Tomatoes & Taxi Ranks: Running our cities to fill the food gap

by Leonie Joubert with the Consuming Urban Poverty Team and reviewed by Jane Battersby and Vanessa Watson

11 Sep 2019, 1:29 p.m.
Jane Battersby and Vanessa Watson

Photo credit: Consuming Urban Poverty project by Sam Reinders

Photo credit: Sam Reinders, Consuming Urban Poverty project


Tomatoes & Taxi Ranks: Running our cities to fill the food gap

by Leonie Joubert with the Consuming Urban Poverty Team and reviewed by Jane Battersby and Vanessa Watson

First published in 2018 by the African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town. All rights reserved. ISBN: 978-0-620-80698-5

Available open access at:


Food is central to urban health, urban economies and urban form. Wayne Roberts has argued that, “More than with any other of our biological needs, the choices we make around food affect the shape, style, pulse, smell, look, feel, health, economy, street life and infrastructure of the city” (2001: 4). However, despite its centrality, food has been largely absent from urban studies and policy, particularly in the global south.

The recent ESRC/DfID-funded Consuming Urban Poverty project[1], based at the African Centre for Cities, used food as a lens to understand and alleviate poverty in three secondary cities in sub-Saharan Africa: Kisumu, Kenya; Kitwe, Zambia; and Epworth, Zimbabwe. The project argued that important contributions could be made to debates on urbanization in Sub-Saharan Africa, the nature of urban poverty, and the relationship between governance, poverty and the spatial characteristics of cities and towns in the region through a focus on urban food systems and the dynamics of urban food poverty. In addition to the project’s academic book, Urban Food Systems Governance and Poverty in African Cities (reviewed in Urban Studies here) (Battersby and Watson 2019) we produced this popular book, Tomatoes & Taxi Ranks. This book, co-authored by a science journalist and featuring work by two commissioned professional photographers, aimed to provoke popular and political awareness of the role of food in urban life in African cities.

One of the book’s final images embodies the project’s contribution to the African urban canon. The photo (reproduced in the blog) is of a live chicken in a supermarket plastic bag, ripped down the side to accommodate the bird’s head. The bag’s owner is standing on a kerb waiting for a bus in central downtown Kitwe, Zambia. The formal/informal binary often present in city plans and policies, and by planners and academics, is blurred in the lives of African urbanites. The woman whose feet are evident in this photo has made a series of economic, cultural and infrastructure-driven choices which have resulted in her mix of formal and informal food sector choices. A slaughtered, plucked, quartered and probably frozen chicken may well be cheaper at the supermarket, but the live chicken that has probably had a long and energetic life has a familiar taste and texture, won’t require storage or refrigeration (both of which are largely absent in low-income residential areas of Kitwe) and will be consumed from beak to feet. Moreover, the largest market in the city is adjacent to the bus station where she is waiting. And yet, in Kitwe, as in most African cities, the central role of this market in the economy and food security of the city is unacknowledged. Ongoing efforts to relocate the market fail to appreciate the centrality of food to the urban fabric of the city and are informed by aspirations to modernise, to become cosmopolitan and ultimately to replace the market space with a shopping mall filled with multinationals.

Ultimately, Tomatoes & Taxi Ranks and Urban Food Systems Governance and Poverty in African Cities illustrates that food systems and the food security outcomes are shaped by land use planning decisions, infrastructure deficiencies, state responses to informality and a number of other specifically urban scale factors. Therefore, concerted efforts to study food in African cities can provide novel entry points for contributing to these critical urban debates.



Battersby J and V Watson eds (2019):  Urban Food Systems Governance and Poverty in African Cities. Routledge, London. Open access. :

Roberts, W. (2001). The way to a city’s heart is through its stomach putting food security on the urban planning menu. Crackerbarrel Philosophy Series. Toronto: Toronto Food Policy Council.

Available at: (accessed September 2019)


[1] We acknowledge the support of the Economic and Social Research Council / Department for International

Development (ESRC/DFID) Joint Fund for Poverty Alleviation Research (grant number ES/L008610/1) for the Governing Food Systems to Alleviate Poverty in Secondary Cities in Africa (Consuming Urban Poverty) project.


Related content

Read the book review of Urban Food Systems Governance and Poverty in African Cities (edited by Jane Battersby & Vanessa Watson) reviewed by William G Moseley on Urban Studies blog here. The book is available open access here.



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