Heart failure has emerged as a dominant form of cardiovascular disease in Africa, and has great social and economic relevance owing to its high prevalence, mortality and impact on young, economically active individuals. The causes of heart failure in Africans remain largely nonischemic. Hypertension, cardiomyopathy, rheumatic heart disease, chronic lung disease and pericardial disease are the main contributors to the etiology of cardiac failure in sub-Saharan Africa, accounting for over 90% of cases. Hypertensive heart disease complications occur more frequently in Africans and the majority of affected patients are younger. Endemic cardiomyopathies include dilated cardiomyopathy, peripartum cardiomyopathy and endomyocardial fibrosis. Nonendemic cardiomyopathies apparently occur with the same frequency as in other parts of the world, and include hypertrophic cardiomyopathy and arrhythmogenic right ventricular dysplasia/cardiomyopathy. Coronary artery disease and its complications remain uncommon in Africa, but the situation is changing due to modifications in lifestyle, risk-prone behavior, diet, cultural attitudes and other consequences of rapid urbanization. As the prevalence of heart failure is expected to rise substantially in sub-Saharan Africa, the authors call for population-based studies and registries of the epidemiology of heart failure in Africans and the urgent study of interventions that will decrease morbidity and mortality from the causes of heart failure, with a focus both on nonischemic and ischemic risk factors.