Most of the people of ancient Mali made their living in agriculture, just as they do today.
Pastoralism--herding of cattle, goats, sheep, and some camels--predominated in the dry, sparsely populated north. Crop agriculture predominated in the wetter south.
Despite generally infertile soils, two types of crops are grown today:
- Food crops: millet, sorghum, corn, rice, cassava, yams
- Cash crops: cotton, rice, peanuts, tobacco; plus kola nuts in the southern forest zone
Trade in agricultural products developed between north and south, as the principle of comparative advantage would suggest. Leather, hides, sheepskins, and goatskins came from the Salhelian grasslands. Cash crops and food crops came from the south, the savannah and forest zones. They were traded in the village markets, as they are today. In the ancient capital of the Mali Empire, Niani, people lived mostly on pounded millet, honey, and milk.
The wealth of ancient Mali was based on trade, particularly the trans-Sahara trade.
Control and taxation of trade pumped wealth into the imperial treasury and sustained the Mali Empire's existence. The most profitable commodities traded were gold and salt.
- Gold. Gold was mined first at Bambuk on one of the tributaries of the upper Senegal River. Later, it was mined at Bure on the headwaters of the Niger River. The location of the gold mines moved as the mines in the west became exhausted and new sources were discovered further east. The mansa (King) claimed all the gold nuggets, but gold dust was available for trade. Gold is still mined today in Mali.
- Salt. Salt was mined deep in the Sahara, near the towns of Taghaza and Taoudeni. Slabs brought by camel can still be found in the market of Timbuktu, Mopti, and other Niger River towns.
These and other commodities were involved in the trans-Sahara trade. Great camel caravans brought salt, iron, copper, cloth, books, and pearls from the north and northeast. They were exchanged for gold, kola nuts, ivory, leather, rubber, and slaves from the south. The Niger River became a major artery of trade. When the caravans met the Niger, their goods would be unloaded on riverboats, and the camels would return north laden with valuable commodities from the south.
Although salt and gold dust were used as currency during the fourteenth century, cowrie shells from the Indian Ocean were introduced as currency as well. Their use improved the collection of taxes and the exchange of goods.
Ancient Mali also had craftsmen who worked with iron, wood, metal, weaving, dyeing, and tanning leather.
In economic terms, Mali is one of the contemporary world's poorest countries.
Today, Mali is one of the poorest countries in the world. With the coming of the Europeans, trade was re-oriented away from the trans-Saharan trade routes to the coast. Commodities produced in Mali today fetch only low prices, and the land has probably become somewhat drier and less productive. Two-thirds of the present country is desert or semi-desert. The vast majority of the population (80 percent) are mostly subsistence farmers, growing just enough for their own needs, with small surpluses sold in the local markets. Fishing is also important. To this day, most of the labor is done by animal or human power. A few larger farms produce crops for sale (cash crops), mainly cotton and peanuts. About five percent of the population is nomadic. Industrial activity is concentrated on processing farm commodities grown for export, especially cotton, the main export. New gold mining operations give hope for future economic development, but at present Mali remains deeply dependent on foreign aid and vulnerable to fluctuations in the world price of cotton.
However, other countries with difficult climates and few resources have prospered. A good part of Mali's problems come from the lack of investment in the country during French colonial times and corrupt governments after independence. In an era of increasing globalization, Mali, along with most African countries, has clearly been left behind.