Household Coping Options in Hausaland, West Africa

Hausaland's Climatological Factors

Hausaland contains three distinct ecological zones, defined by differences in the mean growing season (May to October) rainfall. From south to north (and from subhumid to arid), these are the Guinean, Sudanian, and Sahelian zones. All Hausaland has a distinct summer rainy season that is linked to the migration of the equatorial trough (the land segment of the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone) toward the thermal equator (well north of the geographic equator during the northern hemisphere summer). There is a pronounced unimodal rainfall maximum in August, with a seasonal length of four to six months' duration. Mean annual rainfall ranges from less than 400 mm in the extreme northeast to greater than 800 mm in the south. The coefficient of interannual variation in rainfall is at most 40 percent in the far north, but is closer to 20 - 30 percent in the remainder of Hausaland. (A coefficient of variation of 30 percent is a measure of uncertainty; it implies that during any one year, a mean annual rainfall of 600 mm may be expected to be as low as 360 mm or as high as 960 mm.)

Famine in Hausaland

Rainfall is the critical limiting factor in peasant rainfed agriculture (Watts, 1983). Drought and famine are certainly no strangers in Hausaland, but it is dangerous to ascribe all famine to drought, even historically. Hunger cannot be posed as simply a reflex to stochastic rainfall; many cities in Hausaland were brought to the point of collapse by epidemics, locusts, cattle epizootics, the Islamic jihad, or interethnic warfare. As an example, according to Watts (1983), Kano was struck by famine in 1807-10, 1830s, 1847, 1855, 1863, 1873, 1884, 1889-90, 1908, 1914, 1920, 1927, 1943, 1951, 1956, 1958, followed by the devastation of the 1970s. Watts suggests that localized famine occurred within a specific district every 4 or 5 years, with regional famines at a periodicity of 7 to 10 years. It is therefore unsurprising that Hausa has a complex lexicon of terms, 26 in number, that denote subtle distinctions in rainfall quantity and quality, harvest attributes, and access to staples. Hausa praise epithets and verse show that famines are often assigned distinctive human attributes (e.g., “famine, you make an honest man dishonest”). The “year of the locust” or the “year of the great famine” appear as markers in Hausa oral tradition, which also tend to embellish and exploit the existential dilemmas posed by extreme food shortage.

Indigenous Knowledge and Household Options in 19th Century Hausaland

The three obvious attributes of arid and semiarid ecosystems are that (1) water is the dominant controlling factor for biological processes, (2) rainfall is highly variable throughout the year and occurs as both clustered and sporadic events, and (3) the spatiotemporal variation in rainfall is stochastic. Thus, human agropastoral systems in such ecosystems are at risk of failing to provide minimal sustenance. The Hausa were aware of their own vulnerability to drought and famine, and ordered their domestic goals to avoid starvation and ensure their capacity for agriculture. In Watts' words (1983), “[t]he identification of subsistence security [in 19th century Hausaland] requires, at the outset, a reaffirmation of the preeminently scientific quality of Hausa dryland agriculture.” Watts goes on to say that “[t]he acuity and industriousness of Hausa farmers were consistently lauded in the prose of the early European travelers,” negating the colonial dogma that African agriculture was destructive and unproductive. The Hausa had evidently realized quite early that an uninterrupted polycultural farming system resulted in relatively stable and sustainable yields despite the variability in rainfall. While extensive farming systems (some variant of long-term fallowing) was likely the norm for lightly-populated areas, it is certain that intensive agroecosystems had replaced swiddening over large parts of more-densely populated Hausaland, particularly around the cities of Kano, Katsina, and Sokoto. As Boserup (1965) so acutely observed, these permanently cultivated and intensively managed areas are capable of supporting extraordinarily high population densities. In 1911, a visitor to Kano described the system as follows: “... they have acquired the necessary precise knowledge as to the time to prepare the land for sowing; when and how to sow; how long to let the land be fallow; what soils suit certain crops; what varieties of the crop will succeed in some localities and what varieties in others... how to ensure rotation; when to arrange with the Fulani herdsmen to pasture their cattle upon the land” (Morel, 1911 cited in Watts, 1983). The following list, derived from Watts (1983), sketches the range of indigenous knowledge that the Hausa applied to their land. Hausa households functioned as a single unit for the production and consumption of food, the payment of taxes, the provision of the tools and seeds necessary in agriculture, and the acquisition of brides for male members. It also provided a form of joint insurance against individual distress due to illness, pest infestations, and crop failure by providing the labor that enabled larger land resources to be managed. When, regardless of attempts to stave off hunger, food insecurity threatened, Hausa gandu responded with incremental coping options designed to protect both life and future production capabilities. Many of these options are the same ones in use currently, by different economic classes.

Colonialism and the Introduction of Cash Crops

The British raised the Union Jack over northern Nigeria in 1901, proclaiming that the area was to be now safe for small traders. Of course, the primary benefactors of trading were to be the British themselves, and they rapidly set about to establish the expansion of the northern Nigerian cash crop economy, namely cotton in the southern, more humid areas and groundnuts in the more arid northern areas, while making almost no attempt to transform indigenous farm technology. The British issued five antislavery proclamations between 1901 and 1907, and the eventual emancipation of all slaves set several million newly-independent peasants on the land (Watts, 1983). The volume of the cash crop commodities expanded in parallel; from a gross production in 1915 of 9,000 tons of groundnuts and 1,500 tons of cotton, by 1936 production had expanded to 189,000 tons and 12,000 tons – a 2,000 and 700 percent increase respectively.

Virtually all Hausa households attempted to cultivate at least a portion of their food requirement; exactly how much varied from year to year, and depended on the household demands for cash and liquidity. Groundnuts could be incorporated into intercropping patterns, and appeared not to increase the demand for land (suggesting that labor was the limiting factor). Further, groundnuts are a leguminous plant, and increase soil fertility by fixing nitrogen. Cotton, however, was not so fully integratable into traditional cropping systems. But even in the case of groundnuts, data exist that point to reductions in food-crop production (but not total production) when these are intermixed. The effect may be due to several synergistic factors, among which may be (1) interspecies competition for nutrients and moisture, exacerbated perhaps by (2) a discontinuous plant canopy that permits greater evaporation from the soil's surface, as well as (3) competition for household labor, since groundnuts necessarily require additional labor for planting, hoeing, and harvesting. While groundnuts contain vegetable protein, fatty acids, minerals, and vitamins, they cannot be consumed as a staple, since they provide insufficient nutrition and caloric intake over extended periods (Watts, 1983). Cotton is an even worse prospect from a food security standpoint. First, it never was grown in polyculture, which the British feared would leave the crop open to insect depredation. Second, the labor demands of cotton production apparently conflicted with food crop demands during crucial labor bottleneck periods. The net effect of commoditization, was largely to increase food insecurity, particularly when commoditization was forced on the local populace through the imposition of colonial taxes.


Boserup, E., 1965. The Conditions of Agricultural Growth. Chicago: Aldine Press, 124 pp.

Watts, M., 1983. Silent Violence: Food, Famine and Peasantry in Northern Nigeria. Berkeley: University of California Press, 687 pp.

The correct citation for this page is:
Milich, L., 1997. Food Security in Pre-Colonial Hausaland.

The Table of Contents of my work on Sahelian food security is available.

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This site last updated July 17 1997.