Siri Lijfering

5 oktober 2020


By 2030 more than half of Africa’s population will live in urban centres. How do you feed these ever-growing cities? And how do you make sure people not only have enough food, but that this food is also nutritious and sustainable? ‘We need to build a system that is not designed by the few but inspired by the many.’

Firmly entrenched on the edge of Kenya’s capital Nairobi lies Kibera, one of Africa’s largest urban slums. Kibera is the gateway for the migrating poor looking for peace and prosperity in the economically thriving East African city. Its name is derived from the Nubian word Kibra meaning forest-like or jungle, which was what Sudanese soldiers found when they first settled there in the early twentieth century. However, as the population grew, space became scarce and the trees and grasslands largely disappeared. Today its land is dry and bare, and food for its roughly 700,000 inhabitants must be imported on a daily basis.

Overview of Kibera (credit:Benson Obwanga (Egerton University)

At the break of dawn, buses from all over Kenya arrive at the edge of town. Large bags of rice, meat, fish and vegetables are offloaded and hauled on people’s backs and heads. All over the slum, market stalls pop up where vendors display their wares to passers-by. Walking past the many different stalls, smoke from roasting meat and fish fills the nostrils, tempting those returning from a day of hard work to fill their bellies. When night falls it is time for the vendors to pack up and leave, going home for a few hours of sleep before the buses start arriving again.

Food systems approach

Feeding the almost one million people living in Kibera is a daily struggle and more people arrive every day. This challenge is not unique to Kenya; urban food consumption already constitutes about two-thirds of the total food demand in Asia and more than half in Africa. The 2020 Africa Agriculture Status Report, published this month by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), shows that all over the continent urban and peri-urban areas like Kibera are growing at a staggering rate. In 2015, Africa counted 42 cities of over two million people and projections are that by 2030 more than half of the continent’s population will live in urban centres. How do you feed these ever-expanding cities? And how do you make sure this food is also nutritious and sustainable?

These are the central questions of the Feeding cities and migration settlements project, a four-year research programme of Wageningen University and Research (WUR). The project is part of the Food Security and Valuing Water research undertaken by the University and focuses on food systems in urban areas to understand how to make these more resilient and adaptive.

Selling of fish in Kibera (Benson Obwanga (Egerton University))

According to Dr Katrine Soma, head of the research programme, the key to answering these questions is to take a food systems approach. She explains: ‘Traditionally, food security was regarded as a largely technical or logistical problem that could be solved simply through higher quantities of food. However, we now realise food security is not just a matter of having enough food available; it is about how nutritious this food is and how to make it reliable and affordable so that people can access it. The food systems approach not only looks at improving value chain activities such as production and processing, but also considers how environmental factors like water, sanitation and climate change and socio-political factors such as governance and policies affect the value chain. These issues are all interconnected.’

She continues: ‘To understand how the system works you therefore have to take into account the complex relationships between the rural and urban environment. Urban centres in Africa are not static. People, money and goods flow in and out, so you have to look at it as a dynamic system. The only way to truly understand it is to gain insight into how a particular society works and how local knowledge can be used to encourage different behaviours.’

To better understand the dynamic nature of urban food systems, WUR decided to conduct research in three major cities: Kampala (Uganda), Dhaka (Bangladesh) and Nairobi (Kenya). As these cities share many of the characteristics of other low-income communities in terms of urbanisation and migration, they could provide valuable insight into the effects of rural-urban migration on food systems, explains Soma. ‘An important element of the programme is that instead of the research being a strictly academic exercise, the community is actively involved in the research process and solutions are tried and improved upon during the study.’ Soma elaborates: ‘Researchers have a lot of expertise and therefore often think that they have to teach stakeholders how to do things differently. As such, outreach is primarily focused on capacity building and disseminating knowledge. However, what they often fail to realise is that the community already has a lot of knowhow and experience of the situation on the ground. By failing to listen to this you will never come up with something new.’

Perfect match

As part of the research, Soma and her team organised workshops in Kibera to look for opportunities in the food system and found aquaculture to be the most promising avenue. Soma: ‘Through our research we learned that there is a huge demand for nutritious and affordable fish in Kenya. However, as local wild fish supplies are decreasing, fish is increasingly imported from neighbouring Uganda, Europe and China. In Kibera, the demand for fresh fish is also growing, but due to a lack of spending power people are unable to afford good quality nutritious fish. When looking for sustainable alternatives, we learned that fish farmers from central Kenya had a good supply of high-quality smaller fish they were unable to sell so this seemed like a perfect match.’

Charles Mbauni

One of the fish farmers with a key role in the project is Charles Mbauni, chair of the Nyeri Fish Farmer Cooperative Society, which at the time of writing has over 900 members. Mbauni started fish farming in 2010 following a government-led initiative aimed at stimulating aquaculture in the region. ‘Nyeri has a long tradition of growing coffee and tea. However, when at the beginning of this century the world prices were falling, it became difficult for people to support their families from coffee and tea farming alone,’ Mbauni explains. ‘People started looking for alternative sources of income and fish farming provided the perfect opportunity; it is easy to set up, you don’t need a lot of upfront investment and it maximises the small space people hold available for farming.’

However, as fish is not traditionally a staple in the diet of people in central Kenya, it initially proved difficult to find a local market for the produced fish, Mbauni recalls, and many of the farmers that participated in the government programme were forced to stop. The businesses that did survive decided to unite and formed the Nyeri fish farmer cooperative. Together they started cooking the fish on local markets, which eventually led to a contract with the hospitality industry. ‘While this was a huge opportunity for the cooperative, hotels and restaurants were only interested in buying the bigger fish and we were left with a large portion of fish that we were unable to sell anywhere.’

When Mbauni was invited to participate in the workshop organised by WUR he couldn’t believe his luck: ‘While we were struggling to sell our produce in Nyeri, vendors in Kibera actually preferred the smaller fish as they could sell these more easily to people living in the slum. Moreover, as we had access to refrigerated trucks which we used to bring the fish to hotels and restaurants, we could even deliver the fish directly to the doorstep which would save local vendors a lot of time and make it safer for them. It seemed like a win-win situation.’

The cooperative and vendors decided to test the proverbial waters to determine how much fish they would be able to sell in Kibera. They found that there were still a lot of preconceptions about pond fish that had to be overcome before the cooperative’s fish could be sold on the markets. Mbauni explains: ‘In Kenya there is a certain cultural tradition and pride connected to eating fish whereby people prefer to buy wild fish from Kenya’s lakes. Any other fish is deemed inferior and snubbed. We therefore had to find a way to convince people that our fish was just as good and healthy and actually fresher than the wild alternative.’ Together with one of the community leaders and some of the local youth, the cooperative took a proactive approach to promote and market the fish in the community by speaking to vendors and going door-to-door to inform people about a new tasty and healthy fish that was being sold on the market. The effort paid off and within a matter of months the cooperative had delivered a tonne of fish to Kibera.

According to Soma, the success of the programme was mainly due to the approach WUR took in bringing different parties together: ‘It is all about representation: who do you invite and how do they represent the community you want to serve? Participation should not be a tick-the-box exercise, it is about bringing the right people together at the right time. If we want to feed Africa’s cities, we must listen to people and build on what is already there to make food systems more resilient and sustainable.’

Missing piece

Solidaridad’s Southern Africa director Mandla Nkomo agrees with Soma that the biggest opportunity when it comes to feeding Africa’s ever-growing cities is to make people-centred policies. ‘We need to stop theorising on the basis of models and textbooks and look at the reality on the ground. What do people actually want and need and how can we contribute to that?’

Mandla Nkono

Nkomo feels the informal sector could be the missing piece of the puzzle here: ‘Driving around Southern Africa over the last few years made me realise that the informal sector is at the heart of the African economy and has huge potential for providing both employment opportunities and affordable and nutritious food. Yet, this part of the economy does not feature in any of the discussions on food security I have been part of in the development sector and is by and large still a blind spot for policymakers, businesses and NGOs alike.’

‘When we as NGOs talk about agricultural development, we usually mean training farmers so they can export abroad or supply to big retailers such as supermarkets. Or we work on de-risking agribusiness by investing in large companies so they can work with smallholder farmers. The truth is, investing in farmers just isn’t sexy enough,’ concedes Nkomo. ‘I can easily find money to invest in large private companies wanting to do sustainable business, but it’s much harder to find funding for bottom-up development even though the latter is often much more effective.’

A case in point was a large-scale agribusiness programme in the cotton industry that Nkomo was involved in. He elaborates: ‘A number of years ago we partnered with four large companies to help them localise their business. We provided a total of $2.5 million in grants to set up expensive outgrower schemes and hire agricultural extension officers so they could work with smallholder farmers more effectively. Because of these interventions their businesses grew, but the farmers didn’t see anything of the increased profits in terms of better seeds or fertiliser and remained at the mercy of these firms. Now, three years after the programme, the companies have discontinued all the outreach initiatives and things are back to the way they were. This made me realise that what we basically did was subsidise private companies with development money and we aren’t the only ones.’

Inconvenient truth

According to Nkomo, Africa could learn a lot from China when it comes to feeding mega cities. ‘It is an inconvenient truth but the Chinese model of development works,’ he states. ‘Instead of sweeping the informal market under the carpet or criminalising it as is done in Africa, it is seen as a business opportunity. Companies develop special packaging material for street vendors and financial institutions provide mobile banking solutions to make trade more efficient. China invested in the right people and technology and now their economy is thriving. In Africa we still operate on an economic template that is a remnant of colonial times, where only the formal economy is recognised. The result is that we are missing the boat; economic growth is stifled and a lot of the food we consume has to be imported from places like China.’

In order to turn this around policymakers should, in Nkomo’s view, embrace the informal economy and support it to improve its operational efficiency. ‘Instead of building new value chains we should recognise those that already exist and design interventions that enable these markets to thrive. Food security has too long been an elite sport where a few people at the top determine what should be done without actually knowing what the underlying problems are,’ Nkomo concludes. ‘To feed cities in Africa we need to build a system that is not designed by the few but inspired by the many.’

In the autumn of 2020, Vice Versa publishes a series of articles on transforming African food systems to provide sufficient and healthy food to the growing population, while at the same time generating income and employment for the increasing number of young people. Our aim is to generate debate on this important topic within the Dutch international cooperation sector, running up to the parliamentary elections in March 2021.
The series is an initiative of Vice Versa in cooperation with Solidaridad, IDH Sustainable trade, Wageningen University & Research and the Food & Business Knowledge Platform and AgriProFocus, merging into the Netherlands Food Partnership this year

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