Long distance trade was the trade carried out long distance as people/traders had to move for long distance going on exchanging goods with other societies.

The major aim was to get profit for example a salt traders was exchanged salt for hoes not because he wanted to use hoes but he wanted to resell them at a profit later.


Trans Sahara trade was the trade conducted across the Sahara desert. It involved the people of Northern Africa and the people of Western Sudan.

This trade started long time ago between 3000BC to 2000BC.

It became important in the 1st century AD after the people of West Africa to discover the use of camel and led to formation of many trade routes.

The Trans Saharan trade was known as dumb trade because there was no common language, which was used. People who involved in the trade; West Africa; North Africa and Savannah Region.

Historically, this was the most active land-based trade network in Africa. While trade across the Sahara existed before recorded history, peak trade on the routes was between the 8th and 17th centuries.

Trans-Saharan trade began for the same reason as other global exchange networks– the desire for goods unavailable in buyers’ home regions. As time went on,  improvements in commercial practices and technological innovation allowed the amount of trade to increase.


People (traders) organized themselves in groups known as CARAVANS.


Goods involved in the trade:

From West Africa

Kola nuts, gold, salt, foodstuffs, Ivory, clothes, gold, bee-wax, slaves and ostrich feathers goods.

From North Africa

salt and animal skin. Goods from Europe and Asia were cotton and silk cloth, swords, guns, metal pans, horses and Arabic books.

Trade routes:

Western route- From Sijilmasa, Fez in Morocco passed through Taghaza, Taodeni, Walata, Audaghost, and Kumbi Saleh to Timbuktu.

Central route- This passed Tunis, Ghat, Ghamese, Kano, GAO and Hausa land

Eastern route – This began in Tripoli, Marzul and Bilma.


1. Stability of the communities

Both North African and Western Sudan zone were politically stable. For example, leaders like Sundiata Keita and Mansa Musa collected taxes and established guides on trade routes.

2. Western Sudan provided goods needed by traders from Europe.

These goods included gold, ivory and slaves. Through trading Western Sudan exchanged her own commodities with goods from Western Europe and Asia. In turn, she got clothes, guns and other commodities.

3. The surplus production in Western Sudan

was adequate to sustain demand for products such as kola nuts and gold, hides, ivory slaves, whereas Taghaza produced enough salt to meet the needs in Western Sudan. The high production capacity in the region enhanced the growth of the Trans Saharan trade.

4. The use of camels for transport

suited the desert conditions and facilitated the development of the Trans-Saharan trade. These animals could not only carry more commodities than horses and human porters, but also endured desert conditions.

Camels can survive without water for a longtime. This convenient means of transport strengthened the development of the Trans-Saharan trade.

5. Geographical location of the region

The location and climate favored the production of kola nuts and other foodstuffs that were needed in the community, especially the forest region to the south.

The region of Western Sudan had no impassable forests because many areas were covered by short grassland. This enabled traders to cross the desert without fear or any difficulty.

6. The invention of a medium of exchange

contributed to the growth of the Trans Saharan trade. At the beginning, only the silent barter system of trade was practiced.

Later on, cowrie shells were introduced as a convenient medium of exchange. This in turn facilitated the development of the Trans-Saharan trade.

7. Removal of language barrier

This was attained after Arabic language became the trader’s medium of communication. This in turn facilitated the trade by making communication between the traders easy.

8. Absence of competition for trading activities in the region

There were no regular ships that visited the coast of West Africa. As a result, what was produced from the forest zone was peacefully transported to North Africa through the Saharan desert.


1. The rise of African trading powers

West Africa developed several wealthy and powerful trading empires—Mali (c. 1230–1672) and Songhai (c. 1464–1591) were the two largest.

The wealth and power of these kingdoms came from trade across the trans-Saharan trade routes. For this reason, these kingdoms’ leaders encouraged trade and supported merchant activity.

2. Islam spread into West Africa

Islam spread to West Africa with Muslim merchants who traded in the region. By 1300 Mali’s kings had converted to Islam. Mansa Musa (c. 1312 – 1337) made it the state religion in 1324.

All the Songhai kings were Islamic. With the conversion of their kings, Mali and Songhai set up Islamic governing and legal systems. Initially, only the elite converted to Islam. Not until the 19th century did many ordinary West Africans begin identifying as Muslim.

3. Islamic culture spread into West Africa

Islamic culture spread into West Africa with the Islamic religion. In the rural areas where most of the population lived, traditional African religious practices remained the most common form of worship until the 19th century. Rulers made little effort to impose Islamic rules onto most of their populations.

Language: The Arabic language became the governing and legal language. Education at one of the regional learning centers (see below) was in Arabic. Wealthy merchants and traders also commonly spoke and conducted business in Arabic. Non-elites continued to speak their native languages.

Learning: Cities such as Timbuktu and Djenne became centers of Islamic knowledge. Schools and universities opened dedicated to studying the Quran. Science and mathematics knowledge from Islamic learning centers in North Africa and the Middle East also found their way into these schools’ libraries.

4. The growth of cities and towns

Increased trade brought more wealth to West Africa. Entire towns and cities grew to service the needs of merchants moving along the trans-Saharan trade network, while others turned into market towns where merchants would gather and sell their goods.

After the conversion of Mali and Songhai to Islam, people came from West Africa to study in towns and cities with learning centers like Timbuktu and Djenne.

5. Increased warfare

More wealth increased competition in West Africa. Control over the gold fields and trade routes could make or break the fortunes of a ruler or kingdom. However, conflict over wealth and power often weakened societies from the inside.

The once mighty and wealthy Mali weakened and began to collapse following a civil war. Songhai rose to replace it as the dominant power in the region, but by the end of the 16th century, it too was weakened by civil war. Morocco seized on the internal weakness of both empires and invaded West Africa to take control of the region’s resources and trade.

6. Increased trade in enslaved people

North and West African slavery increased as wealthy rulers in West Africa increased the number of enslaved people they bought, and merchants exported more enslaved people to North Africa. Scholars estimate that slave traders moved as many as nine million enslaved people along the trans-Saharan trade routes.

Enslaved people found themselves in a variety of systems of servitude. Rulers in West Africa and Egypt used enslaved people in their militaries as highly trained soldiers. Wealthy families also used enslaved people as domestic servants or concubines. Others mined gold in West Africa or salt in North Africa.


<> It led to the growth of empires like Ghana, Mali etc

<> It increased development of Agriculture as agricultural products used in trade.

<> It led to the introduction of Arabic & Islamic religion cultures.

<> Formation of mixed races example half cast

<> Growth of town and cities e.g. Jenne, Timbuktu, GAO and Walata.


By the second half of the nineteenth century, the volume of Trans-Saharan trade started to decline. A number of obstacles or problems have been identified to explain the decline.

These are:-

1. Strong desert winds: The traders could not withstand the hazards of sand storms. Many abandoned the trade as a result.

2. Traders faced the danger of getting lost in the desert because the routes were not clear. Once traders got lost, they would wander in the desert for a long time and eventually die of thirst and starvation.

3. Desert robbers who made their living by stealing from trade caravans subjected traders to attacks. In the process, traders lost their lives and goods. This discouraged traders from participating effectively in the trade.

4. The extreme unfavorable climatic conditions to traders. The heat and high temperatures during the day and every low temperature at night due to the absence of cloud cover discouraged traders.

5. Traders faced the danger of highly poisonous desert creatures whose bites could result in death. These included snakes and scorpions.

6. Traders faced language difficulties. This hampered communication during trade. As such, “silent trade” had to be used initially.

7. The development of the Trans-Atlantic trade across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe: commodities like ivory and slaves were transported quickly to the coast of West Africa from where they were transported to Europe. Thus, the trade routes shifted from the Saharan desert to the Atlantic. Instead of the direct route to the North, they went via the coast of West Africa.

8. Commodities obtained from Western Sudan such as salt and gold faced competition from similar goods from other America cheaply. As result, the volume of Trans-Saharan trade decreased because Western Sudan could no longer claim a monopoly in production of certain commodities like salt and gold. In addition, gold from Zimbabwe via Sofala port by the Portuguese ended up in Europe.

9. The abolition of slave trade contributed to the decline of the Trans-Saharan trade. Slaves were the main item of trade. When slave trade was abolished, trade started to decline.

10. Shortage of water also led to the decline in trade. The oases in the Saharan desert provided water seasonally but they sometimes dried up. This made it difficult for the traders to cross the Saharan desert.

11. Wars: The war in Morocco and the one between Christians and Muslims disrupted the smooth running of the trade. The Moroccan invasion of western Sudan in 1591 AD disturbed the growth of the trade by taking gold at Wangara.

Finally, the Trans-Saharan trade collapsed in the 16th century. From this period onwards, West Africa witnessed the expansion of European occupation on the coast of West Africa.



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