The elite managed and financed a complex and extensive interregional trade network.
They also patronized specialized craft specialists, including ironworkers, coral miners, mangrove cutters, and sailors.
They often monopolized ownership of the most productive land, which they then leased out to commoners, newcomers, and enslaved persons.
Innovations in ironworking aided agricultural intensification and specialization in hunting, fishing, and herding.
Early second millennium scholars, including Al Biruni in the 11th century and Al Tarsusi in the 12th century discuss the widespread use of the crucible steel process in the Islamic world, which included the East African coast.
The Swahili coast is known to have exported iron in quantity to India, as stated by Al Masudi and Al Idrisi. Kusimba is convinced that the availability of fuel, ore, and skill made iron relatively inexpensive for African ironworkers to make, use, and take advantage of fuel shortage in Arabia and India to corner the market.
The wealth accumulated by African merchants, who exchanged African products for foreign trade goods, formed the basis of complex urban polities on the coast beginning in the early 1st millennium CE.
These polities later had diverse and well-defined social hierarchies that incorporated social and religious elites, commoners, foreigners, and enslaved persons.