Social Economic Development and Production in Pre Colonial Africa

House near rough road

Social organization and production

Social organization is the way in which people in a society interact in the process of economic production. Economic production is the process of making goods and services to meet human needs. Example of activities relating to in economic production are crop production and cloth-making.

Types of social organizations and production

Pre Colonial Africa passed through three modes of production namely: communalism, slavery and feudalism. Modes of production are social and economic relations that existed between people in a society as they engaged in the process of material production. These modes of production are discussed below.


Communalism was the first mode of production. In this mode of production people lived together, worked together and shared equally whatever they obtained from nature. This mode is also called primitive communalism because of low level of technology. All human societies passed through communalism. Up to the end of the 19th Century the Hadzabe and Sandawe of Tanzania, the Teso of Uganda, the Ndorobo of Kenya, the Khoisan of the Kalahari Desert and the Mbuti of Congo forests were still practicing communalism. Now they have adopted new modes of production as a results of interaction with other societies.

Origins of communalism

The following are the factors which led to the existence of communalism:

1.   Low development of science and technology

People used primitive tools in material production and lacked skills to increase production. As a result, they only obtained little form nature and it was only for immediate consumption.

2.   Absence of surplus production

People consumed all what they got from their activities and were busy gathering for the next meal. By being busy gathering food for the next meal, people did not have time to organize themselves.

3.   Low population

Low in population in the society, made possible for members of the society to work together and share their produce or collections.

4.   Distribution of resources in the environment

Distribution of resources like location of water bodies and forest with fruit trees and game animal, made them settle in locations that were most favorable.

Characteristics of communalism

1.   Low production

Low production was because man largely depended on nature and when he begun using tools, his tools were inefficient.

2.   Communal ownership of the means of production

Means of production such as land, were communal owned.

3.   Absence of social classes

All people had the same social-economic class and every one treated every other similarly.

4.   Absence of social-political structures

There were no social organization system and no rulers.

5.   The major economic activities were hunting and gathering

Men joined hunting while women gathered fruits and cared for children at home.

6.   Land was the only means of production

Societies conducted their activities on land. For example: hunting and gathering.

Slavery in Africa

Slavery was the second mode of production in human history and the first exploitative mode of production.

Features of slavery

1.   Human being were treated as person property

They had no right to demand. They were regarded as any kind of property.

2.   Exploitation

Slave owners exploited the labor power of slaves and their children. Slave born children were given the clan names of their parent’s masters. They automatically acquired slave status and were equally exploited.

3.   Advanced level of technology

The level of technology was advanced compared to the level of technology attained during the communal mode of production.

4.   Existence of classes

The first class consisted of slave masters. The master were economically powerful because they owned property, especially the slaves. They also controlled economic and political institutions. The second class was that of slaves who were owned by the masters.

Origins of slavery in Africa

Below are factors which led to the rise of slavery in pre-colonial African societies:

1.   Rise of social classes

As the level of specialization grew, certain people were viewed as more special than others. For example, blacksmiths became more respected than other occupations. This gave way to a higher value of what they produced and later they could afford to take people to work under them.

2.   Emergence of political organizations

The rise of special group of people consisting of rulers and their immediate family called for emergence of another class of people whose work was to serve rulers performed other duties. This class of people ended up being slaves.

3.   The need for warriors who could guard kingdoms settlements

This brought another specialization of people who protected and served higher classes.

4.   Inequality in production

Depending on weather conditions, soil or even individual performance, different people harvested differently from their farms or other economic activities. The result of this is that, some could accumulate massive surplus while others only harvested little or none. In the time of need those who did not harvest enough had to go to those with plenty to ask for food. Slowly, this gave in to the exchange of material for human labor.

How the slave were used?

Slaves were used to perform the following tasks:

i.        Domestic activities such as fetching water, cooking and cleaning

i.        Took care of elders.

ii.        Watchmen and gate keepers.

iii.        Provided labor in farms and took care of animals.

iv.        Provided labor for constructions.

v.        Used to carry loads for traders and rulers as they moved from one place to another.


Feudalism was the third mode of production. It was based on land and cattle ownership. It was the second exploitative mode of production after slavery. Under feudalism land was the major means of production. People who owned land were called feudal lords. Those who rented were called serfs or tenants.

The tenants paid rent to their landlords in return for protection provided by the landlords.

There were three types of rent: rent in labour, rent in kind and rent in cash.

Origin of feudalism

Feudalism developed in African societies which undergone political centralization. Powerful kings owned and controlled all land. They gave some of it to chiefs, the chiefs provided service to the king in return for the land. They rented some of the land to the peasant for cultivation and grazing. The peasant provided service to the chiefs in return for the land. Rent changed as feudalism developed. Initially peasant paid rent in term of labour, later, landlords demanded rent in term of product produced. This type of rent is called rent in kind. As feudalism evolved and money came into use, landlords demanded rent in cash.

Map showing Feudal Societies in Africa


Map of Africa showing feudal societies

How production was organized under feudalism?

The interlacustrine region of East Africa had a number of societies which practiced feudalism by the mid-19th Century.

The Haya had feudal system known as Nyarubanja in which the king (Mukama) owned the best land and allocated it to other members of the ruling class to control it on his behalf.

In Rwanda and Burundi and Buha, the feudal system developed was known as Ubugabire, in which the Tutsi owned land and cattle while the Hutu were given the cattle for them to take care and in the end pay the Tutsi.

In Buganda the Kabaka owned land and allocated it to the chiefs. The peasants had to cultivate the land and pay part of their produce (Obusulu) to the landlords. They also rendered labour services (akasanvu) in the land that was directly controlled by Kabaka. The Kabaka received more crops like bananas and local brew while the serfs kept fewer products for their families.

The coastal societies along the East African Coast developed feudal system known as Umwinyi in which, Mwinyi Mkuu owned land and allocated it to his officials known Sheha in Unguja and Diwani in Pemba to control it on behalf. They appointed tax collector called Shakua. They collected tax in form of millet, mangrove poles and recruited labour services for Mwinyi Mkuu palace and landlords.

In the central and Western Tanganyika in East Africa, Ntemiship system was practiced among the Nyamwezi, Sukuma, Kimbu and Wagogo. The power of the ruler was based on his control over the producers themselves.

History Form Two Topic  Two Revision Questions

2.   Mention four characteristics of feudal social organization and production.

3.   Mention four characteristics of communalism.

4.   Define slavery.

5.   Define social organization and production.


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