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Urban agriculture for the urban poor

Diana Lee-Smith | 15 January 2013

Urban agriculture is a priority strategy in tackling challenges to feeding the world’s population, regarding Diana Lee-Smith.

Even though urban agriculture is generally considered a minor part of the global food security equation, it is by no means a small matter and worth serious consideration in tackling challenges to feeding the world’s population. The international food security agenda has been dominated by production issues and a focus on rural development, although urban food security is gaining attention because half the world’s population lives in urban areas with most projected population growth expected in urban areas of less developed regions. The processes underpinning urban food security are considered to be access to assets, market interactions, migration patterns, and infrastructure capacity including its vulnerability to climate change.

Assets for urban dwellers include income sources and land, among others factors that determine their vulnerability to food insecurity. Research has demonstrated that urban farming increases food security for households in sub-Saharan Africa, although the main determinant of food security is wealth or income. Thus high levels of unemployment in cities mean many urban dwellers may be food insecure. This has been shown to be the case in a study of 11 cities in Southern Africa by AFSUN in 2010, where 77 percent of the low income populations surveyed were food insecure.

Therefore addressing urban and peri-urban agriculture through appropriate policies and institutions is an important priority. It is estimated that in 2020 around 40 percent of the half billion urban Africans will depend partly on urban agriculture.  But this estimate is based on existing patterns, which may not address the needs of those who are most food insecure. The urban poor tend to live in dense slums or informal settlements with little access to land for growing crops or keeping livestock. Thus, ironically, the poor have been found to be under-represented among those doing urban farming. More often it is those with backyards who can produce food in the urban area. Some large cities such as Johannesburg or Cape Town have very low percentages of households farming (under 10 percent), while others like Nairobi or Kampala have higher proportions (20-46 percent) as shown by Urban Harvest and Mazingira Institute data. Small and medium sized towns have higher proportions of farmers and it has been suggested that the proportion varies inversely with the size of the town or city.

While African central and local governments have in the past mostly tried to prevent or have at best tolerated urban agriculture, information about its prevalence and benefits has more recently led to policy and institutional innovations that support and try to regulate it.  For example, Tanzania has had supportive laws and policies for two decades. Kampala City Council in Uganda passed new ordinances to regulate urban crops and livestock in 2006, while the City of Cape Town has an Urban Agriculture Policy and a Unit that has provided services to farmers since 2007. There are many other such cases and efforts are being made to share experiences and learn from such exchanges.

Benefits of sharing experiences among cities of the South – especially for example with cities in Brazil where the Zero Hunger Campaign includes support to urban smallholders – could be great. But exchanges between cities in the South with those of the North can also be of benefit. Some existing exchanges show that fundamental issues of policy and institutional development and access to land for urban food production are not so dissimilar. Building food security and food system planning into urban local government tends to be an innovation whether in the South or the North.

A key issue for policy is to distinguish the policy goal of benefitting the poor and women headed households who suffer most from food insecurity from the overall goal of increasing urban and peri-urban food production, which is mostly NOT done by those who are most food insecure. Analyses in Sub-Saharan Africa suggest that the most effective governance for improved urban food security comes from involving associations of urban farmers themselves in the policy and institutional development process. 

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About the author

Diana Lee-Smith

Co-founder Mazingira Institute, which has been engaged with urban agricultural research and devel...

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