Laurens van der Laan

Laurens van der Laan (1932) made his first journey to Africa in 1959, to take up a teaching appointment in the Department of Economics at Fourah Bay College (FBC) in Freetown, Sierra Leone. He was to stay with FBC for eleven years. He returned to the Netherlands in 1971.

There have been five substantial topics in his research, here listed in chronological order.

  • The diamond sector of Sierra Leone
  • The Lebanese traders in Sierra Leone
  • The European trading companies in colonial West Africa
  • The export marketing boards of Tropical Africa
  • The permanent structures of the marketing channel for Tropical Africa’s export crops

 The diamond rush of the 1950s had powerful effects on the society and economy of Sierra Leone. Although the fever had subsided somewhat by 1959, the diamond rush was still a favourite topic of conversation and Van der Laan was soon regaled on exciting stories of the hiding and smuggling of diamonds. He also noticed that few people had a general picture of the situation. This regrettable situation motivated him to study the diamond sector. The result was “The Sierra Leone Diamonds. An Economic Study covering the years 1952-1961.” (1965).

Lebanese immigration to West Africa started around 1900. Most of the immigrants became traders. This was also the case in Sierra Leone. Van der Laan heard many stories about them. Their role and influence was generally overestimated, but, curiously, there was no general study of the group. Obviously, Sierra Leone needed such a study, especially now that the country had become independent. This prompted Van der Laan to embark on a comprehensive study of this immigrant group. This resulted in “The Lebanese Traders in Sierra Leone” (1975). The research for this book had been partly financed by Fourah Bay College and partly by the African Studies Centre in Leiden, his new employer.

During his research on the Lebanese Van der Laan noticed the close cooperation between them and the European trading companies. The basic element of the cooperation was this: the companies sold imported goods wholesale to the Lebanese and, in return, bought export crops from them. The cooperation was profitable for both parties, but was not without problems. The information which Van der Laan had thus gained about the companies served as a stepping stone for his next research topic: the European trading companies in colonial West Africa. The research results may be found in various articles.

During World War II the colonial governments took the overseas marketing of export crops away from the companies and entrusted it to newly established public marketing boards. It was therefore a logical step for Van der Laan to switch his research to these boards. This incidentally meant widening his interest to East Africa. He was the driving force behind a well-attended international conference on African marketing boards, held in Leiden by the African Studies Centre in 1983. The result was “Marketing Boards in Tropical Africa”, a selection of conference papers published in 1985.

In the literature on marketing boards, especially those in Anglophone Africa, a favourite question has been whether the handling of Africa’s export crops should be entrusted to public or private enterprise. Rather than adding to this debate Van der Laan decided to investigate the basic structural elements of the marketing of Africa’s export crops – elements that have to be accepted as hard facts by both public and private enterprise. His book “The Trans-Oceanic Marketing Channel: a new tool for understanding tropical Africa’s export agriculture” was published by Haworth in 1997. Van der Laan retired in the year 2000.

Honorary fellow