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Sub-Saharan Africa

General data

  • Area of the region: 24,328,299 km²
  • Total GDP: $1,920.90 million dollars.
  • Approximate population: 1.17 billion inhabitants.

The Sub-Saharan Africa region includes all the countries in Africa that do not border the Mediterranean Sea and are located south of the Sahara desert. It comprises a total of 48 countries and, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), it can be divided into four sub-regions:

  1. East Africa: Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, Madagascar, Mauritius, Comoros, Seychelles, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya, Tanzania, Sudan, South Sudan, Mozambique and Malawi.
  2. West or East Africa: Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Ivory Coast, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Togo and the Saint Helena Island.
  3. Southern or Southern Africa: Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, Eswatini (Swaziland), South Africa, Mozambique, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia and Angola.
  4. Central Africa: Central African Republic, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Sao Tome and Principe, Republic of Congo, and Zambia.

Origin of term

The use of the concept "Sub-Saharan Africa" stems from the need to replace other expressions with racist overtones such as "Tropical Africa" or "Black Africa" within academic and institutional spheres. These names were coined after European colonization in the region until the 1950s. That is why the use of the prefix sub stands out, which refers to all the countries that are south of the Sahara. For the same reason, it is divided into four sub-regions, since in this way it is avoided encompassing more than forty nations under the same term.

Physical characteristics

Much of the sub-Saharan countries enjoy distinct but hospitable seasonal climates. Most of them present characteristics of tropical and subtropical climatic zones. In addition to the above, the altitudes as well as the extension of uninterrupted plains and plateaus contribute to environmental variation throughout the continent. The Sahel and savannah regions show normal temperatures and conditions of a desert, but also experience precipitation during the summer.

Steady rains emanating from the Indian and Atlantic Oceans provide the tropical forests of West and Central Africa with an average of 177 millimeters a year. However, the most intense rainfall appears in the south of the continent, where the summer is much more humid compared to other areas. On the coast, there is a Mediterranean-type climate, which causes hot conditions that extend to the interior. Also, thanks to the high altitude, in contrast to the countries of the center, winter temperatures are a little colder than in different regions of the world with similar climatic conditions.

In addition, the African flora is extensive and unique, South Africa presents different types of vegetation, such as humid, dry, tropical forests and savannahs, which allows it to be home to a wide variety of animals that survive under diverse conditions. It has robust bushes, trees resistant to long droughts and different herbs that can survive the climates that besiege the region. On top of that, some areas have fertile land for cultivation; Ethiopia, for example, enjoys the production of coffee and cereals, while in other sub-regions logging is more common.

In another order of ideas, Central and Eastern Africa are home to 15 deep water masses along the Rift Valley, among which the second largest freshwater lake in the world, Victoria, stands out. The Great Lakes region perfectly exemplifies African biodiversity, vegetation ranging from savannah grasses to tropical forest-like environments in West Africa. Among the fauna that can be seen are nomadic elephants and giraffes, along with desert cattle called zebu. Farther south, the dense rainforests are home to almost half of the continent's animals.

In the African ecosystem, different species converge in different spaces, such as in the eastern end, where a huge number of birds take advantage of the highlands to settle with their young. Near the south of the Great Rift Valley, lions, hippos and crocodiles roam the region. The arid plains are home to roaming mammals such as impalas, antelopes, zebras, and fowl. However, this biodiversity is threatened by both natural and anthropological pressures. By way of example, there is the use of land for agricultural expansion and the destruction of habitat that land conversion implies. Poaching, civil war, introduction of exotic species and population growth are other threatening elements for the sub-Saharan ecosystem.

Regarding mineral resource reserves, 30% of them worldwide are located in Sub-Saharan Africa. The countries around the Sahara desert have huge deposits of uranium and oil, while gold and diamonds are found in the center and south of the continent. Several regional economies are strictly based on the export of raw materials, which is why they develop a dependence on world prices for these. In this sense, the case of the gold industry stands out; In 2008, the region removed around 483 tons (t) of the mineral, while by 2021, a total of 680t was recorded. Ghana, one of the leading countries in the world and the leading gold producer in Africa managed to amass 142t in 2019.

In the same way, the extraction of minerals and resources demands a high human cost, derived from the bad practices of companies throughout Africa, mainly in the diamond industry. Proof of this is the exploitation of cobalt in Katanga, within the Democratic Republic of Congo, which represents 40% of the world supply. This chemical element is necessary for the manufacture of lithium batteries, used in all kinds of electronic items from phones, tablets, laptops and wireless speakers. The miners who risk their lives to obtain such material are often minors, who face poor working conditions and human rights abuses.

Socioeconomic aspects

The richest countries in the Sub-Saharan region are Nigeria and South Africa, yet their economies are not at all alike. In the Nigerian case, there is the disadvantage of a high dependence on oil, a raw material susceptible to variable prices according to the international panorama. In addition to the above, 15% of its fuel was stolen from pipelines by extremist groups. On the other hand, the South African economy is diversified, including mining, financial services, agriculture and automobile manufacturing.

In contrast, agriculture constitutes around 30% of Sub-Saharan Africa's GDP, 40% of its exports and 70% of employment. The performance of this primary activity is a highly important factor in determining the livelihoods of millions of people. However, it is affected by unfavorable foreign markets, since the crops that are exported face strong competition from subsidized products from industrialized countries. Also, the limited use of modern agricultural inputs, such as the mechanization of irrigation, the use of improved seeds and fertilizers causes poor development, as well as vulnerability to climate change.

As for the informal sector, this represents greater prosperity than many other activities, among the jobs that are included in the heading are agriculture on limited land, small-scale mining operations, handicraft manufacturing, and different services such as car repair and home care. home. It is estimated that 72% of people who earn money work partly or totally in the informal sector.

While the aforementioned economic activities are taking place, one of the most common illegal acts in Sub-Saharan Africa is poaching, which boasts a high level of profit. The slaughter of up to 300 endemic species of the continent has become a business that continues to grow constantly. In addition, poachers took advantage of the lack of tourists, caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, to deploy on larger grounds and with a lower level of surveillance.


Christianity is the religion with the largest presence in sub-Saharan Africa compared to neighboring countries to the north. Various syncretistic and messianic sects are known across much of the continent, such as the Nazareth Baptist Church in South Africa and the Aladura Church in Nigeria. The oldest Christian denominations in the region are the Eastern Orthodox Church of Alexandria, the Tewahedo Orthodox of Ethiopia, and the Tewahedo Orthodox of Eritrea.

Islam is the second most practiced religion, especially in the Horn of Africa. In Western countries there are records of Muslim empires with considerable influence, particularly within Mali. The spread of Islam occurred through merchants and sailors from the north, so the majority of believers are Sunnis. Apart from universal religions, African tribes have their own beliefs and rituals that have been maintained throughout history.

Current Policy

Between 1975 and 2018, Sub-Saharan Africa has made important progress in terms of democracy, reaching what was known as a “third wave of democratization”. This process began in the 1970s in southern Europe and Latin America, later expanding to a global scope after the end of the Cold War. In 1990, only Botswana and Mauritius held regular multi-party elections, while today the only countries that do not have periodic suffrage are Eritrea, Somalia and South Sudan, the latter two as a result of internal conflicts and widespread instability.

On the other hand, African countries are in constant struggle with terrorist groups, which have invaded different States to take advantage of the exploitation of resources and poaching in order to economically strengthen their organizations. Active groups include Ansar Dine, Al Qaeda and Boko Haram. Throughout the region, corruption and abuse of power for personal gain has cost years of development and millions of human lives. From the payment of bribes for access to government, health, security and education services, to the awarding of infrastructure construction contracts, limiting the right to housing.


Sub-Saharan Africa is a fascinating region in constant development, which has been receptive to democratic processes that began a few decades ago. However, it still feels the effects of both colonialism and the new terrorist cells that exert influence for the birth of extremist groups. Such criminal collectives perpetuate violence and make the need for intergovernmental cooperation more imperative to counter its effect on African societies.