Why is Africa Underdeveloped?

Are inhabitants less smart?

Erik Engheim
22 min readMar 11, 2024

A popular argument from racists that I hear all the time is that the underdevelopment of Africa proves that black people are an inferior race. Anti-racists will frequently counter with talk about evil European colonization as the real cause that Africa is underdeveloped. Or they will hype up historical African civilizations. You have those, for instance, claiming Cleopatra was black. No, she wasn’t. She was of Greek origin and that is very well documented.

So in this story, I intend to attack both the typical right-wing racist perspective and the self-hating white people perspective. The problem is that most activists of either side know very little about history, economics and how civilizations have actually developed historically.

I want to answer some questions I recently got in a debate with so-called “race realists”. Their idea is based on a pseudo-scientific theory called the cold winter theory, which suggests that people in cold climates develop higher intelligence because it is harder to survive in a colder climate. I will not tackle why that theory is broken, as I have addressed that before: Why are Cold Countries Richer than Hot Countries?

So if Africa isn’t poor because Africans are inherently less intelligent and they aren’t poor because of European colonization and exploitation, then why is Africa so poor?

How Civilizations Evolve and Prosper

For a civilization to prosper, there are many requirements that must be fulfilled.

  1. You need to become agricultural; otherwise you will not have the ability to accumulate wealth, build towns, trade and specialize.
  2. Access to domesticated plants, ideas, science, knowledge, and technology from others.
  3. Ability to produce at scale, specialize and trade with others.
  4. A favorable climate and natural conditions.
  5. The right natural resources.

In Africa, these five points were poorly met compared to other regions of the world, such as in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. I will cover these points more in detail through the rest of the story. Let us start with agriculture in Africa and what it took long to develop.

Why Did Farming Develop Late in Africa?

You can actually study the reasons for this more in detail on Khan Academy here: The First Farmers in Africa, the Cradle of Humanity By David Baker.

Instead, I will quote the key parts which are important to get. The first point is that agriculture evolved late in Africa, precisely because it is where human evolved first:

Scientists generally believe that Africans turned to agriculture later precisely because their home was the cradle of our species. For millions of years, pre-human species such as Homo habilis, Homo erectus, and the Neanderthals evolved alongside native African animals. Animals need generations to adapt their instincts to humans, to avoid being captured or hunted. African animals had a lot of time for that adaptation, so they were much more difficult to domesticate. Domesticating animals is one of the first crucial steps for farming. That’s also why there is so much megafauna (large mammals) still in Africa, while much of it was wiped out in Australia and the Americas when humans suddenly arrived.

Unlike what race realists claim, farming was not something clever people came up with. Rather, farming was something people did because they had no other choice. Because animals were not used to human hunters outside of Africa, they were quickly hunted to near extinction and thus humans destroyed their livelihood and had to begin farming.

In fact, farming was not much to invent. Africans typically knew about farming long before choosing to adopt it. Why didn’t they adopt it? Here is a simple explanation:

Farming required a lot more work. One estimate is that a farmer needed to work 9.5 hours a day where a forager only needed to work 6. Early farming brought more disease, worse nutrition, worse health, and greater vulnerability to weather and natural disasters. For instance, we know that for a long time, foraging communities in the Kalahari Desert in Southwest Africa knew about farming but didn’t adopt it. Why would anyone adopt a way of life that was far less healthy, took more work, and generally was much more miserable than foraging?

Hunting requires even fewer hours of work. I could go on, but if you read the article by David Baker you will find that farming simply did not offer benefits to Africans while it did offer benefits to people outside of Africa. People made choices that made sense for the environment they lived in.

There is a parallel with bronze working and iron working that I cover in this story: Guide to Historic Iron Making.

Like with agriculture, humans did not switch from bronze making to iron making as soon as the latter was developer, but rather when they were forced to do it. You see, early iron tools were hard to make and not very good. Bronze had the clear edge. However, bronze had a major downside: It is an alloy of tin and copper which are rarely found in the same location and thus bronze making relies on trade networks.

When trade networks collapsed, humans were forced to resort to iron working. This applies to many technologies, as I cover here: How Innovation Happened Historically.

Lack of Access to Innovation

One of the best predictors of prosperity and progress for a country is proximity to other advanced nations. Why is that? Because it means ideas, techniques, plants, domesticated animals and more from that more advanced nation will gradually diffuse into neighboring countries through trade and travel. As David Baker remarks:

The north has the harsh and deadly Sahara, which makes farming unlikely. The desert also cut off networks of communication with earlier farming societies. In fact, sub-Saharan Africans had to come up with farming independently.

The Sarah dessert created a major barrier against the influx of technology, ideas, and plants from the Middle East, Europe, and Asia. What about a sea route? Traveling by sea to Subsaharan Africa is extremely difficult. That is why neither Vikings, Greeks or Romans ever did it.

I will quote a history teacher, Jose Geraldo Gouvea, who provides an extensive answer to this question.

Meanwhile, sailing the oceans was a hit and miss (usually a miss). Closed waters, like the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, provide some protection against stormy weather and rough currents. Small ships, sometimes even rowing boats, can withstand the sea. But when you reach open waters you get lost. That’s not only because of the ship’s weakness or lacking maneuverability, or because the sailors didn’t know the way to go.

The key problem is sea currents. The currents made it impossible to return to Europe, which naturally stopped people from trying to venture to Africa. To actually be able to go against the currents you need to advance ship technology to quite a high level, and that did not happen until the development of the Portuguese sail ship (caravel). In other words, the ability for Sub-Saharan Africa to receive ideas, technologies and other things from the outside world was limited until the 1500s. Or rather for West Africa.

In East Africa, Muslim sailers and traders would reach Africa, which presumable explains why early influence on Africa was primarily muslim. It might also explain the Ethiopian Empire due to its proximity to the muslim world. It is likely not an accident that they were the only African country to successfully resist European colonization efforts (Italy only ever managed to take part of the country in the 1930s).

So we have established that the spreading of ideas, technologies, plants and domesticated animals matter but is there any way to give a sense of how much? We can look at Europe for comparison. Much technology and science within Europe spread due to the Roman Empire, an empire possible due to the Mediterranean Sea and large European rivers such as the Rhine.

Later European advances as very dependent on the outside. For instance, all Greek philosophy survived only thanks to Muslim scholars. Europe got modern numbers from India via the muslim world. Paper came from China via the muslim world. Gunpowder gave with Mongol invasion.

We don’t know if Europeans independently invented the compass, but it was first used in China. From wikipedia:

Some historians suggest that the Arabs introduced the compass from China to Europe. Some suggested the compass was transmitted from China to Europe and the Islamic world via the Indian Ocean, or was brought by the crusaders to Europe from China

Regardless of what happened, there certainly was a way for Europeans to obtain this knowledge from China. The same could not be said for Africa.

Economies of Scale, Trade, and Specialization

The most important thing for economic development both today and historically is through specialization, or as Economist Adam Smith called it: “The division of labour.”

Adam Smith makes a famous example where he compares a pin factory with a smith making pins.

make among them about 12 pounds of pins in a day. There are in a pound upwards of 4000 pins of a middling size. Those 10 persons, therefore, could make among them upwards of 48 000 pins in a day. Each person, therefore, making a 1/10 of 48 000 pins, might be considered as making 4800 pins in a day. But if they had all wrought separately and independently, and without any of them having been educated to this peculiar business, they certainly could not each of them have made 20, perhaps not one pin in a day; that is, certainly, not the 240, perhaps not the 4800 hundredth part of what they are at present capable of performing.

So in short, with division of labour in the pin factory they are each making about 4800 pins, while somebody doing it independently would make maximum 20 pins a day. That is a 240x productivity increase at least.

It has been remarked by various historians that the pin factory account is probably wrong, but it doesn’t matter that much, as the point made is still relevant. For any operation, you do if you do something in bulk and in large quantity then the time you spend per unit starts to fall dramatically. For instance, if you bake 10 cakes it doesn’t take 10 times as long time as baking 1 cake. In other words, to achieve efficiency and economic growth, you need to produce at scale.

But to produce at scale you need to trade, as you cannot consume all these pins or cakes yourself. But to trade, you need a market. Larger markets require water-based transportation historically.

In Book 1, chapter 3 this is discussed. Adam Smith compares land and sea-based transportation:

  • 2 men, 8 horses. 4 ton, London to Edinburgh.
  • 6–8 men sail-ship. 200 ton London to Leith (same distance. Outside Edinburgh).

Thus, water transport carries as much as 50 wagons, 100 men and 400 horses. That is a massive difference. In the 1800s a sack of sugar from Havana, Cuba, cost less to transport all across the Atlantic to Oslo, Norway than from Oslo to 50 km into the country in Eidsvold.

From Book 1, Chapter 3 we can see how Adam Smith correctly observed that Africa had very poor conditions for water-based transportation and that was a significant contributor to its poor development:

All the inland parts of Africa, and all that part of Asia which lies any considerable way north of the Euxine and Caspian seas, the ancient Scythia, the modern Tartary and Siberia, seem in all ages of the world to have been in the same barbarous and uncivilised state in which we find them at present. The Sea of Tartary is the frozen ocean which admits of no navigation, and though some of the greatest rivers in the world run through that country, they are at too great a distance from one another to carry commerce and communication through the greater part of it. There are in Africa none of those great inlets, such as the Baltic and Adriatic seas in Europe, the Mediterranean and Euxine seas in both Europe and Asia, and the gulfs of Arabia, Persia, India, Bengal, and Siam, in Asia, to carry maritime commerce into the interior parts of that great continent: and the great rivers of Africa are at too great a distance from one another to give occasion to any considerable inland navigation. The commerce besides which any nation can carry on by means of a river which does not break itself into any great number of branches or canals, and which runs into another territory before it reaches the sea, can never be very considerable; because it is always in the power of the nations who possess that other territory to obstruct the communication between the upper country and the sea.

I know when discussing this with modern-day racists they attempt to trivialize this point and suggest it is some kind of “excuse” for Africa but it is not. It is of profound importance and cannot be overstated. All major cities historically have been next to rivers or coastline. Some exceptions, such as Tenochtitlan in the Aztec empire existed. But it was still on a lake which allowed water-based transportation.

In nearly every country today, coastal regions are more developed and richer. Compare the coastal cities of China with the inland, for instance. The difference in prosperity is vast.

I can take an example from my native Norway. Why was the timber trade so dominated by Norway in the 1800s? Sure, Norway has quite a lot of forrest but Sweden, Finland, and Russia has significantly more. Why did these countries no dominate the timber trade instead?

Have you ever heard about Norwegian fjords and maintains? Well, that gives you a big hint. The mountains provide Norway with numerous rivers and the fjords means the sea cuts far into the land, given water based access to the interior of Norway. In other words, the combination of rivers and fjords gave Norway the ultimate advantage in terms of transportation.

But Norway is just one example. In Europe, we can find numerous different configurations allowing water-based transportation. Denmark, for instance if composed of multiple islands. Greece is similar to Norway in that it has a rugged coastline and plenty of islands. It is no accident that Greek civilization was so advanced and commercially oriented. The most famous classical works, the Odyssey by Homer, is about sea travel between multiple islands. That is no accident, as sea travel was the lifeblood of Greek civilization and source of their power and prosperity.

The Netherlands is another interesting case. It is not numerous islands, but it is at the river delta of the Rhine. That means goods from the interior of Germany and Switzerland would get shipped through the Netherlands. But the fact that the land is flat and below the sea level made it very easy for the Dutch to dig canals as it is close to the water table. It has been calculated that the Dutch transported so many goods on their canals during the Golden Age that if they had had to use horses for the same transportation, merely feeding these horses would have consumed the agricultural output of a third of the country.

For a more detailed discussion of water-based transportation in the Netherlands: Geography and Economics

Unfavorable African Climate

One of the more absurd claims in the cold climate “theory” is that life is much easier in hot climate like Africa than in Europe and thus people would basically not develop a brain as they can just go on autopilot. The way they describe it, one would think Africans could at any point just stretch out an arm and by magic there will be a banana there to consume.

Let me quote David Baker again from Khan Academy:

The continent also holds many dense forests that would be very difficult for foragers to clear, settle, and farm. Finally, diseases also had evolved alongside humans in Africa. There were many tropical diseases that made it a good idea for humans to keep moving rather than settle down.

Africa is a bit the opposite of the case of the Americas, where humans diseases were less prevalent as they got settled late. That meant when Europeans arrived, their disease nearly killed the whole population:

It is estimated that 95 percent of the indigenous populations in the Americas were killed by infectious diseases during the years following European colonization, amounting to an estimated 20 million people.

Digging canals, which was easy in Europe in places such as the Netherlands and England, is very hard in tropical areas due to disease. Dutch colonialists tried in areas they settled and nearly killed themselves off because of it. Also canals work better in areas with consistent rainfall like you find in European climates. Dutch and English canals can maintain water levels through the year due to consistent rain through the year.

Hot climates are terrible for diseases and microorganisms. Here cold climates have a major advantage as cold winters kill micro-organisms.

In hot waters, oxygen cannot dissolve as easily, which makes hot waters less suitable for maritime life.

Also, human survival is in many ways more difficult in hot climates than cold. One can create tents, houses, clothes and fires to deal with the cold. But for heat there is no solution until the invention of air-condition in modern times. In hot temperatures, humans are unable to work hard because the body cannot get rid of the heat fast enough. That problem does not exist in colder climates.

The claim is that people in cold climate have to get real smart because they need to plan ahead, store food and so on. Well through most of the period where humans might have evolved in cold climates, we had plenty of access to game and fish. We did not engage in agriculture.

One of the “race realist” claims is that people in Europe had all this time to develop unique traits for intelligence, but they use the timeline for the first arrival of people in Europe

But a lot of that argumentation is bonkers because they base it on the arrival of Homo Erectus some 1.8 million years ago. But Homo Erectus is not the ancestor of modern Europeans, so that is a silly argument. We have to start with Homo Sapiens which did not arrive until 45,000 BC. That may sound like a lot but in evolutionary terms isn’t that much.

And here is the problem, Europeans kept getting replaced by people moving in. Early European farmers came from the outside and replace most of the locals in Southern Europe. That happened about 8000 years ago.

Genetic studies demonstrate that the introduction of farming to Europe in the 7th millennium BC was associated with a mass migration of people from Northwest Anatolia to Southeast Europe, which resulted in the replacement of almost all (c. 98%) of the local Balkan hunter-gatherer gene pool with ancestry from Anatolian farmers.

This map shows the migration of farmers and timetables.

At this point, the ice age in Europe had been long gone, and the climate cannot be called particularly cold in Souther Europe. Certainly, not the kind of cold climate which is supposed to make survival much harder for humans, unless they are being very clever.

I can see why a cold climate might be harder for farmers and require more planning, but I do not see why it would be a major issue for hunters. Inuit people survive just fine in climates much colder than for Europeans, and their civilization is not advanced.

For hunters, I would assume colder climate would instead be an advantage, as the cold makes preservation of meat much easier.

Having The Right Resources

Africa is known for all sorts of valuable minerals, and people often falsely assume that should naturally make you rich. But resources are rather worthless without proper transportation networks.

In the 1700s, Sweden made more than half the cannons in Europe. They were an iron powerhouse, but why? Did they have better iron ore? No, not really. It was the combination of vast forests and iron ore which was the key. Until humans learned to use coal for smelting, one had to use wood to smelt iron and do a lot of the mining. That gave Sweden with its vast forests a major advantage. Sweden also had rivers and lakes which allowed transportation of this iron.

Africa historically lacked a means to transport their resources. We can see the effect of poor transportation networks by looking at Russia. Why do you think Russia for hundreds of years was so backwards compared to the rest of Europe?

It was because Russia is a bit like Africa in that it has vast terrain but little coastline and rivers to allow for effective transportation. That is why Norway in the 1800s dominated timber exports rather than Russia. That all changed with the introduction of the railroad in the 1870s.

It is no coincidence that the largest migration waves from Norway to the US happened in the 1870s. More people left Norway as percent of population than in any other country in Europe except Ireland. Interestingly that was not because Norway was exceptionally poor. In fact Norway at the time was among the richer countries in Europe.

Rather, it was because Norway experienced a major economic struggle due to the railroad. The railroad killed the advantage of the Norwegian fjords for transportation of timber. Now the Russians, Finns, and others could compete. Not only did it hit the timber export but the railroad brought both grain from the American prairie and from Ukrainian to the European markets, causing a collapse in grain prices and hardship for Norwegian farmers.

In other words, transportation is of enormous importance. It doesn’t matter what resources you have if you have no effective way to get them to market.

I should highlight another protest from the “race realists” when I mention the importance of waterways.

Why are Australia and the US Rich?

Australia and North America, like Africa, have low ratio of coastline and rivers to landmass. Neither place has anything like the mediterranean and the Baltic Sea to offer effective transportation.

Frankly, this is a rather idiotic complaint which I should not have to address. The importance of waterways is, of course, related to technological level. It helps explain why civilizations could not evolve to an advance stage until the railroad and steam boats got invented.

The development of the US really took off with the introduction of the railroad. That is also when Russia finally managed to change course. Under the Czar Russia had been economically stagnant for 400 years. Steamboats are an iconic thing for great rivers like the Mississippi.

That is important to keep in mind. Rivers in outside of Europe in hotter climates were generally not possible to effectively use for transportation without steam boats. In fact, the British had to build railroad in India to transport goods as the river systems were no reliable. In hot climates, the water flow varies too much through the year.

Why Didn’t Africa Catchup When Railroad Got Developed?

It could be claimed that since the US and Australia developed after the introduction of railroads, Africa should as well. Except as Russia clearly shows, if you have been lagging in development for a long time, it takes time to catch up. By the time WWI happened, Russia was far behind other Western powers economically and technologically.

They had caught up a bit by WW2, but were still significantly less developed and poorer. If a country that close to the rest of Europe lagged so far behind, why on Earth would Africa, much further away and in a different climate zone, magically catch up? That makes no sense.

By the railroad could be built in Africa, African nations had spent hundreds of years falling behind European development due to lack of waterways, late development of agriculture and so on.

And the ability to utilize this golden moment was thwarted by the fact that Africa then got colonized.

Being conquered by a more advanced nation is not necessarily in terms of development long term. Romans slaughtered people left and right and so did the muslim conquerors that built the first Caliphates or the Mughals invading India. European colonization of Africa was in this regard not uniquely evil or brutal with the exception of the Congo which was out of this world brutal.

The point here is not to excuse colonization, but rather to consider whether it is a major reason why Africa is underdeveloped. Europeans did bring modern technology, railroads tropical medication, new farming techniques and more to Africa. That was a positive. On the other hand due to the racism of the whole enterprise local people got minimal education which meant that when European colonial rulers pulled out there was not a competent class of educated people left who could effectively run these countries.

It is a cheap argument to go “look how badly they run their countries when we let them take over themselves!” Well you deliberately prevented them from getting education while being in charge so that is not exactly surprising.

The Effects of Colonization

The question then is if colonization was a net gain or loss. We have way of testing this hypothesis because there was countries such as Thailand and the Ethiopia which did not get colonized. India got colonized unlike China.

If colonization was really bad or good that should show itself in how these countries fared relative to colonized countries. Ethiopia is economically nothing special in Africa. Numerous former colonies are much richer than Ethiopia.

Some of the richest cities in Asia Singapore and Hong Kong are former colonies. Taiwan was founded as a Dutch colony and was a Japanese colony for a fair amount of time. It is also among the richer countries in Asia. Thailand isn’t doing too bad with a GDP of 17,000 dollars per capita but Malaysia which has been a colony since 1500s has a GDP of almost 26,000 dollar per capita (PPP adjustments).

Ghana at 5,435 dollars per capita is much richer than Ethiopia at 2,319 dollars per capita. Ghana was a British colony until 1957. Malaysia is richer than many European countries that were never colonies, such as Serbia.

Again I want to stress that even if colonization did not have a significant negative impact on the economies of colonized countries in the long term, this should not be used to excuse colonization. It has other negative consequences such as destruction of local cultures and customs and numerous atrocities. Colonization also contributed to many African civil wars as colonial master left behind many unnatural borders which ignored the spread of different ethnic groups.


Geography and climate are the key reasons why Africa is underdeveloped. It is also ironically the key reason Europe is very well developed. Europe is in many ways the opposite of Africa. Where Africa has the worst conditions for water transportation of any geographic area, Europe probably has the best ones.

While Africa has a harsh climate which creates a lot of problems with disease and lack of water, Europe has a very benevolent climate. In particular Southern Europe was likely historically one of the most ideal places for any civilization. Not too cold winters or too hot summers. Good access to water for crops and drinking all through the year.

Europe is also connected to conveniently to North Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Thus Europe had the ability to source ideas, technology, plants and domesticated animals from all these areas. Meanwhile the Sahara blocked African communication with the outside world.

My point with writing this article is to get you to think before you jump to conclusions about people. We have as I have shown here a long list of explanations related to the environment explaining the struggle of Africa to develop. There is no need to resort to assumptions about genetic inferiority.

I know there is a “race realist” reading this who will wave his hand and protest that this proves nothing because Africans immigrants and underperforming in all Western nations they are settling and African Americans still score only 85 on average on IQ scores.

They will scream loud from the top of their lungs that such major and persistent differences cannot possibly be explained by anything but genetics.

Except we have seen exactly this kind of IQ gap before with exactly the same arguments. I wrote about that in this article: Historical IQ Tests on Immigrants.

Let me give a summary. Back in 1922 Kimball Young wrote about about his “fears” of “inferior races” destroying America. Who were these inferior races you might ask? Mexicans? Africans? Nope, Kimball was fretting about Southern Europeans such as Spanish, Portuguese and Italians. No, I am not kidding.

IQ tests in those days showed that Spanish people scored 78 points and Northern Europeans 105. In other words we are talking about an IQ gap of 27 points, considerably higher than the black-white cap of 15 IQ points today.

The “race realists” of the day claimed such major difference could be caused by no other reason that genetic differences. That the cause could be environmental in nature was flat out rejected, just as race realists flat out reject the possibility that the black-white IQ gap today could be environmental.

Yet, today that IQ gap is entirely evaporated. There is no measured IQ difference between Northern Europeans and Southern Europeans. The difference disappeared within less than a hundred years. Far too short time for the gene pool to significantly change. In other words environment is the only plausible explanation for this gap.

Of course the question is what kind of environmental difference could cause such a gap? One simple reason is difference between catholic and protestant culture. Even within the same country catholic areas did much worse than protestant areas in every level of development. Nordic countries for instance became 100% literate long before Southern Europe thanks to public schooling starting in the 1700s to prepare for Lutheran confirmation.

Culture matters. Children of educated parents do significantly better in school than children of less educated parents. This there will be an echo from the past that takes time to erase. African Americans have only experienced somewhat equal access to education for a short time. There are still people around who lived through racial segregation. What about African immigrants in Europe and elsewhere? Many will still have grand parents who lived through colonial times.

I cannot rule out that there are in fact genetic difference and inherent IQ differences between different populations in the world. But here are my two cents: Don’t jump to that conclusion before you have studied the history.

African countries are still quite poor but they are rapidly developing. I would not have made any firm conclusion on any of this until these countries have gotten more developed.

Also I question the obsession with determining this. I don’t see what benefits we derive from it. Every time I try to get an answer to that question it seems the motivation is a desire to reject benefits to minorities. We know racism exists in society. Race realists will always deny this and I got tired of proving that over and over, so I made an article collecting proof: Proof of Systemic Racism in America.

The flawed assumption of “race realists” is that racism in the US today no longer exists and thus their assumption is that group differences cannot be caused by current and present discrimination. In other words the difference must be genetic. This their motivation for proving racial differences is to be able to kill the argument that racism is real.

They falsely claim that the only argument progressives have for racism is that gap exists. Yet as I linked to we have plenty of evidence that systemic racism is a real thing. And even if racism doesn’t exist today, the effects of past discrimination very much has an effect.

Lower income, lower education, worse neighborhoods for your parents generation will translate into worse outcomes for you. And the same applies to their parents. Poverty and disadvantage is quite sticky and unless to do active measures to combat it, it will stay.

They can claim that the poor are merely genetically inferior and that is why they are poor. That as the argument they pulled in Victorian England to excuse their shitty poor laws. But then they have no way to explain the exceptional poverty of white Appalachians.


If you want to read some articles that question the “race realist” orthodoxy I have collected some here.



Erik Engheim

Geek dad, living in Oslo, Norway with passion for UX, Julia programming, science, teaching, reading and writing.