The biggest economies in Africa

South Africa’s struggle to keep its spot as the second largest economy on the African continent (after Nigeria) has seemingly abated – but there’s a more worrying trend that shows up in the data when measuring GDP per capita.

With and estimated gross domestic product (GDP) of $350 billion in 2017, South Africa sits comfortably as Africa’s second largest economy – a position it lost briefly to Egypt in 2016, when the North African nation shot past our struggling economy with GDP output of $332 billion, versus our $295 billion.

According to the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) latest World Economic Outlook report, however, Egypt’s estimated total for 2017 is at $237 billion, putting the risk of it taking second place to rest, at least for now.

Nigeria is Africa’s largest economy by some margin – with a growth projection so large that it is unlikely that South Africa will surpass it. But Nigeria’s advantage – its almost 200 million-odd population, which lends itself to such high GDP figures – is also its downfall.

The table below outlines the 10 biggest economies in Africa by GDP.

# Country GDP (2017, IMF)
1 Nigeria $376.3 billion
2 South Africa $349.3 billion
3 Egypt $237.1 billion
4 Algeria $178.3 billion
5 Angola $124.2 billion
6 Morocco $109.8 billion
7 Ethiopia $80.9 billion
8 Kenya $79.5 billion
9 Sudan $58.2 billion
10 Tanzania $51.7 billion

Measuring wealth by GDP per capita has always been more indicative of a country’s overall economic health.

In this measure, Nigeria slips significantly to 15th position on the list, just ahead of Egypt. Here, other African nations shine through – such as the business-friendly Mauritius, and the oil-rich Gabon, which produce billions of dollar’s worth of value, while holding relatively small population.

While South Africa has never been the biggest, it has always occupied a special place in being a high-GDP, high population country. However, this picture is slowly changing.

According to figures researched and released by the IMF, Botswana overtook South Africa in 2011, as the latter’s economic slowdown took full effect, hitting a full dip in 2016. Data for 2017 showed a swing upwards – with the IMF predicting slow growth through to 2020.

While all of the top 5 experienced similar, if mixed, trends in GDP per capita growth, the recoveries have been far stronger, with Botswana now extending its lead over South Africa, and Namibia on a trajectory to eventually surpass it.

Mauritius and Gabon are expected to continue onwards and upwards.

# Country GDP per capita (2017, IMF)
1 Mauritius $9 794
2 Gabon $7 971
3 Botswana $7 877
4 South Africa $6 179
5 Namibia $5 413
6 Libya $4 858
7 Angola $4 407
8 Algeria $4 292
9 Swaziland $3 914
10 Tunisia $3 496

Data presented by Human Progress – which depicts Gross National Income per capita – shows a similar picture, with Mauritius and Gabon far ahead with Namibia coming up at the bottom of the top.

Where the data differs, however, is in how close the race actually is between South Africa and Botswana on this measure.

According to Human Progress, Botswana’s challenge to South Africa has only occurred in the past four years, with the two countries alternating places since 2014. As it currently stands (as at 2016), Botswana has only just passed over South Africa, the data shows.

Human Progress’ graphs covers data up to 2016, while the IMF makes projections beyond current available data.


Read: Here’s how much South Africans put towards their retirement each month

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