Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, Senegal…How to feed growing urban populations

By Estelle Maussion

Posted on Thursday, 24 November 2022 10:22
Adjamé market, the largest in Abidjan, in July 2020. © Issouf SANOGO/AFP

Taking concerted and multi-faceted action like introducing intra-city agriculture, rehabilitating the market, and investing in transport will be needed to provide food for the 760 million urban dwellers that Africa will have in 2030.

The food economy – all the activities that enable people to feed themselves – is expected to be a $1trn market in Africa by the end of the decade, according to the World Bank. This sector, which generates 35% of GDP in West Africa according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), is a source of wealth and employment and plays a crucial role in ensuring food security and sovereignty.

In recent years, the continent’s rapid population growth and urbanisation have made cities the main centres of consumption – and places of tension due to supply difficulties and the resulting high prices.

Although feeding the cities (which had 472 million inhabitants in 2015 according to the UN) right now is a challenge, it will be even more so by 2030, when the continent will have some 760 million city dwellers, compared to around 600 million today. How can it be met? Here are some answers.

The issue of food management in cities is resurfacing in the face of threats to both food supply and demand.

On the supply side, the war in Ukraine is causing complications for cereal exports, on which several countries (Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Nigeria, among others) are dependent, while recurrent droughts are reducing local harvests, particularly in the east (which is also suffering from locust invasions) and west of the continent.

Linking the field to the plate

On the demand side, the shock of the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting widespread inflation are reducing the purchasing power of many households.

This in turn forces them to cut back on their main item of expenditure, food, which accounts for 44% of the budget in urban areas on the continent, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation.

Nearly 18 million people are severely food insecure in West Africa, the highest number since 2014, said the World Food Programme (WFP) in May.

In addition to this tense context, the other pitfall is the lack of connections between production and consumption areas.

Production alone is not enough to feed cities, the entire supply chain must be ensured to link the field to the plate,” says Philipp Heinrigs, an economist at the OECD and an expert on West African food systems.

However, there are many obstacles in this area: poor or missing transport infrastructure, a limited number of conveyors, shortcomings in distribution networks, customs barriers, insecurity, etc.

“The result is high transport costs, which are reflected in the price of products and explains why food in West Africa is among the most expensive in the world for an equivalent level of per capita income,” says Gaëlle Balineau, an economist at the French Development Agency (AFD) and an expert on the agri-food sector.

Structuring market activity

Faced with this reality, cities have a colossal task, as their response can only form part of a global policy that includes support for production, investment in transport, regulation of sales outlets, implementation of health standards and fighting against waste.

Milan Pact – an initiative launched in 2015 that brings together 200 cities worldwide, including 35 in Africa, to promote a sustainable urban food policy – supports this approach, which is coupled with the need to maintain dialogue with all stakeholders.

In addition to good practices, the Pact promotes a series of projects aimed at consolidating local food systems.

These include micro-gardens that provide an income for Dakar’s poorest inhabitants and training informal vendors in Abidjan in quality standards to modernise the trading activity.

The two cities were, along with Nairobi, members of the Pact’s steering committee between 2019 and 2021.

For many, the solution also lies in the development of urban agriculture, i.e. growing crops (mainly fresh fruit and vegetables) in or near cities. This is already happening in Casablanca, Abidjan, Lomé and Ouagadougou, among others.

While the practice of urban gardening involves resisting pressure from property developers, it is beneficial in several ways, as it provides value-added produce to hungry consumers, while providing a livelihood for disadvantaged urban farmers.

Not to mention that increasing and diversifying national agricultural production helps to reduce imports.

“While governments can help by investing in the cold chain, supermarkets also have a key role to play in boosting urban agriculture by acting as a link between producers and customers,” says Ollo Sib, WFP analyst for Central and West Africa.

AFTA’s positive role

Several other cities – including Abuja, Bouaké and Cotonou – still emphasise modernising markets, reiterating that they remain the main place where food is purchased (for more than 90% of food in West African cities, according to the OECD).

While not sufficient on its own, this strategy – which aims to generate revenue by taxing vendors – can help to regulate the flow of goods, improve product quality, structure market activity and reduce losses.

In other words, the food economy – the largest employment provider with 66% of the total in West Africa according to the OECD – can still be consolidated by formalising and professionalising it. This is often done in conjunction with improved hygiene standards.

“Ghana has made a great deal of effort on this point, as shown by the many inspections carried out in several cities, including Accra and Koumassi,” says Sib, but he deplores the lack of progress made in this area in most other West African cities.

Production alone is not enough to feed cities, the entire supply chain must be ensured to link the field to the plate.

Finally, there are some positive underlying trends. The African Free Trade Area (AFTA), by removing barriers to cross-border trade, can help facilitate market supply.

Technologies, used for production, distribution and marketing, are already making it possible to connect rural areas to urban areas more quickly and at a lower cost.

These are all solutions that need to be combined and implemented at the local level.

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