9 Food Sustainability in Urban Africa

Chijioke J. Evoh, Independent Researcher, New York

How can African cities meet their food needs in a rapidly urbanizing era? In a gradual and steady trend, the past few decades have witnessed a whole swath of urban life as many African countries beginning to move to a different rhythm, an urban one. In part, urbanization in Africa is driven by the increase in population growth and rural-urban migration. It is estimated that one third of Africa’s population lives in 36 large cities of more than 1 million inhabitants, while the remaining population is spread across 230 intermediate cities in the region in peri-urban areas (World Bank, 2010). Contrary to economic geography, which posits that population density attracts high economic activities and prosperity (which requires agglomeration of economies), many urban dwellers in Africa have not benefitted from recent economic growth in the region. Hence, in contrast to urbanization in more advanced economies, urbanization in Africa is characterized by food insecurity, high concentrations of poverty, lack of basic infrastructure and the expansion of urban slums and informal settlements. African cities are growing in the midst of poverty, fragile institutions, and increasing rates of inequality.

There are four dimensions of food sustainability framework, namely: good governance environmental integrity, economic resilience, and social well-being (FAO, 2013).  The framework includes a set of principles that provides and protects the policy space for local people to participate in the formulation of food and agricultural policies in their countries. Food sustainability is an umbrella term, which is comprised of different approaches used to address the challenges of hunger, food production, and sustainable livelihoods. Food sustainability goes beyond food security. A food supply is considered secure when food is available, accessible, and of good nutritional quality for the population; it is insecure when any or all of these are absent (FAO, 2013). On the other hand, the food sustainability framework allows for a comprehensive analysis of self-sufficiency in food production by putting the responsibility of food production in the hands of local producers. The concept is grounded in the premise that small-scale farmers grow, collect, and distribute most food in the world. The framework of food sustainability has been explained at four different levels: access to culturally accepted nutritious food; access to productive resources; development of local market; and ecologically friendly production (Quaye et al., 2009). These four levels are essential for the analysis of food security and food systems within the context of urban-rural connections in Africa.

It is against this backdrop that we examined food sustainability in urban Africa through the lens of food insecurity. Urban dwellers in the region face the challenge of food insecurity due to a number of factors: the absence of food policy in city planning, poverty and unemployment among most urban dwellers, poor and uncoordinated food distribution systems, and a lack of basic physical infrastructure in African cities such as electricity, good roads and pipe-borne water. Other notable constraints to food security in urban Africa include the lack of sustainable food storage systems, post-harvest food loses and food waste, a lack of incentives for urban farms, the dwindling number of active, professional farmers in most African countries, and the unfolding impacts of climate change.  It is noteworthy that the increases in urban populations in Africa has reduced the number of farmers, especially the young farmers working in rural areas. Thus fewer hands are left to meet increased demand for food. In addition, there has been a significant shift in the diet pattern of African urban dwellers away from a predominance of grain-based diets towards substantial consumption of animal products. This cultural shift in food preferences compounds food insecurity in urban Africa.

A closer examination of the food situation in urban Africa reveals that a large majority of the urban population within the region is food insecure. Often, urbanization brings major changes in the pattern of agriculture, product demands, dietary needs, and the contraction of agricultural markets (Parfitt, et al, 2010). While urban population is on the rise in Africa, population growth is not unilaterally accountable for urban food insecurity in the region. Within the context of food security, four dimensions can be highlighted: physical availability of food, economic and physical access to food, food utilization and safety, and stability and cohesiveness of the first dimension.

Small-scale and rural-based farmers dominate food supply in urban Africa with little or no training in post-harvest food handling, processing, and preservation. These rural producers are facing many logistical challenges to transport their produce from farms to the urban markets. In effect, African farmers and food wholesalers incur substantial losses during the process of transporting their produce to urban centers. Food storage facilities in African cities are almost non-existent. Thus, urban food loss, which contributes to urban food insecurity in Africa, is characterized by a general lack of storage and processing technology and infrastructure. It is difficult to estimate the size of food loss and waste in sub-Saharan African countries due to a lack of empirical data. In comparative terms, per capita food waste is between 6-11 kg a year in sub-Saharan Africa, South and South-Eastern Asia (Gustavsson, et al., 2011).

Addressing the food sustainability of rapidly urbanizing communities in Africa requires the participation of public and private sector actors, and a change in the attitude of consumers. New institutional arrangements are needed to support and coordinate policies for the reduction of post-harvest food loss. Post-harvest loss can be addressed through governance and sustainable collaboration of different sectors. Furthermore, the provision of basic physical infrastructures is essential for food storage and transportation. These actions will go a long way to ensure food security in urban Africa.


FAO (2013) Sustainability Assessment of Food and Agricultural Systems: Guidelines. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Gustavsson, J., Cederberg, C., Sonesson, U., van Otterdijk, R., Meybeck, A. (2011) Global food losses and food waste: extent, causes and prevention. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome.

Parfitt J, Barthel M, & Macnaughton S (2010) Food Waste within Food Supply Chains: Qualification and Potential for Change to 2050. Philosophical Transactions of Royal Society B. Volume 365 (pp. 3065-3081).

Quaye, W., Frempong, G., Jongerden, J., Ruivenkamp, G (2009) Exploring Possibilities to Enhance Food Sovereignty within the Cowpea Production-Consumption Network in Northern Ghana. Journal of Human Ecology. Vol. 8., Number

World Bank (2010) Africa’s Infrastructure. A Time for Transformation 2010. Washington DC: The World Bank.

Author Biography

ChikiokeChijioke J Evoh is an independent researcher and consultant to the International Labour Office (ILO), Geneva. He is a Fellow at the Economic and Urban Policy Analysts (ECONUPA), an independent research organization in Yonkers, New York. His research connects various complementary issues in urban policy and sustainability, information technologies, inclusive economic growth and extractive industries. He provides analytical and practical expertise to governments and development agencies on development issues in sub-Saharan Africa, and across the policy cycle.

Contact email: cjevoh@gmail.com

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