We analyze the long-term effects of colonial cash crop extraction in Africa. Our conceptual framework focuses on the dynamic, interactive effects of geography, trade and colonialism in the context of Africa’s structural change from the slave trades to export agriculture.
The adoption of cash crops shifted the loci of economic production to smallholder farmers in areas suitable for cultivation. Concurrently, the cash crop revolution—tied to European industrialization—led to the diffusion of economic imperialism beyond coastal Africa. Imperial extractive economies fueled infrastructural development in highly-suitable zones but dislocated production linkages to Europe and stymied the economic differentiation that otherwise might have occurred. The result was economic agglomeration at the site of production but with limited spillovers to nearby areas. Using agro-climatic suitability scores and historical data on the source location of more than 95 percent of all exports across 38 African states, we find that colonial cash crop production exhibited a large and positive long-run effect on local development in terms of urbanization, road infrastructure, nighttime luminosity and household wealth. These effects rival or surpass other geographic and historical forces frequently linked to subnational development in Africa. Exploring causal mechanisms, we show that path dependence due to colonial infrastructure investments is the more important channel than continued advantages in agricultural productivity. We also find that the positive local effects of colonial cash crop extraction came at the expense of surrounding areas and thereby entrenched deep spatial inequalities.