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Africa is bigger than you think

Updated: May 5, 2021

Geert de Kremer’s challenge

As a boy I used to play a game called Risk, where one tried to take control of the world using armies. Nuclear weapons were not allowed, unless a sore loser overturned the entire board comprising a map of the world and all the plastic armies. The only people who did not appreciate it were probably New Zealanders as their country did not appear on the map. I have just checked and it seems it is still not there.

The other day I was showing one of my staff where I used to work using my old school atlas. The small island of Guadalcanal is part of the Solomon Islands, southeast of New Guinea on the right of the world map. ‘It must take a long time to travel from there to the other side’, he said, pointing to the Cook Islands on the left side of the map’. ‘Well, not really because they are actually quite close’, I replied. If that was confusing, he would have been more mystified if I told him that the equatorial line on the map represents 40,075 km and that the same line at 60 degrees north measures 20,000 km. At 80 degrees north, crossing the northern part of the Svalbard Islands, the identical line has shrunk to less than 7000km.[1] He then looked at Africa, then Greenland, which he had never heard of. ‘That’s a big island…it is at least two-thirds the size of Africa’. Well, yes, Greenland is big, but is nothing like the size of Africa. Explaining why would have taken a long time.

Take an old football, cut it up and try to flatten it. You will find it a frustrating exercise. With a pair of scissors you will have to keep snipping it into smaller and smaller slices but you will never get it truly flat. That is also a recognized projection know as an Interrupted Mollweide’s Homolographic.

Geert de Kremer was one of the earliest cartographers and one of the great Flemish polymaths of the 16th Century. He was also an accomplished engraver, calligrapher, a maker of globes and scientific instruments with interests in theology, philosophy, history, mathematics and geomagnetism. It was fashionable to take Latinized names in those days so he became Gerardus Mercator and in 1538 he was one of the first people to try and do the impossible viz. to make a flat map of the surface of a sphere. He imagined the earth to be a cylinder which could be rolled out flat. The map was a useful navigational aid because all lines of longitude were parallel, pointing due north and south (in reality, lines of longitude are not parallel). Dangerously, he was also a freethinker at a time when Lutherans were being persecuted. In 1543 the Inquisitors decided that Mercator was eminent enough to be sacrificed. His name appeared on a list of 52 Lutheran heretics at a time when well-known dissenters were punished ‘pour encourager les autres’. The official line was given by Dutch theologian and inquisitor Ruard Tapper:

It is no great matter whether those that die on this account be guilty or innocent, provided we terrify the people by these examples; which generally succeeds best, when persons eminent for learning, riches, nobility or high stations, are thus sacrificed”.

Having the right connections, Mercator was released for lack of evidence against him but others on the list suffered torture and execution: two men were burnt at the stake, another was beheaded and two women were entombed alive.

Next time you are in a travel office [ha, ha – ed.] look at a world map [like the one at the top of this article – ed.]. It will probably be a rectangle known as the Mercator projection, which is grossly distorted in terms of size and shape the further away you get from the equator: Canada and Greenland will look much larger than they actually are.

Africa by contrast is larger than it looks: the whole of China, the USA, India, most of Eastern and Western Europe, plus Japan would all fit into Africa with space to spare. It is also almost as wide as it is long: flying from the horn of Africa to Sierra Leone is about 7500km while Tunis to Cape Town is roughly 8000km (Nairobi, where I live, to London is 6800 km.).

Mainland Africa comprises about 48-50 countries, depending on whether you accept Western Sahara or Somaliland (or even Puntland) as sovereign states. Another six island states near Africa are classed as part of Africa, including Madagascar, Comoros and Cape Verde. Reunion (not counted as Africa) is much closer to Africa than Mauritius (which is ‘part’ of Africa even though it is 3600 km from the African coast and over two-thirds of its inhabitants are Indian). Likewise, the Canary Islands (closer to Africa than Cape Verde) are not classed as ‘part’ of Africa.

Africa can be roughly divided between various groups of countries: the Arab speaking Saharan countries on the Mediterranean and the western Atlantic; the sub-Saharan semi-desert states (Mauritania to Chad); humid tropical West and central Africa; the Horn of Africa (Somalia, Eritrea & Ethiopia); Eastern Africa; and the seasonal tropical countries south of 10 degrees S, including Mozambique, Angola plus the desert country of Namibia.

The two largest countries in Africa are Algeria (18 times the size of England) and Democratic Republic of Congo or DRC, neither of which is very democratic. Sudan used to be larger until it was split into two countries in 2011. Seven of the mainland countries are very small - The Gambia, eSwatini (formerly Swaziland), Lesotho, Rwanda, Burundi, Equatorial Guinea and Guinea Bissau. Sixteen countries in Africa are landlocked, the newest being South Sudan and Ethiopia, which ceded Eritrea and its access to the Red Sea, particularly after the two countries went to war.

All but two of the 25 poorest countries in the world are in Africa. Whether one looks at GDP or per capita income, only a handful of African countries are moderately wealthy, among them South Africa (where the distribution curve shows obvious positive skewness in wealth distribution) and Botswana which has a population density of 4 people per km2 and diamonds coming out of its ears. In contrast, similarly-sized Kenya has an average population density of 91 people per km2 in a country which is two-thirds semi-arid or arid (desert), and thus under-populated in one part and highly densely populated in the fertile one-third.

Linguistically, Africa has 1500-2000 vernacular languages but the lingua franca tends to be either Arabic or European languages. Many of the western and central African countries (plus Djibouti, Madagascar and the Comoros) are francophone apart from two Spanish-speaking enclaves. The largest economies in West Africa, Nigeria and Ghana, are anglophone, along with Sierra Leone, The Gambia and Liberia. Three countries use Portuguese. German has all but disappeared except in Namibia. English and Arabic are used in most of the others, except in the Horn of Africa.

Does democracy exist in Africa? In a few countries yes: Ghana, Namibia and Botswana are obvious examples. Probably not elsewhere where ethnicity, tribalism, corruption, vote-rigging are all commonplace, if indeed elections are ever held. A friend has just lent me Paul Collier’s book, Wars, Guns and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places. At the moment, at least fifteen countries in Africa would be described as insecure, and in a further 25 countries, opposition candidates and journalists face arrest, detention or worse. Collier’s main conclusion is to demonstrate a clear correlation between poverty and lack of democracy for the poorest billion of the planet. That poorest one billion will soon become the poorest two billion. Four countries in Africa (Nigeria, Egypt, Ethiopia and DRC) already have over one billion inhabitants between them.

On the positive side, Africa has 30 percent of the world’s reserves of minerals including uranium, gold, diamonds, coltan (cobalt-tantalum-niobium), oil and gas. It also has vast areas for agricultural development and a huge underused labour force. It also has a vibrant and diverse culture, wonderful wildlife in many countries and very friendly people when not warring among themselves.

[1] For the trigonometrically inclined, the length of any latitude is calculated from the cosine of the degrees north or south of the equator, multiplied by the equatorial circumference. The cosine of 60o is 0.5; of 80o, 0.17365 and of 90o (the north/ south poles), zero. Owing to the centrifugal forces round the Equator, the earth bulges slightly, so it is an oblate spheroid rather than a perfect sphere. The result is that the circumference of the equator is greater than the polar circumference.


May 07, 2021


I was given your name by Lin Fitzgerald a mutual friend. Great article. The distortion of the Mercator projection and the poverty and untapped potential of Africa are the two main themes. The latter is undeniably the more important aspect but for the purposes of making a comment now I shall just limit it to the Mercator projection. This projection has been deeply ingrained into our psyche as our view of the world but, as you rightly point out it fails the further you get away from the equator. As a navigational aid in the 15th and 16th centuries it was a valuable tool for ships to be able to set a course across the Atlantic. The straight line…


May 05, 2021

Fascinating and fun, while not dodging some of the grim realities


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