Linking African farmers with growing urban food markets

Urban populations are growing faster in Africa than anywhere in the world. Feeding Africa’s cities, and providing access to good quality food, presents a major challenge. But also a major opportunity – the largest and fastest growing opportunity for the continent’s 60 million farms.

Africa’s burgeoning urban food markets are the focus of this year’s Africa Agriculture Status Report (AASR). Coordinated and published each year by AGRA, the AASR addresses the tough questions that accompany the challenge of delivering inclusive growth and enhancing government capacity. It serves as a handbook for governments and their supporting partners to deliver agricultural and economic transformation.

Launched on the opening day of AGRF 2020, this year’s report reviews the structure and scale of urban food markets, the current challenges facing farmers and agribusinesses, and key policies for ensuring affordable and safe urban food supplies.

Providing the context for AASR 2020, Andrew Cox, Chief of Staff and Strategy at AGRA, kicked off the launch event by describing the report as “highly pertinent to where we are right now, with COVID-19, but also in terms of the opportunity [facing] African agriculture and sustainable development across the continent”. Indeed, “it seems quite appropriate,” reflected Cox, “with Africa being the fastest urbanizing continent, that we turn [in this year’s AASR] to the important question of feeding Africa’s cities”.

Delivering the framing keynote address, Prof Rudy Rabbinge, Professor Emeritus in Sustainable Development and Food Security at Wageningen University, reminded the virtual audience that urban food sales in Africa represent roughly US $200-250bn a year, with 80% coming from domestic African suppliers. This fact, he said, underscores the importance of refocusing, through AASR 2020, on the opportunities that lie ahead for Africa’s famers through urban food systems and value chains.

But in order to ensure the competitiveness of African suppliers, as well as food safety and security for urban consumers, Prof Rabbinge repeated AASR 2020’s call for progress in the following five areas: improved food system governance; efficient wholesale markets; food safety regulation and enforcement; regional free trade and agricultural policy harmonization; and agricultural research focused on high-value food commodities.

Prof Steven Haggblade, Professor of International Development at Michigan State University, then provided an overview of the key findings of the report. He began by remarking that the official projection of Africa becoming majority urban by 2035 “could be happening a lot sooner than that”. Peri-urban overspill beyond designated administrative boundaries, he said, means that in geospatial definitions, “Africa is already majority urban and has been since 2015, so the future is already here”.

With the center of gravity in Africa’s agri-food systems shifting increasingly towards urban areas, new, non-traditional actors – city planners, district councils, trader organizations, public health professionals – have become central to the effective functioning of agricultural input and output markets, food processing and food safety systems. As a result, effective urban agricultural policy requires new forms of governance, consultation and coordination.

As Prof Haggblade observed, “the urban wholesale market is the beating heart of the whole system, it’s the point through which farmers reach consumers”. But “who’s in charge of this beating heart? Is it a heart surgeon? No, it’s the mayor. Has the mayor been to medical school? No.” City mayors, provincial state managers and other ‘new actors’, who know very little about agriculture, now have the responsibility of managing these vital markets and infrastructure – a key challenge which AASR 2020 seeks to address.

Other key issues covered in the report, as discussed by Prof Haggblade and the assembled panellists, include internal trade barriers, which create artificial constraints and increase the time and cost of delivery. For example, whereas a truck driving from the Sahel to Accra would have to pass through 50 roadblocks, food commodities from Brazil have “a straight shot into the market”, deepening Africa’s dependency on foreign imports.

Ismahane Elouafi, Director General of the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture, outlined the need to drive innovation to develop and improve existing food systems, with a key focus on high-value food commodities. And Monica Musonda, CEO of Java Foods, spoke of the competition nutritious food producers face trying to expand into urban food markets, and called for a levelling of the playing field in this area. Increased government efforts and interventions, she said, such as the introduction of sugar taxes, binding standards, and non-misleading food labelling, would help to ensure city populations are eating the right nutrient-dense food.

In her closing remarks, Dr Agnes Kalibata, President of AGRA and UN Special Envoy for 2021 Food Systems Summit, thanked everyone involved in AASR 2020. “I couldn’t be more proud,” she said. “I think here we hit the nail on the head. We can actually use cities to really grow our rural population, but we won’t do that unless we address the challenges we have talked about” and “rethink our food systems”.

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