Some 72 percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s urban population lives in slum conditions, with little to no access to basic government services, low employment and dwindling nutrition. Photo  by: International Medical Corps

Food insecurity and malnutrition, closely related plagues once restricted mainly to rural sub-Saharan Africa, are spreading rapidly into the continent’s cities, saddling already hard-pressed governments in the region with new and worrisome social, political and development problems.

Despite the implications of these challenges, the international development community remains focused on small farmer agricultural productivity in rural Africa.    

Urban food insecurity and the malnutrition that follows are being driven by rapid, unplanned urbanization. Sub-Saharan Africa’s cities are growing at an annual rate of 4 percent faster than ever before in history and responsible government authorities cannot provide the services, infrastructure and employment the city dwellers require. By 2050, Africa’s population will double to 2 billion and more than half will live in urban areas.

The consequences of this rapid migration off the land are considerable. Already, 72 percent of the region’s urban population lives in slum conditions. We are seeing dramatic increases in poverty and with it, sharp rises in food insecurity and malnutrition. Increases in malnutrition among women and children under the age of 5 years are particularly alarming.  

Historically, cities have been engines of economic growth, offering abundant opportunities for employment and access to services. But the rapid urbanization in today’s sub-Saharan Africa offers a different reality. The majority of urban dwellers work in the informal sector, one characterized by sporadic and uncertain employment and a lack of access to government services.

Food security and nutrition for the urban poor are complex and difficult problems dependent not only on food prices and purchasing power but also geography and employment. As food prices climb or incomes falter, families cut back on their purchases of fruits, vegetables and meats and rely instead more on staples, which are cheaper but lack micronutrients.  The oft-favored alternative is to rely on the cheaper and usually unsanitary offerings of street venders. In many African cities, 70 percent of the calories consumed by the urban poor are from street food.

Most urban poor are forced to spend a large portion of their household income on transportation to reach far-off workplaces. Shopping is also costly for the poor as markets tend to be located in the wealthier sections of cities, away from slums and squatter settlements. Urban gardens are a middle-class luxury. The majority of poor city dwellers lack access to electricity and refrigeration, making it difficult for them to store fresh food or buy in bulk when prices are low. The high cost of housing, education and health care also often undermines the ability of the urban poor to purchase nutritious food.

Cities, in recent years, have become sanctuaries for refugees and internally displaced persons. Today, more refugees live in cities than in refugee camps in sub-Saharan Africa; an increasing number of internally displaced populations are gravitating to the anonymity of cities. A growing percentage of these populations are women, children and the elderly. Because they lack legal documents, they are regularly exploited by authorities and other urban poor. They compete for the lowest-paying jobs and employers regularly underpay them with the threat of reporting them to the authorities if they object. Most refugees and IDPs live in squatter settlements with inadequate housing on the edges of cities with little or no access to basic services. Food security and the quest for nutritious food are daily struggles for these migrants and their rates of malnutrition are exceptionally high.

The renewed emphasis on agriculture, especially since the G-8 L’Aquila Summit pledges in 2009, has made great strides in improving food security and nutrition for the rural poor in sub-Saharan Africa. But with the shift of food insecurity and malnutrition to the cities, it is incumbent on the international community to acknowledge that these are no longer just rural concerns. They are serious urban problems requiring immediate attention, innovative solutions and financial support.    

Recent bilateral and multilateral initiatives have set the stage to address these urban issues. In 2009, the United States launched a global food security program called Feed the Future and a year later, in partnership with the Irish government, the nutrition initiative “1,000 Days: Change a Life, Change a Future.” In the multilateral arena, the United Nations introduced the Scaling Up Nutrition framework and the World Bank initiated the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program. Subsequently, at the 2012 G-8 Summit, leaders renewed their commitments with the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition and Britain announced its Nutrition for Growth effort. Each of these initiatives has been undertaken in conjunction with host governments, the private sector, universities and the NGO community. The partnerships forged by these endeavors can serve as the foundation for an expanded effort into sub-Saharan Africa’s urban centers. But this effort must begin now.

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About the author

  • William Garvelink

    Ambassador William J. Garvelink is the senior advisor for global strategy at the International Medical Corps. He has 33 years of experience with the United States Agency for International Development and the Department of State. Garvelink led President Obama’s $3.5 billion "Feed the Future" global food security initiative and established and served as the first head of USAID's Bureau for Food Security. He served as the U.S. Ambassador to the Democratic Republic of Congo from 2007-2010.