A worker pours sunflower seeds into an extraction machine in Dodoma, Tanzania. Photo by: Mitchell Maher / International Food Policy Institute / CC BY-NC-ND

NAIROBI —The African continent has the most rapid rates of urbanization in the world. Because of this, cities are the largest and fastest growing agricultural markets in Africa, with between $200 billion to $250 billion per year in food sales. More than 80% of those sales come from suppliers on the continent, according to a new report.

This has created both opportunities and challenges for farmers, particularly those running small farms. The Africa Agriculture Status Report 2020,” launched at the opening of the African Green Revolution Forum virtual summit on Tuesday, highlights five areas where policymakers and partners can improve farmer access to these urban markets.

“There are some pressures put on smallholder farmers — they need some help to navigate this transition,” said Steven Haggblade, professor of international development at Michigan State University and technical lead on the report, during its launch.

Functioning wholesale food markets

Urban wholesale food markets are the “beating heart” of the whole system, Haggblade said. These are big sites in cities, typically warehouses, where truckers and farmers bring in supplies of food in bulk. Millions of farmers reach millions of people across the continent through this funnel, he said. This is the access point at which about 80% of all food reaches urban areas, according to the report. And it's also how smallholder farmers access urban markets.

“If these wholesale systems are clogged up, overrun, or poorly run, then the whole system functions poorly,” Haggblade said.

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While small and medium enterprises play a key role in connecting smallholder farmers to markets where their products can be sold, the funding and policy environment across the continent hinders their success.

With the rapid speed of urbanization, these wholesale markets have often exceeded their capacity, creating the single biggest blockage in the food system. Because of this, smallholder farms stand to be excluded, even as business is booming.  

For instance, supermarkets will use these wholesale markets if they work well, but if not, they set up alternative supply sourcing systems that typically exclude smallholder farmers, Haggblade said.

“If you want small farmers to have access to urban markets, you need efficient market structures and good management systems,” he said.

New governance

Traditionally, agriculture ministries govern food and agriculture policy. But as countries urbanize, city planners, mayors, district councils, trader organizations, and public health professionals hold more power in crafting agriculture policy, keeping markets functioning, and overseeing food processing and safety systems, according to the report.

“The mayor is suddenly — with no agricultural training, and not much of a technical staff — he or she manages the single most vital component of the whole food system,” Haggblade said.

This could include making sure that truckers don’t spend half a day stuck in traffic and that the drainage systems in the wholesale markets are sloped properly so there isn’t stagnating water that can ruin food products and breed disease.

Currently, there is a “patchwork” of different agencies, often poorly resourced, intervening in urban agriculture and markets, according to the report.

“Improved governance models, therefore, will require expanded resources and more effective coordination among public and private sector governing entities,” the report notes.

The supply chains, which run from rural producers to urban markets, are often long and cross many jurisdictions, which creates another set of challenges.

“If you have inconsistent policies, or inconsistent infrastructure, or protocols of any kind — that poses problems,” Haggblade said. “Governance needs to cut across administrative boundaries.”

Food safety

Africa already has the highest per capita rate of food-borne illness in the world. With urbanization, there is a growth in demand for perishable food, such as dairy, poultry, meat, fish, and produce. While these are high-value products, offering opportunities to farmers to raise their incomes, they are also potentially dangerous to consumers, according to the report.

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Exposure to a toxin produced by fungus on crops is linked to a third of the cases of liver cancer across the African continent, but a lesser-known issue is the link the toxins could play in childhood stunting.

Top concerns include poor animal husbandry and butchering practices, aflatoxins, and other fungal diseases in maize and groundnuts, as well as bacterial disease in uncooked foods. The overuse of pesticides is also a key issue.

As the food system changes, the safety burden grows but many of the people responsible for monitoring this are under-resourced and over-stretched, Haggblade said.

Blockages in intra-African trade

Border posts and checkpoint costs inflate the expenses involved with moving food into cities, according to the report. For example, livestock exports from Burkina Faso pass through 50 checkpoints in between the Sahelian herding zones and markets in Accra, Ghana. Foreign exporters, such as those from Europe or Brazil, in contrast, can ship their food directly to African port cities with no checkpoints, putting local producers at a disadvantage.

“In order to really allow the continent to feed the cities efficiently, we need to have some reforms to facilitate these intra-regional trade flows,” Haggblade said.

Urban food prices are growing faster than domestic supply, Haggblade said, which is a signal that domestic suppliers aren’t able to meet the full demand. But there is room to examine opportunities for import substitutions, he said.  

Wheat, for example, the top commodity import into Africa, is not ideally grown on the continent, because a freeze is needed during the growing season of hard varieties of winter wheat. But other frequently imported crops, such as the inputs for vegetable oil, as well as sugar and rice, are grown locally, and more could be done to stimulate local production and sales.

Agricultural research

There is also a need to increase research across the continent. While in the past, most research was focused on food staples, agricultural research focused on perishable products is now needed.

This would include research that is focused on identifying “productive, disease-tolerant species of animals and plants adapted to local environmental conditions,” according to the report.

“If African farmers are going to be competitive, they need improved indigenous varieties that will allow them to compete cost-effectively,” Haggblade said.

About the author

  • Sara Jerving

    Sara Jerving is Devex's East Africa Correspondent based in Nairobi. She is a reporter and producer, whose work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Vice News, Bloomberg Businessweek, The Nation magazine, among others. Sara holds a master's degree in business and economic reporting from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism where she was a Lorana Sullivan fellow.