Module Eighteen, Activity One

What is Central Africa?

Central Africa as a geographic entity is a landscape of plateaus of different geological structures and is dominated by the Congo River Basin. Some of the plateaus are smooth as in the central region and others, particularly on the plateaus from the periphery, are etched. Marshy surfaces are also present in the interior basin of the Congo River mainly in the areas where the Congo and three other rivers (Ubangi, likouala and Sangha) converge and in the area of lakes Mai-Ndombe and Tumba. {see map}

Relief and Drainage Map
Relief and Drainage
The Congo Basin
The Congo Basin

Around the central part of the Congo River basin, there are higher plateaus. For example, the Batekes plateau crossed by the Congo River above the Maleke Pool can reach an altitude of up to 3,000 feet above sea level north of Brazzaville the capital city of Congo. The Bateke plateau stretches toward the Kwango plateau that also reaches an altitude of more than 3000 feet near the Angolan border.

Malebo Pool
Canoe on the Malebo Pool (Formerly Stanley Pool) near Kinshasa
Bateke Plateau Savannah
Picture of the Bateke Plateau Savannah.

The most rugged terrain in this region is on the eastern part of the Congo basin. Here the Precambrian bedrock is more than 8000 feet in elevation and the western sedimentary basin, which is a maritime plain, has a coastline broken by estuaries and lagoons.

Central Africa is characterized by rich and diverse geological structures/ formations. This richness and diversity is complemented by important hydro-graphic/hydro-logic resources.

Africa's Major Rivers

Congo River
The Congo River and the map of the elevation in Central Africa



Central Africa geography is dominated by water --vast rivers systems and lakes. One of the ways to understand and assess the potential wealth of an area is, to assess its natural resources. Water, as you know, can be classified as a natural resource. Hydrography is the science of the measurement, description, and mapping of the surface waters of the earth with special reference to navigation'.

In line with this definition, there is a selection of rivers and lakes that make the hydrography of Central Africa. The hydrology of the region is dominated by Congo River basin which drains an area nearly as large as the United States east of the Mississippi River. The region is bordered by the great lakes of central/east Africa in the east (Tanganyika, Kivu, Victoria) , Lake Chad in the north, and Lake Nyos in Cameroon in the East. Central Africa is the greenest and most watered region in the continent.

The Congo River

The Congo (river) for which two African countries are named -Democratic Republic of the Congo and Republic of the Congo -is the second longest river in Africa (after the Nile), and one of the longest in the world, spanning 4,374 kilometers (2,718 miles). You can read more about it in Module Twenty Seven, Activity One.



Central Africa is characterized by hot and wet weather on both sides of the equator. The equatorial strip is influenced by the intertropical convergence zone (the ITCZ), which causes heavy and intense precipitation. The mean annual temperature in the area varies between 77 and 80°F. The diurnal (recurring everyday) temperature range of about 20°F (11°C) exceeds the monthly means. The annual rainfall can exceed the 80 inches, particularly at the Coastal area in Gabon, the Center of the Congo basin and on the mountain on Western Rift Valley borders.

Central Africa has no regular dry season. However north and south of the equator strip, the dry season increases in intensity. The dry season is centered in the northern hemisphere in January (when the area receives dry Saharan air masses) and in the Southern hemisphere in July; it lasts about seven months in the far northern part of the Central African Republic and in the far southern Congo ( Kinshasa).


Wikimedia Commons, Used with permission

Vegetation, Fauna, Flora:

Central Africa is one of the greenest parts of the African continent, covered with a forest of about 400,000 square miles comprising the second largest tropical rainforest in the world, second only by the Amazon tropical rainforest.

Dense Equatorial Forest
Dense Equatorial Forest near Mounana

Africa's Vegetation

Map of World Rainforests
Map of World's Rainforests.
African Rainforest
African rainforest


African Dense Rainforest
African dense Rainforest

There are three types of equatorial rainforests in Central Africa:

  •  the permanently wet marshy forest of the area where the Ubangi and the Congo meets

  •  the gallery forests which are subjects to periodic flooding along the bans and river floodplains

  •  the forest of dry land which usually harbors a variety of species. This type of forests is also found on the eastern slopes of the Congo river basin

The Central Africa equatorial rainforest is surrounded by savanna forests (much less dense tree cover) grassland. Much of the region's agricultural productivity is found in the savanna areas.

Your Turn:

Carefully examine the maps above.

1. List the countries in West and Central Africa that have tropical rain forests

2. List the other regions of the world that have significant tropical rain forests


Tropical forests are in general made of fungi and plants. Though the animal biomass may be small, it is as diverse as the flora. One of the major issues in the equatorial forest habitat is that of the coexistence of all the species it harbors. Two key terms characterize these species: competition and dependence. Tropical forest animals are characterized by a low population density. To survive from the predators in the forest, some species adopt a nocturnal life, employ shrill vocalization, or produce a penetrating scent.


How many ethnic groups are there in central Africa? How many languages are spoken there and what is the fertility rate? These are some of the main questions we will address in this section. three major aspects will be considered: the ethnic composition, the linguistic composition and the demographic trends.

Ethnic Composition

The Fang, the Tekes, Kongo, and Chokwe, among others, are the main ethnic groups in Central Africa. Just like the rest of the continent, the advent of modern state has affected many ethnic groups in central Africa. It is not unusual to see many ethnic groups divided by artificial borders created by the colonial states. Take the Fang for example. They are found mainly in Gabon but there are also Fang in Equatorial Guinea and southern Cameroon. Similarly the Teke (another ethnic group from the region) live in the two Congos and Gabon, and the Kongo peoples are found in the two Congos, and Angola, and the Chokwe and Lunda people live in the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo), Angola and Zambia.

Linguistic composition

African Languages Map


As we have learned from other modules, Africa is among the linguistically richest continents of the world. The approximately 930 million people of African speak more than a thousand separate languages. Central Africa is home to quite a number of ethno-linguistic groups. As a result of migration, conquest or intermarriage, many ethnic groups have emerged in Central Africa. Many hundreds of languages are spoken along with many other dialects. Each ethnic group has its own language and many groups identify themselves by the language they speak as well as by their ethnic origin.

Classifying these large numbers of languages is a real problem. Many of the African languages are called home language and they are divided into four main families [see MODULE 7 activity 2]. Within each of these families there are several subfamilies which are then subdivided into groups and/or subgroups. Thus the main families in African languages are: the Niger-Kordofanian family, the Afro-Asiatic family, the Nilo-Saharan family and the Khoisan. Languages spoken in Central Africa belong mainly to two families: the Niger-Kordofanian and the Nilo-Saharan families.

Most of the languages spoken in Central Africa belong to the larger Bantu group of the Niger-Congo language family. In the northern part of the region, the Adamawa-eastern and Sudanic languages are spoken.

As a result of colonization, some European languages are also spoken in the region. Indeed, French is one of official languages of all of the countries in Central Africa—with the exception of tiny Equatorial Guinea where Spanish is an official language. The selection of French (and Spanish) reflects the colonial legacy of arbitrary boundaries that cut across language groups, and the policy of divide and rule (discussed in Modules 7B and 10) which pitted various ethnic groups against each other. As a consequence, after independence African leaders were forced to adopt French as a unifying official language.

Your turn:

Having read this passage on African ethnic groups and languages, use the above maps and the country databases found at, to complete the table below

Languages and Ethnicities of Central Africa Blank Table

Demographic Trends

Most of the states of this region are characterized by a low yet growing population rate. Central Africa, as we will learn in activity four of this module, was impacted by great epidemics, in addition to the more chronic endemic diseases like malaria, yellow fever and sleeping sickness. The high morality rate caused by these diseases reduced considerably the size of the population and the growth rate. But after 1930s, very vigorous medical measures were taken by the colonial administration, including improvement in hygiene. Eventually, these measures stopped the decline in the size of the population and brought the growth rate to a normal level. In the 1980s, the annual growth rate in Central Africa equaled or exceeds 2.5 %. At this rate, the population of these countries will double in 28 years.

Note: To calculate doubling time of the population, divide rate by 0.70.

Your turn:

You have read about how long it will take for a population to double. In this exercise you will be doing research on your own. Go to the country overview page and find the annual population growth rate of Central Africa's countries. Calculate for each of them how long it will take for each country to see its population doubled. Enter your findings on the table below

Population Growth Rate Blank Table

In the first part of this activity you have learned about the physical characteristic of central Africa, different aspects of its populations and the rivers and lakes that drain this part of the African continent. These major points are parts of what is considered the physical geography of the region. In the following section we will study another important subject about the region, its economy.


As we learned in Module Nine: African Economies when studying the economy of a region or a country, three sectors are considered: the primary sector, the secondary sector and the tertiary sector. In this part we are not going to follow this threefold division even though their domain of categorization will be included in the section. Central Africa has natural resources like the rivers and lakes discussed, and also fertile soils that allow for farming and other agricultural activities. This section will focus on four major aspect of the economy of the region:


Agriculture has not always been the major activity in the region. The first inhabitants of the region are believed to have been hunter-gatherers. But over the time with a settlement along the Congo basin, agriculture has become part of the subsistence activity of the populations and with the colonialism in the 20th century, peasants moved from a subsistence agriculture to the type of agriculture that would generate more financial resources for colonial state.

Two types of farming technique will be addressed in this section: subsistence agriculture and the commercial agriculture. Subsistence agriculture, quite common in farming societies, intends mostly to ensure survival and nutrition for the peasant's family. In terms of cycle and technique, subsistence agriculture is quite simple,as it follows the rain cycle. Fields are cleared during the dry season and they are left 'fallow' after one crop or more. [see Module 9: Activity 2]. Peasant-farmers use mostly rudimentary tools and little to no manure is used.

Various subsistence crops are grown in Central Africa. Plantains are the staple food in the equatorial forest but the consumption of yam and taro is not negligible. Cassava has been included in the diet since the 19th century and vegetable fat is obtained from palm oil. Cassava and corn have partially replaced sorghum and millet the indigenous crops of the savanna region.

Cutting Sorghum Stalks
Cutting Sorghum Stalks


Heads of Sorghum
Heads of Local Varieties of Sorghum


Cassava for Sale
Cassava for Sale.

There are almost no cattle kept in Central Africa. Unlike other parts of Africa, most of the region does not have a history of cattle-rearing. This a direct result of the widespread presence of disease vectors like the tsetse flies that carry and transmit trypanosomiasis. This disease (sleeping sickness) attacks animals (but also humans) making it very difficult for cattle to survive in the region.

Commercial agriculture came with the colonialism. Large oil-palm, sugarcane, coffee, cocoa, and hevea plantations were established by European companies. With the establishment of these plantations, the agricultural system was anchored into a modern monetary system. The new system enabled peasant-farmers not only to satisfy the needs of their family but also to fulfill the expectations of a growing consumer market. In addition it allowed them to also earn money, this new approach to farming is called cash crop agriculture. Unfortunately, the revenue of the colonial power influenced the type of cash-crop agricultural system that prevailed in the region: forced labor, forced production of commercial crops.

Since most of central Africa is located in the equatorial zone, the rich green rainforest helps develop a wood industry. Wood was an important export product for countries like Gabon and Congo (Brazzaville) until the beginning of oil petroleum exploitation.


Minerals and Industry

Central Africa is also rich in mineral resources. Consequently, mining became a major economic activity in the region—particularly in the Katanga region of the Belgian Congo. As demonstrated in the map below, Central Africa is rich in a wide variety of minerals.

The ore fields of Congo (DRC) produce manganese, cobalt, zinc, copper, and tin. Tin is also mined in Rwanda. Gabon and Congo (Brazzaville) are two major oil producers who rank respectively first and second in the region. Diamonds are mined in Congo (DRC), a country that has also begun to tap the hydroelectric potential of the Congo River through an installation at the Inga Falls hydroelectric Dam. The hydro-complex on these falls is an important source of power for Congo's mineral processing industries.

Since independence in the 1960s substantial deposits for petroleum (oil) have been discovered and developed in Congo Brazzaville, Gabon and Cabinda (an enclave of Angola north of the month of the Congo River). Profits from this industry provide the major source of revenues for these countries.

However, in spite of Central Africa's rich natural resource base, largely due to impact of colonialism, the Cold War, and the impact of globalization, Central Africa is not highly industrialized [see module 9 Activity 9]. Industrial activities, often only a small portion of each country GDP, are still on a small scale. The industry consists mainly of mineral processing. The main processing center in Congo for example is Lubumbashi, Kolwezi, and Likasi cement are in western Congo ( Brazzaville) and southeastern Congo (DRC).


Central Africa Map

Your Turn

Using information from the Minerals in Central Africa Map and from web searches complete the table below

Minerals of Central Africa Blank Table


The Congo basin, as mentioned, is rich in natural resources. However, without adequate infrastructure, it will not be possible to exploit these resources. This correlation between a good transport system and an effective exploitation of the region resources was already recognized by European colonialists in the late 19th century. For example, Henry Morton Stanley and Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza acknowledged that without a railway network, it was impossible to take advantage of the resources of the interior of the basin that is insulated from the Atlantic Ocean.


Kinshasa Matadi Railway
Kinshasa- Matadi railway

One of the tasks of the colonial administration was therefore to embark on the development of transport infrastructure. The railway line between Matadi and Kinshasa (as shown in the picture above and the map below) became operational in 1898 and the one between Pointe-Noire and Brazzaville began in 1934. Ground road, railroad and waterway networks have not improved since the 1960s.

The development of this important infrastructure would not have been possible without the cheap labor 'offered' by the indigenous population who were forced by the colonial administration into the completion of the project. That is how the famous forced labor entered the picture. We will learn more about the practice and impact of forced labor in Central Africa in activity three of this module.

Look carefully at the map below. You will note that the major rail lines in Central Africa, as in the rest of Africa, were developed with the aim of extracting the region's rich nature mineral resources. Little attention was paid to linking population centers to facilitate the transfer of goods and services between these centers. The development of transportation infrastructure aimed at stimulating growth of the domestic economies of Central Africa was not important to the colonial powers. For a more detailed description of colonial economic policy visit Module Nine, African Economies, Learning Activity Five 'Transportation'

Africas Railroads Central Africa



Many central Africans countries believe that having closer links with each other will be beneficial for their countries and populations. However, records show that only limited initiatives toward political unity or economic integration have been taken. Barthelemy Boganda, from the Central African republic, was one of the pioneers of the idea of the 'United States of Latin Africa' in which the goal was to unite all the former French colonies in equatorial Africa and Angola and Congo ( Democratic Republic)

There have been efforts of economic integration among the ex-French colonies, this came in form of Customs and Economic Union of the Central African States (UDEAC) which was established in 1964.

In the 1980s, the limited success of the UDEAC experience prompted new efforts toward a greater economic cooperation. These efforts were urged by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, and the Lagos Plan of Action. The negotiations started in 1982 and by 1983, all the Central African States including Rwanda and Burundi (East Africa) signed the treaty creating the Economic community of Central African States (the ECCA). The goals of the new organization are much broader than that of the UDEAC. The ECCA aimed at stimulating industrial activity, increased markets, and reducing the dependence on foreign countries, notably France and other developed countries, for commerce and trade. Unfortunately these noble goals have been unfulfilled because of the frequent postponement of meetings and delay or lack of payment of members' dues.

The timid and almost still-born attempts to economical and political integration in Central Africa should not discourage any future plans. The new wave of democratic changes that the whole continent is experiencing and the rise of new democratic leadership in central Africa make prospects and hopes for new effort of integration still intact. Only one condition needs to be fulfilled: the leaders of central African countries should be able to sit around the same table to recognize and discuss their common interest.


Go on to Activity Two or select from the other activities in this module