By G.O. Ogunremi and E.K. Faluyi (Eds)
Whereas by the first half of the 18th century all the countries of the world relied on agricultural
pursuits for bread winning, towards the end of that century the transformation of human
activities from farming endeavours to progressive industrial output had achieved striking success
in Britain and the wind of change subsequently blew over Europe, North America and Japan in
the far east. The West African Economy, just like the economies of the other sections of the
under-developed world remained agricultural and traditional. This was the situation throughout
the 19th century down to the 20th.
Of the factors of production, land was the only one that seemed to be in abundance. It was
unimaginable that a prospective farmer would have any difficulty obtaining land for his use.
While he did not have outright ownership of it, the farmer was entitled to whatever family land
was available in his place of birth. If he migrated to some other area, he could assume temporary
tenancy over such land that he needed or he could at least function as a share-cropper. Although
there was hardly any technological knowledge with which to redeem waterlogged or otherwise
unsuitable land resources, farmland was plentiful enough not to create a constraint on
development in pre-colonial West Africa. A major explanation for this was that population
growth had not come to such a high dimension as it subsequently did after early decades of the
20th century. The pressure on land was therefore manageable and even though land fertility
could not be replenished because of inadequate knowledge of attainable manure, virgin areas or
scantily exhausted zones existed for people to use.
Intensive agriculture featuring definite rotational order for crops could not be adopted because
knowledge of scientific agriculture was lacking. With diminishing yields from a parcel of land
under concentrated cultivation, the farmer captured the signal that it was time to move elsewhere.
But this was no shifting cultivation as such. The next area of activity was almost invariably
contiguous to the former area and quite often what happened was spatial extension of cultivation
rather than shifting cultivation which pre-supposes a break from the existing frontier of farmland.
But if land was not a constraint on development, labour was. It was indeed because the supply
of labour was inadequate that land did not constitute a problem. For if the labour situation has
been more elastic, the injection of more hands into the farming arena would in all probability
have over stretched the available land resources, especially as technological competence was too
low to enable the redemption of useless land and the enrichment«ef worn-out fields and estates.
Labour shortage was probably a reflection of the prevalent low life expectancy. For one thing,
infant mortality rate was high and life span generally short. Another reason is that health care
was so poor that labour productivity in general could not be high. Although there was nothing to
suggest that the birth rate was low, the fact of high death rate could substantially negate the
possible gains from rising birth rate. Indeed, a major factor that sustained people’s interest in
prolonged human procreation was the uncertainty as to whether children would survive their
parents. Perhaps the enduring effects of such fear explain the reluctance of some local people to
accept birth control devices in these days of modernization.
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