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February 18, 2019

The future of urban food is fragile

People sit on a Nairobi City county bench along Kenyatta Avenue. /FILE
People sit on a Nairobi City county bench along Kenyatta Avenue. /FILE

Our common future is urban. About 40 per cent of Africans live in urban spaces. This proportion is set to soar to 50 per cent by 2035. Expanding at an estimated rate of 4.2 per cent, the rate of urbanisation now outstrips Kenya’s annual population growth by about 62 per cent.

By 2050, 1.3 billion of Africa’s estimated 2.4 billion people will be urban. Urban areas could be Africa’s growth engine and driver of prosperity. It is estimated that Africa’s cities account for over 55 per cent of gross domestic product. Hence, Africa’s battle for sustainable and equitable prosperity will be won or lost in cities.

But African cities are already facing significant challenges with regard to provision of decent basic services such as housing, health, education, water and sanitation. The unprecedented rural-to-urban migration over the last two decades has touched off a vigorous proliferation of slums in most African cities.

In 2015, the world cautioned that Kampala could become a mega slum in just 10 years unless appropriate action was taken to improve planning and the quality of infrastructure and commercial investment. Moreover, an estimated 61 per cent of Nairobi’s population lives in informal, unplanned settlements.

While squalid living, characterised by poor housing, inadequate water and sanitation services, insecurity and rising inequality remain critical and growing challenges, there is another looming crisis that stalks Africa’s unprecedented urban growth. It is the food crisis.

A study by the Africa Population Health Research Centre revealed that up to 50 per cent of urban households face severe food insecurity. Similarly, a study on the prevalence and depth of hunger in Nairobi conducted in 2011 by Egerton University’s Tegemeo Institute of Agricultural Policy and Development showed that 44 per cent of households in Nairobi were undernourished, with 20 per cent being ultra-hungry.

A new study by the East Africa Institute of the Aga Khan University shows that Nairobi households spend 28 per cent of their income on basic, staple food — maize, wheat products, milk, cooking oil and vegetables. The proportion of spending on food is higher than what households spend on housing, education and healthcare combined.

The study also reveals that Nairobi’s food supply system is in the hands of self-organised, informal actors who control all of the 18 major wet food markets. These informal actors perceive the county’s market and trade officials as extortionist, motivated by corruption and rent-seeking. The markets are temporary, squalid and unsanitary, lacking water and sanitation, garbage is seldom collected and they lack decent drainage.

The study estimates Nairobi’s average food sourcing distance at 149km. With the exception of vegetables and fruits sold in upmarket grocery stores such as Zucchini and Fresh and Field Fresh Vegetable, the food sources are not traceable.

Climate change, land fragmentation, rural-to-urban migration, and urban sprawl will accelerate the decline in agricultural productivity, and exacerbate the urban food crisis. Just like we grapple with the challenges of housing, public transit, water and sanitation, we must direct our planning and investment energies to ensure equitable access to safe, nutritious and affordable food, from resilient sources.

Alex O Awiti is the director of the East Africa Institute at Aga Khan University






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