Call to action! Africa’s urban
food and nutrition transition

March 6, 2017 | By More

Africa’s urban food and nutrition transition – a call to action (Download it here calltoaction)

We, as African researchers and food system practitioners, recognise that the forthcoming decades will define Africa’s urban transition. In light of the UN’s urban Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) and the New Urban Agenda (Habitat III) urbanisation, and specifically Africa’s urban transition, is now a focus of the global development agenda. Who drives this agenda and where action is planned and implemented will directly influence development outcomes. It is high time that African cities drive this agenda. This need is particularly evident in the context of urban food and nutrition security.

Rapid urbanisation and the challenge of building inclusive cities is the critical development issue of the 21st Century. Africa will give birth to thousands of new towns and cities as it crosses the 50% urban threshold shortly after 2030 (Pieterse et al, 2015). The absolute growth and increasing concentration of people in cities will transform governance and policy imperatives over the next decades (Turok, 2012). This is not a future challenge; this transition is taking place right now. While a uniquely African perspective is important within the global debate on the New Urban Agenda, it is essential to acknowledge the diversity of African urbanisms (Pieterse et al, 2015). There is significant variation in the levels and rates of urbanisation across the continent (UN, 2014). In addition to this, Africa’s colonial legacy means that while much of the policy attention in the past has focused on Africa’s primary cities, much of the continent’s urbanisation is taking place in secondary cities (UN Habitat, 2014; Roberts, 2014).

Food has not been considered central to the urban agenda. We believe that it is core to Africa’s urban development.

Food insecurity will become an increasingly important urban problem this millennium (Chmielewska and Souza, 2011; Crush and Frayne, 2011: 527-544; Zingel et al, 2011: 301-319). Urban food insecurity in the Global South has been largely sidelined in research and policy-making over the last decade (Crush and Frayne, 2011: 527-544). The result is that the urban food and nutrition response remains framed as an agricultural and production-related issue (Spoor and Robbins, 2012; Hanson, 2013). This ‘agro-production’ focus means that the scale at which action and interventions are planned, legislated and funded remains the national scale.

Urban food systems in the Global South are currently undergoing major transformation (FAO, 2004; Weis, 2007; Von Braun et al, 2008). The growth of poor urban populations, and the growth of informality as an entrepreneurial rather than survival strategy, suggest that the formal and informal food economies will compete, complement and co-exist in the long term. This, coupled with high levels of urban food insecurity, raises critical developmental and governance questions. The visible manifestations of Africa’s urban food and nutrition crisis include food poverty, hunger and malnutrition, a lack of dietary diversity, child wasting and stunting, increased vulnerability to disease, and an obesity epidemic (Athreya, 2010; Crush et al, 2012: 271-292). Enhanced food security for the urban poor is therefore a critical outcome and measure of urban policy-making (Crush et al, 2012: 271-292). There is a growing consensus that this situation poses a major threat to public health in Africa, and that its greatest impact is on the poor, who are the continent’s most food insecure.

These trends, along with the renewed urban focus of the Sustainable Development Goals, the Habitat III deliberations, and the goals set out in the African Union’s Agenda 2063, present an ideal opportunity for all spheres of government to focus on food and nutrition security as a key urban development challenge.

The urban food challenge calls for action from all affected stakeholders – governments, non-governmental organisations, researchers and society at large. These actions include:

• National Government

To actively pursue the ideals of democratic decentralisation, facilitating effective  and accountable urban governance.

To ensure that the requisite national urban development frameworks are in place to guide and support the devolution of powers to local governments.

To proactively drive effective policy and legislative processes, enabling urban managers to engage in urban food related matters with full authority.

To ensure that the requisite fiscal allocations are provided in accordance with the urban food governance authority.

To play a facilitative, knowledge building and coordinating role, supporting local governments in their urban food system interventions.

To develop reporting methods that ensure that the urban food governance interventions feed into national reporting processes that support the SDG structures.

• City Government

To proactively address all the dimensions of food insecurity – availability, access, utilisation and stability – with appropriate focus on the most relevant dimension of the urban food and nutrition challenge.

To actively engage all urban food system actors to generate effective and usable knowledge systems that can inform urban food system policies.

To proactively engage all food system actors and facilitate processes whereby knowledge, interventions and innovations can be shared and supported.

To develop an urban food charter, or urban food system principles, which inform policy and practice.

To identify the most appropriate structures to govern urban food and nutrition insecurity.

To develop effective and scale-appropriate urban food system policies and implementation strategies.

To ensure that policies and strategies align with, and complement, national, regional and wider constitutional legislative agreements.

To convene and facilitate processes whereby groups with disparate or conflicting perspectives can be retained to ensure focus on wider urban food system challenges.

•  International agencies and donors

To proactively engage urban managers responsible for urban food system governance to identify needs and areas requiring support.

To utilise their positions to raise the profile and importance of the urban food system challenge.

To act with caution when transferring perspectives, methodologies and development interventions from other regions to African cities.

To draw on existing and contextual informed knowledge to guide interventions and processes.

•  Civil society organisations

To constantly pursue the agenda of pro-poor urban food system development and governance and to hold all actors, across scales, accountable for this agenda.

To engage critically in urban food system support interventions and processes.

To assist in cross-sector collaborations, enabling process access to multiple food system players.

To ensure that the supported interventions address the targeted processes or projects; and caution against processes that direct attention away from the core reasons for a particular urban food system challenge.

•  Researchers

To build the essential context-specific urban food system knowledge platforms necessary to ensure urban food security.

To draw on, and critically assess, international urban food system knowledge and test applicability to local contexts.

To generate research specific to the following key outcomes: Policy, practice, economy, nutrition, wellbeing, and wider development interventions.

To generate knowledge relevant to food security that engages wider food system issues from an urban context, avoiding the urban/rural dichotomy.


Athreya, V. (2010) Food Insecurity in Urban India, The Hindu.

Chmielewska, D. and Souza, D. (2011) The Food Security Policy Context in Brazil Country Study No. 22, Brasilia: International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth.

Crush, J., Frayne, B., and Pendleton, W. (2012). The Crisis of Food Insecurity in African Cities, Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition, 7(2-3): 271-292.

Crush, J. and Frayne, B. (2011) Urban Food Insecurity and the New International Food Security Agenda, Development Southern Africa, 28(4): 527-544.

Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) (2004). The State of Food Insecurity in the World (SOFI) – Sixth edition. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Viale delle Terme di Caracalla.

Habitat, United Nations (2014) The State of African Cities 2014: Re-imagining Sustainable Urban Transitions. Nairobi: UN Human Settlements Programme.

Hanson, C. (2013) Food Security, Inclusive Growth, Sustainability, and the Post-2015 Development Agenda. Background Research Paper, High Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, World Resources Institute.

Pieterse, E., Parnell, S. and Haysom. G. (2015) Towards an African Urban Agenda. United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) and United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA). Nairobi: UN-Habitat.

Roberts, B. (2014) Managing Systems of Secondary Cities, Policy Responses in International Development, Brussels: Cities Alliance/UNOPS.

Spoor, M. and Robbins, M. (Eds.) (2012) Agriculture, Food Security and Inclusive Growth. The Hague: Institute of Social Studies.

Turok, I. (2012) Urbanisation and Development in South Africa: Economic Imperatives, Spatial Distortions and Strategic Responses. Human Settlements Group, International Institute for Environment and Development.

United Nations (2014) World Urbanization Prospects. The 2014 Revision. New York: UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

Von Braun, J., Ahmed, A., Asenso-Okyere, K., Fan, S., Gulati, A., Hoddinott, J., and van Rheenen, T. (2008) High Food Prices: The What, Who, and How of Proposed Policy Actions. Washington, DC: International Food Policy Research Institute.

Weis, A. J. (2007) The Global Food Economy: The Battle for the Future of Farming. London: Zed Books.

Zingel, W-P., Keck, M., Etzold, B. and Bohle, H-G. (2011) Urban Food Security and Health Status of the Poor in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in Krämer, A., Khan M. and Kraas, F. (Eds.) Health in Megacities and Urban Areas. London: Springer, 301-319.

A draft version of this call to action was prepared for discussion at the AFSUN/CUP/HCP policy workshop on “Food Consumption and Food and Nutrition Security in Africa’s Hungry Cities” held at the World Nutrition Conference at the School of Public Health, University of the Western Cape, from 29 August to 3 September 2016. Subsequent to input from workshop participants, further input was solicited via targeted social media over a period of 30 days. The document reflects these inputs and debates. The consultative process reached just over 4,000 people.

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