The Causes and Effects of Trans-Saharan Trade


AP Theme

Technology and Innovation

Learning Objective 2.3H:

Explain the causes and effects of trans-Saharan trade.

Historical Development 1

Improved transportation technologies led to an expansion in trade in North Africa on the Trans-Saharan trade routes.

Historical Development 2

 Improved commercial practices led to an expansion of trade in North Africa along the Trans-Saharan trade routes.


Causes of Growth in Trans-Saharan Trade

Africa contained a long-distance relay trade network that connected the Mediterranean coast of North Africa with West Africa across the Sahara desert. Like the Silk Road and Indian Ocean trading networks, this African trade network brought significant changes to areas across North Africa.

The causes of the growth in trans-Saharan trade are similar to those that increased commerce on the Silk Roads and Indian Ocean trade networks. They included the desire for goods not available in buyers’ home regions, improvements in commercial practices, and technological innovation.

The desire for commercial goods

Like others around the world, African societies’ production remained limited based on their climate zone. Northern Africa has three major climate zones:

  • a warm and semi-wet Mediterranean climate along the north coast
  • a desert climate across the vast Sahara
  • wetter sub-tropical grasslands along the coastal regions of the West African coast 

Trade between African regions helped people living in different ecological zones obtain the goods they could not produce in their native areas. The Mediterranean coastal regions produced cloth, glassware, weapons, and books. The Sahara held large deposits of copper and salt, and the peoples in this area farmed dates. The coastal regions of West Africa produced various agricultural goods, textiles, metal products, and gold.

Innovations in commercial practices and technology

The Sahara desert’s environmental conditions made trade and communication between distant peoples in Western Africa and Northern Africa difficult. Crossing the vast desert could easily result in death. Innovations in commercial practices and technology increased trade volumes and communication across this vast geographic barrier as trade became quicker and safer.

Camels and camel saddles

Trade across the Saharan desert increased in frequency after the introduction of camels to North Africa. The camel’s biology was well suited for crossing long distances with little water while carrying heavy cargoes. Camel saddles were significant technological innovations that allowed merchants to utilize camels to move people and goods. Different societies across Africa and Eurasia continually improved upon camel saddles to increase the weight camels could carry. Heavier loads meant more goods could be moved and sold, lowering costs and raising profits.

Camel caravans

As trade across the Sahara developed, it became common for traders to move together in large groups of caravans. Traveling in caravans was safer because it was more difficult for bandits to raid trading groups. Caravans also protected traders from danger if they or their animals fell ill during the journey. Caravans generally traveled at night and early morning to protect themselves from the desert environment. Caravans averaged 25 miles each day. One trip across the Sahara could take weeks or months.


Caravanserais were inns where traveling merchants could stop, rest, relax, and resupply before moving further down the trading network. The buildings were usually four-sided and built around a courtyard lined with stalls to hold merchants, animals, and goods.

Caravanserais spread across the trans-Saharan network. The Funduq al-Najjarin was a famous rest house located along the northwestern edge of the trans-Saharan network in Fes al Bali, Morocco. The term funduq means inn in Arabic. Caravanserais were also present on other Afro-Eurasian relay trade networks, such as the Silk Roads.

The Effects of Increasing Volumes of Trans-Saharan Trade

The expansion of the Trans-Saharan trade network reshaped West Africa’s political, economic, and social systems.

Expanded Geographic Range of the Trans-Saharan Trade Routes

As wealth grew and new goldfields opened in West Africa, Trans-Saharan trade routes expanded further into West Africa. As trade routes expanded into the region, new West African trading powers arose and built large empires.

The Expansion of African Trading Powers

West Africa developed several prominent and wealthy trading empires that extended their power over large territories. The wealth and power of these kingdoms derived mainly from trade across the trans-Saharan trade routes. Because these kingdoms’ survival was closely tied to trade, leaders encouraged trade and supported merchant activity.

Two of West Africa’s most significant trading powers were Mali and Songhai. Click here to learn more about Mali and Songhai and their roles in West African trade.

Islam Spread into West Africa

Islam initially expanded into North Africa into the region north of the Sahara desert between the 7th and 9th centuries. 

  • Islam slowly expanded into West Africa south of the Sahara through the peaceful transfer of Islamic ideals through interactions between Muslim merchants and West African people. 
  • Initially, it was the upper classes that converted to Islam. 
  • West African elites converted to Islam, which better connected African merchants to North Africa and the Middle East’s wealthy Islamic merchant communities. 
  • For monarchs and the ruling class, connection to Islam gave their rule the legitimacy of a dominant world religion. It also provided rulers access to an educated class of scholars who could help them administer their government and territories.
The spread of Arab and Islamic culture into West Africa

Islamic culture spread into West Africa with the Islamic religion. Islam mainly remained in urban areas and amongst higher-class individuals. 

  • By the 16th century, West Africa had developed several centers of Islamic learning. 
  • Cities such as Timbuktu hosted schools to study the Quran, Islamic universities, libraries, and students from West Africa.
  • 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 Islam practices onto the majority of their populations. 
  • Unlike in Spain, North Africa, and Anatolia, there was no significant immigration of outside Muslims into West Africa. 
  • The use of the Arabic language remained confined to governance, trade, and education, and Non-elite people continued to speak in their traditional African tongues.