angola has experienced a decline. Levels of availability of main lines in 2003 varied significantly across the region, with 285 lines per 1,000 people in Mauritius, 156 lines per 1,000 people in Cape Verde and two lines per 1,000 people in the Congo. Access to cellular phones has increased dramatically, with an average of 54 subscribers per 1,000 people in SSA (Figure 1). Several countries, including Gabon, Morocco, Botswana, Tunisia and South Africa, have in the range of 200-400 subscribers per 1,000 people. The percentage of internet users is also very low.

Further Reading

This is a chapter from Africa Environment Outlook 2: Our Environment, Our Wealth (e-book).
Previous: Human dimension of development in Africa  |  Table of Contents  |  Next: Human well-being and livelihoods in Africa

Disclaimer: This article is taken wholly from, or contains information that was originally published by, the United Nations Environment Programme. Topic editors and authors for the Encyclopedia of Earth may have edited its content or added new information. The use of information from the United Nations Environment Programme should not be construed as support for or endorsement by that organization for any new information added by EoE personnel, or for any editing of the original content.




Programme, U. (2013). Environmental change and socioeconomic factors in Africa. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/152610


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