Money used in Africa

Africa is the world’s second largest continent. It stands out for its abundant natural treasures, incredibly rich cultural and tribal diversity. On the African continent, each tribe boasts its own exclusive traditions, unique language, customs, religious rites, and even had different forms of money which may seem very unusual to many readers. The money used in African tribes is not only a unique window into the nations living on the continent, but it also perfectly reflects the history, cultural characteristics and world-view of the African people.

The essence of ancient trade
Throughout human history, numerous different objects have been regarded as money. These objects were supposed to facilitate trade between various countries and cultures, and, at the same time, to show the wealth status of people. Now that we have the top lists of richest people and know how many dollars or euros are in their bank accounts, it is very easy to do so; but making of such a list of wealthy people would hardly be easy to if we go back in time. Just imagine how wealth should be measured if modern money didn’t exist. 
However, if we look into Africa’s past, we can see that various objects served as money here, including salt, seashells, beads, metal, jewellery, woven cloth and clothing, weapons and tools, as well as coins of various African nations or Europeans. The key to understanding the ancient money used in Africa and its real value is the acceptability of those objects in a certain medium, their scarcity and value, coupled with familiarity, usefulness, artistic originality and expression of the objects, which should not be underestimated. Only by viewing these criteria in their entirety will we be able to understand how some objects turned into money and others did not. Copper, a rare metal found in part of Africa, was treated as valuable and used as a means of payment because of its scarcity, and its value grew even more depending on the object it was cast into and on its decoration. Iron was a metal found more frequently on the African continent. The value of iron was increased by refining, processing and decorating. 

African money had a very strong symbolic meaning and was used on such events as weddings and child birth, as well as during religious rites or rituals such as sacrificing, to ensure good health or after a person’s death. 

Thus, as we can see, the labour contributed to the manufacture of money played a very important role for the early money used in Africa, and moreover, money carried not only a material value, but also a spiritual, sacral value. 

The tribes engaged in trade in Africa understood the importance of trade. Throughout centuries, trade had been developed based on natural resources and unique products specific to African regions, by using an exchange system. However, in order to carry out the exchange more efficiently and smoothly, it was necessary to create a dedicated instrument, and this is how the first money appeared.

Cowries, mollusc shells, are among the first money in Africa. They are very interesting, created by nature itself, used both within and outside Africa. These shells were used as money long before occurrence of metal coins, and when the latter came into existence, the shells circulated alongside Africa’s and Europe’s metal coins. The shells were used for minor settlements, but their significance particularly increased during the wedding ceremony as the bride was decorated with them, and these shells were also given by the groom to the bride’s parents as a ransom for their daughter. It should also be mentioned that cowries play a major role in African mythology as they were believed to contain the power of fertility. What else could be bought for shells in Africa, apart from a bride?  In 1800, one could buy a cow for 2,500 cowries, a goat for 500 cowries, and a hen for 25 cowries. 


Like cowries, glass beads have a long history in Africa. The locals call them ‘agry’, but the meaning of this name is unclear up till now. Portuguese adventurers sailing along the west and south coasts of Africa as early as in the 15th century were the first to describe such beads. The European travellers noted that the locals wore beads of various shapes and colours, the most valuable of which were old ones, inherited from ancestors and believed to bear magical powers. Their value was equal to that of gold, and often they could be part of adornment of members of royal families only.

The symbolic value of money and globalisation

African tribes also used other kinds of money typical of African cultures only. These include metal rings, metal bundles of strings, and even teeth of various animals. Each of these forms of money was distinctive and reflected the values of the tribe. Such money became part of everyday life and was used in important ceremonies. It had more than just economic value in the tribes. It was a symbol that united community members, stimulated interaction and established cultural values. This money is an exceptional attribute of culture, and its value persists even after the loss of its economic function. Despite its importance, the use of such money began to wane over time. As globalisation penetrated even to the farthest corners of Africa, modern currencies were introduced, and they gradually replaced the traditional money. This inevitably affected the economy and cultural heritage of the tribes.


As shown by the comparison, the money used by African tribes differs by its composition from each other and from money used in other parts of the world. The forms of money and the ways of using it reflect cultural and economic differences. However, globalisation and introduction of modern currencies have affected the economy and lifestyle of the tribes. This contributed to depreciation of traditional money, but also opened up new opportunities in cross-border trade. The unique design of the money used on the African continent reflects cultural values and community commitments. Historical interlinking to the development of ancient trade chains helps us understand how money gradually became part of everyday life and acquired a peculiar meaning in the cultures of the tribes.


The Artistry of African Currency, Smithsonian;
The John B. Henry Collection: Financialhistory, Francine Farr, 2002; 
Egleton Catherine, Williams Jonathan. Money: A Hist