Plantation Systems

In Africa, plantations are large farms that specialize in one or two crops grown for export. They produce many of the continent’s most important export crops such as coffee, cocoa, tea, sugarcane, tobacco, rubber, and bananas. Plantations also handle at least some processing of the crops, and typically maintain a large unskilled labor force. Nevertheless, the plantation system does not dominate African agriculture as it does in some parts of the world.

History of African Plantations

The first plantations in Africa were founded between 1500 and 1800 on islands such as CAPE VERDE, SÃO TOMÉ AND PRÍNCIPE, ZANZIBAR, MAURITIUS, and RÉUNION. Early Portuguese sugar plantations based on slave labor eventually failed because of slave rebellions and difficult farming conditions. French and Dutch plantations in SOUTH AFRICA and the Indian Ocean were more successful. They employed better technology and planted improved varieties of sugarcane. Also, after the SLAVE TRADE was abolished in the 1800s, these plantations had access to indentured labor from Asia.

Until the early 1900s, many West African plantations were established and run by indigenous rulers using local slave labor. They produced sugar and groundnuts as well as palm oil, which was used for making soap and lubricating machinery. As Europeans began to colonize large parts of Africa, they shut down many indigenous plantations and set up their own.

Plantation owners soon found that the cost of housing and feeding large numbers of unskilled laborers made plantations less profitable than small farms producing the same crops. To help planters stay in business, colonial governments gave them low-cost land grants and forced the local population to work on the plantations. They also gave planters a monopoly by preventing the sale of crops grown by other farmers. These state-supported plantations often produced most of a colony’s exports.

As African nations gained independence in the mid-1900s, many plantations were broken up and the land was given to small farmers. However, some countries continued to rely on plantations to grow many of their export crops. Governments profited from successful independent plantations by taxing their profits. Some countries placed plantations under state ownership and allowed the workers to participate in their management.

Plantations in Modern Africa

Today, the major part of Africa’s crops comes from small farms rather than from plantations. Even coffee and cocoa, once grown almost exclusively on plantations, are now primarily small-farm crops. Large international firms run most of the successful plantations in Africa, including rubber plantations in LIBERIA and tobacco plantations in MALAWI, ZIMBABWE, and South Africa. Modern research and development have made these operations somewhat more efficient than earlier efforts. However, labor is still a problem. Most Africans avoid plantation work, and organizing and managing a large labor force remains costly.

The traditional plantation system is gradually being replaced by a system in which plantation owners contract with small farmers to produce crops. The farmers bring their crops to a central location for processing, marketing, and distribution. In this way, planters profit from the efficiency of processing large amounts of crops at one time, and farmers benefit from the ability to bring their crops to a wider market. In addition, advances in agricultural technologies, management methods, and communications are making it easier to produce and export crops without the use of plantations. (See also Agriculture, Colonialism in AfricaDevelopment, Economic and Social, Economic History, Plants: Varieties and Uses.)

Africa: Plantation Systems