Economic Growth in Sub-Saharan Africa, 1885-2008: Evidence from Eight Countries

Sub-Saharan Africa has been absent from recent histories of long-run growth owing to a lack of data from before 1950. In this paper, new annual estimates of GDP per capita for eight African economies from the period since 1885 raise new questions about characterizations of the region’s economic performance.

Research on African economic performance has often focused on the question of why Africa has underperformed other regions. The only available data on Africa’s long-run economic performance began in 1950, and showed that most African economies had grown little between 1950 and 2000. Conversely, a resurgence of economic growth since 2000 prompted new questions about what changed and whether Africa had finally turned a corner.

In other regions, historical national accounts have extended our knowledge of patterns of growth and development over centuries into the past (Broadberry 2021). In a recent paper, we (Broadberry & Gardner 2022) present annual estimates of GDP per capita in countries spread across Sub-Saharan Africa for the period 1885-2008, encompassing both the colonial and post-independence periods. The data are available on the AEHN website and in Appendix 1 of the paper.

Historical National Accounts for Sub-Saharan Africa

The absence of annual data on per capita incomes in Africa over the long-run has limited Africa’s appearance in comparative historical work on economic growth and development. Prior to the publication of our paper, South Africa was the only country for which there existed annual estimates for the Cape Colony (Fourie & van Zanden 2013).

We use economic data collected by colonial governments to reconstruct historical national accounts for eight countries (Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa) from across Sub-Saharan Africa to reconstruct annual measures of GDP per capita for before 1950. We then splice these estimates onto existing series from 1950 onwards to create annual estimates of GDP per capita for the colonial and post-independence period.

We calculate GDP from the output side, dividing the economy into three sectors: the traditional sector, the export sector and the government sector. Building on innovations from historical national accounting in Europe and India, we estimate the output of the traditional sector using real wage data. This improves on earlier work which assumed that the traditional sector grew at the same rate as the population by allowing for patterns of consumption to change with levels of income. Data on exports and government spending allow us to measure the output of these sectors.

We then splice our pre-1950 estimates onto Maddison’s data for 1950-2008. These data have been the subject of numerous critiques, so we checked them against original national accounts produced by each of the countries in our sample and found them to be a close match.

Economic Growth in Sub-Saharan Africa

Our annual series provide a more detailed picture than previous estimates for the colonial period, which have been restricted to benchmark years (see, eg, the pioneering work of Prados de la Escosura 2010) or single countries (Jerven 2014). The data show that many African economies had per capita incomes above subsistence from at least the late 19th century.

As an example, Figure 1 compares the growth trajectories of Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa. It shows that the three countries were comparable in terms of their levels of income during the late 19th century. Ghana kept pace until the interwar period, when the expansion of South Africa’s manufacturing sector provided the basis for more sustained growth in the latter country.

Figure 1: Per capita GDP in West Africa compared with South Africa (1990 international $, log scale)

We also show that Sub-Saharan Africa as a whole was not significantly poorer than large Asian economies until the late 20th century. Figure 2 compares a weighted average of our eight countries with the GDP per capita of China, India and Latin America. While Latin America had systematically higher levels of GDP per capita since the late 19th century, levels of GDP per capita in Africa were comparable or even higher than India and China until Africa’s long period of shrinking in the 1980s.

Our data also show, however, that overall gains in per capita income were limited due to repeated periods of negative growth, or shrinking. Studies of other regions suggest that the transition to sustained growth depends not so much on increasing the pace of growth as on reducing the frequency and severity of periods of shrinking (Broadberry & Wallis 2017).

Figure 2: GDP per capita in developing countries (1990 international $, log scale)

Table 1 shows the average rate of change of per capita income during periods of both growing and shrinking, comparing African economies to that of the UK. It shows that while African economies grew faster than the UK through most of the period, they also shrank faster and more frequently.

Table 1: Average rate of change of per capita income in growing years and shrinking years in Africa and the United Kingdom 1885-2008 (% per annum)

Next Steps

This is not yet a complete picture of African growth. The sample of countries include only British colonies. Colonization was not random, and it may be that the economic performance of British colonies was systematically different from countries colonized by other powers or those which remained independent. However, it does provide several lessons for those interested in Africa’s long-run development.

First, it is possible to use historical data to reconstruct historical national accounts for Africa, and this paper is intended to inspire further studies on other parts of the continent so as to bring the continent more firmly into narratives of long-run growth.

Second, the paper calls for greater attention to the causes and consequences of periods of shrinking. Studies of African economic development have tended to focus on growth – either explaining its absence, or proposing methods to increase its rate. However, our data suggest that long-run gains in per capita income have been undermined not by a lack of growth but by the frequency of shrinking.


Broadberry, S. (2021). Accounting for the Great Divergence: Recent Findings from Historical National Accounting. University of Oxford Discussion Papers in Economic and Social History No. 187, Oxford.

Broadberry, S. and Gardner, L. (2022). Economic Growth in Sub-Saharan Africa, 1885-2008: Evidence from Eight Countries. Explorations in Economic History 83: 101424.

Broadberry, S., and Wallis, J. (2017). Growing, Shrinking and Long Run Economic Performance: Historical Perspectives on Economic Development. National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No. 23343.

Fourie, J, and van Zanden, J.L. (2013). GDP in the Dutch Cape Colony: The National Accounts of a Slave-Based Society. South African Journal of Economics 81, 467-490.

Jerven, M. (2014). A West African Experiment: A GDP Series for Colonial Ghana, 1891-1950. Economic History Review 67: 964-992.

Prados de la Escosura, L. (2012) Output Per Head in Pre-Independence Africa: Quantitative Conjectors. Economic History of Developing Regions 27: 1-36.


Feature Image by Alex Mbogo on Wikimedia Commons.

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