Urban Food Systems Governance and Poverty in African Cities

Urban Food Systems Governance and Poverty in African Cities


Reviewed by William G Moseley

First Published:

11 Sep 2019, 1:26 am


Urban Food Systems Governance and Poverty in African Cities

London: Routledge, 2019; 268 pp: ISBN: 978-1-138-72675-8, £115 (hbk), available open access here


From where I am currently situated doing fieldwork this summer in Bobo Dioulasso, a city of half a million people in the country of Burkina Faso in West Africa, I am surrounded by food. It is the start of the rainy season and most street corners on major thoroughfares have hawkers selling seasonally available fruit and vegetables from surrounding areas. Down the street are small shops where I may buy dry goods, including rice from Vietnam and powdered milk from Holland. Downtown in the central market, I may find all manner of animal protein, including local chicken and goat, fish from Mali and beef from Côte d’Ivoire. Mamas at the nearby truck stop also sell beignets, fried egg sandwiches and hot, sugary coffee in plastic mugs. This urban food scene in a small to medium sized African city is an illuminating and important place from which to begin thinking about African food systems, governance and poverty, argue Jane Battersby and Vanessa Watson in their new edited volume, Urban Food Systems Governance and Poverty in African Cities, which focuses on East and Southern Africa.

This is a hard-hitting book, by an experienced group of researchers, that simultaneously pushes back against conventional food security thinking, as well as governance traditions, on the African continent. The authors argue that food security, often defined as access to sufficient food at all times for a healthy and active life (World Bank, 1986), as a field has long been obsessed with food production in rural areas. This thinking, they suggest, has become outdated as the continent grows more urban. While urbanisation has led to wealth and better diets in some areas of the world, African urbanisation has often been accompanied by poverty, a key determinant of food insecurity. Furthermore, most African cities have also devoted precious little time to thinking about the governance of food systems. In fact, some urban authorities pursue policies, such as clearing out informal traders on street corners, that are detrimental to the food security of the urban poor. In a book that emphasises holistic systems thinking, as opposed to an emphasis on the behaviours of individuals or households, the authors argue that:

The urban food system is a window onto the experience of poverty by urban residents and onto the impact of the dynamics of urban growth on the poor. The food system, one in which all urban residents have a stake, is also an analytical device that connects household livelihood strategies to global economic processes. (p. 9)

This book emerges out of a large research project focused on secondary cities in East and Southern Africa. In particular, this project sought to discern how the relational dynamics of urbanisation and the food system influence poverty and food security in these places. The book starts with some conceptual chapters and then focuses on three secondary cities: Kisumu, Kenya; Kitwe, Zambia; and Epworth, Zimbabwe. Each of these cities has its distinct characteristics: Kisumu is a significant trading centre on Lake Victoria in western Kenya, Kitwa is a mining town in the copper belt of north central Zambia and Epworth is a satellite town of the capital city Harare in the central plateau of Zimbabwe. While most urban research has focused on the largest cites, the authors argue that a focus on smaller or secondary African cities makes sense given that two-thirds of population growth is happening in these areas and more poverty is concentrated here.

One advantage of a large, multi-city project is that there was a consistent research methodology and data collection effort across all three cities. This involved food retail mapping and a food retail survey, as well as the detailing of value chains or food pathways for five key food items in each city. The authors also undertook surveys of hundreds of residents in each city (between 480 and 880 in each place), using a variety of established food security and dietary diversity frameworks from the Food and Nutrition Technical Assistance (FANTA) suite of tools, including the Lived Poverty Index (LPI), the Household Food Insecurity Access Prevalence (HFIAP) and the Household Dietary Diversity Score (HDDS).

The book’s 18 chapters are divided into four sections, on: 1) urbanisation, poverty, food and measurement; 2) urban food governance and planning; 3) understanding the urban food systems; and 4) the state of urban food poverty and its connections to the food system. The first section is largely conceptual, with four chapters discussing, in turn: African urbanisation and poverty; rural bias and urban food security; the links between urban food security, poverty and urbanisation; and data gaps on these topics in the region. The last three sections are more grounded in the book’s three study cities. In Section II, following a broader overview of urban food governance, planning and the informal sector in African cites, the book dives into the specific situations in Kisumu, Kitwe and Epworth. In Section III, the authors explore the urban food systems in these three cities, with an emphasis on value chains, a conceptual device for following key staples as they wind their way from producer to consumer. The chapters include several diagrams that illustrate these value chains and help the reader visualise key linkages in the food system. The last section includes three chapters, one chapter per city, that focus on food poverty. Food poverty is the inability to afford food, or have access to food, for a healthy diet, and the authors see this as connected to ‘rapid urbanization, climate change, and inappropriate urban food system responses to [larger] food system changes’ (p. 224).

This book has much to offer and I highly recommend it to anyone working on or studying urban development and food security issues in the African context. It will expand your understanding of urban planning and poverty alleviation and push you to think about food security in a different way. I really appreciate the systems perspective that the authors adopt, as well as their explicit acknowledgement that policy and politics matter. As the authors note, ‘the adoption of a predominantly household scale of analysis and action [in food security work] has obscured the systematic drivers of urban food security and has depoliticized food security’ (p. 56). I also like how the book straddles food security, poverty studies and urban studies and, as a collection of studies, makes a very compelling argument for why we need to think about these issues as connected.

I only have a few quibbles with this otherwise excellent book. I believe the authors may come down a little too hard on rural bias in African food security policy. While I understand their concern, the fact remains that the vast majority of the poor and food insecure still live in the rural areas of many African countries (Alkire et al., 2014). It is also true that there have been periods in post-colonial African history where food policy exhibited an urban bias. The classic example of this would be price controls for major food stuffs in the 1960s and 1970s that were detrimental to rural food producers. I believe what is called for here is a more balanced approach that addresses both urban and rural food security. I similarly want to push back a little on the authors’ critique of urban gardening, which they frame as a ‘productionist’ approach to urban food insecurity. I fully understand that urban gardening may not be practical for many poor households in Africa’s urban landscape (because of space, time, security and/or land tenure constraints), but it is an appropriate solution in some cases. To call this a productionist approach is problematic because in many cases this is a subsistence or non-market-based strategy that is giving poor people access to healthy food, or what Amartya Sen (1981) referred to as a direct entitlement to food. More often than not, it is the insistence that these gardens be market-oriented that is more problematic than the urban gardening itself (Fehr and Moseley, 2019).

I wish to conclude with a few comments on the audience for this text. At first glance, the hard cover price for the book suggests it is destined to be a library book. However, the fact that it is freely available online via an open access arrangement for non-commercial uses opens it up for use in the classroom. This book is destined to be a key reference in the emerging field of urban food security, and I highly recommend it (in its entirety or specific chapters) for upper level undergraduate and graduate seminars in development studies, urban studies and food related courses. The book will challenge students to think about food security and urban planning anew.




Alkire, S, Chatterjee, M, Conconi, A, et al. (2014) Poverty in Rural and Urban Areas: Direct Comparisons Using the Global MPI 2014. Oxford: Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative. Available at: https://www.ophi.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/Poverty-in-Rural-and-Urban-Areas-Direct-Comparisons-using-the-Global-MPI-2014.pdf (accessed 14 June 2019).
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Fehr, R, Moseley, WG (2019) Gardening matters: A political ecology of female horticulturists, commercialization, water access and food security in Botswana. African Geographical Review 38(1): 67–80.
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Sen, A (1981) Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
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World Bank (1986) Poverty and Hunger: Issues and Options for Food Security in Developing Countries. Washington, DC: World Bank.
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