Ellen Hillbom about a free digital textbook about Africa

Meet Ellen Hillbom, the economic historian, who, in cooperation with a Dutch and a German colleague, has created an online textbook on trends in Africa’s economic history. The book, which can be downloaded free of charge from the internet, has so far reached over 4,000 readers.

Medarbetare vid Ekonomihögskolan, Lunds universitet

Ellen Hillbom.

Where did you get the idea for a free digital textbook about Africa?

“At a world congress that is held every three years for economic historians from all over the world. Many are interested in Africa and want to share their knowledge, not least to the many African universities that often lack a reading list, and where teaching staff sometimes only have a secondary school education.”

How is the book structured?

“Different researchers have contributed free-standing chapters on a defined theme and the book is gradually expanded as new chapters are written. One requirement is that chapters are to be based on facts from African situations, as far too much research on Africa has a European or Western perspective. They are also to contain a theoretical element and be short and accessible, as the target group are not always very experienced readers. Each chapter concludes with study assignments and tips for further reading.”

Have you taught in Africa using this textbook?

“Yes, at a small university in Uganda, as part of a teaching exchange. I taught 10–15 students on the connections between fewer children and reduced mortality, access to food and technical development in agriculture, and urbanisation and education. It was stimulating to discuss classical theories on demographic trends with students who had grown up in the reality that I was trying to describe in my chapter: big families with many children, shortage of land etc.”

Is the book used only in Africa?

“No, it‘s also used, for example, at the London School of Economics, in the Netherlands and also here in Lund in the Bachelor of Science programme in International Development Studies (BIDS). It can be read by anyone at all who is interested in Africa. “

How is the book financed and how have you got people to contribute?

“We have some small grants for maintaining the website and we received support for the trip to Uganda, but otherwise the book is based on researchers participating without payment. The benefit for me is that I reach African students other than those who can afford to pay to study in Lund. It‘s inspiring to know that my chapter on demographic trends has been read by over 600 people – people who otherwise would never have come in contact with my research articles.”

This is the first book of this kind, as far you know… Why have there not been more such initiatives?

“Because we are encouraged to be top researchers, produce, be published in the highest ranked journals and obtain research funding. There is a lot of focus on research qualifications, but very little on who actually reads what we write … I would like the third stream activities, to spread knowledge widely in society, both within and outside Sweden, to be taken seriously as a merit. Then we would be more innovative.”

In what way?

“This concept, of course, can be transferred to any subject. It can also be developed and be even better. As many African university lecturers do not have teacher training, our dream is to augment our book with seminar exercises, PowerPoints, and perhaps recorded lectures and hands-on tips on how to teach using the case method.”


Footnote: The book can be downloaded from the African Economic History Network’s website: