Trans-Saharan trade was an economic activity in which different commodities were exchanged across long distances. It was a trade by barter because there was no standard medium of exchange such as currency. The North African traders brought commodities such as dates, perfumes, books, horses and camels and took in return items such as slaves, ivory, feathers, hides and skin.

As a result of the economic importance of the trans-Saharan trade, there were struggles among the rulers of African states to control the trade routes leading to the rise and fall of some kingdoms.

The trans-Saharan trade increased the wealth and prestige of the societies and people that participated in it. Through the trans-Saharan trade, the North African traders assisted in promoting Islam through visits by scholars, supply of books and exchange of ideas.



There were different commodities involved in trans-Saharan trade. For example, the items brought from Fezzan to Hausa land included: cowries, brass, horses, dates, red woolen caps, linen and silks, carpets, blades, corals, beads and mirrors. In exchange, the Fezzan traders took back from Hausa land: gold dust, slaves, cotton, cloths, hides and skins, senna and civet. Similarly, Kano was known as a busy manufacturing and commercial city, exporting both locally made and Nupe cloths, leather goods, hides and kola nuts, and acting as a re-export centre for natron, salt and goods imported across the desert. These goods imported across the desert included: silk, beads, sugar, paper, sword blades, spices, ostrich feathers, copper, cowries, as well as certain types of cloth and ready-made Arab garments. It was, indeed, a trade in luxuries, rather than necessities. In the mid-fourteenth century, the listed exports from Borno were mainly in forms of slaves and cloths. However, one of the Mais of Borno attracted unusual attention in Tunisia, around this period, when he exported a giraffe.



The trans-Saharan trade routes were very important in facilitating contacts between North African states and West African Kingdoms that participated in the trade. From Ngornu in Borno (or Kukawa in the nineteenth century) a trade route passed through the salt-producing area of Bilma, to Murzuk in the Fezzan, and Tripoli. Kano and Katsina were regarded as alternative rival termini, for a route that passed through Agades and Ghat. There was an important intersection of trade routes at Ghat, which led both to Tripoli and, via Ghadames, to Tunis. Sokoto, founded in the nineteenth century, was linked by a trade route to Agades and beyond.



The effects of trans-Saharan trade on the peoples of West Africa were both positive and negative. On the positive side, it introduced many West African kingdoms to international trade, the use of camels as means of transportation, Islamic religion and literacy in Arabic. It also accelerated cooperation and integration between North Africa and West Africa. Many towns with prosperous merchant classes emerged along the trade routes. Many rulers of the participating kingdoms enhanced the provision of security along the routes. As a result of the trade, the level of experience among the military of the member states increased through the supply of horses, horse gear, shields and other military equipment. It also enhanced the prestige of many ruling dynasties in charge of the trade routes. However, on the negative side, the trans-Saharan trade introduced slave trade across the Sahara. A larger number of slaves who could not cross the Sahara died. The desire to control the trade routes led many states into armed conflicts, unnecessary destruction and bloodshed. The shift of trading routes often led to the decline of promising kingdoms and their eventual fall.