The challenge and opportunity of feeding Africa's cities

Sunday, March 31 2013

Peter White

With fast increasing urbanization, West Africa needs more food than the region currently produces – where will it come from? How will it get here? And at what cost? Peter White, an international development expert, examines the issue for Tradewinds.

Peter White
Peter White
Sub-Saharan Africa is the fastest urbanizing region in the world: Its urban population is growing at about 4% a year, or about twice the global average. Today, SSA’s urban centers represent 37.3% of total population, up from 32.6% ten years ago (World Bank Indicators). 

Much of this urbanization is coming from rural areas. Some demographers estimate that SSA cities are welcoming 10 million new rural migrants each year, of whom over half end up living in slums. Today, there are some 45 cities in SSA with a population of at least one million people. The number will jump to at least 75 by 2025.

This urbanization explosion comes with huge social, political and development implications. Focusing on food: where will SSA’s food come from?  How will it get there?  And, at what cost?

Until relatively recently, SSA was able to largely feed itself, except in times of crisis. Most of the food which Africa consumes is still produced in Africa with the exception mainly of some oil producing states (e.g., Angola, Gabon, Nigeria).

The problem facing SSA is that rising food demand is now steadily outstripping the slower growth in its food production. The good news is that SSA has vast territories of arable land (e.g., the Guinea Savannah covers about 400 million hectares of suitable but under-cultivated land) and water resources with which to grow food; notwithstanding the fact that it is often hard to access these assets. 

It is a stated and understandable policy of most West African governments to inc
It is a stated and understandable policy of most West African governments to increase local rice production for domestic and regional markets. This will be expensive. Photo courtesy of the USAID Agribusiness and Trade Promotion project.
Further, SSA’s agriculture productivity (yield per hectare) is among the lowest in the world. So, there are strong upsides (land and yields) to substantially increase food output and incomes. This is true not only for cereals but for tubers, pulses, livestock, poultry, farmed fish and vegetable oils, as well.

However, Africa’s dream of food sovereignty will have to wait for a couple of decades. It takes time and a convergence of political, private sector and farmer will to expand food production. While policy and practical trends are moving in the right direction (e.g., national strategic food agendas, Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program – CAADP, USAID Feed-the-Future and Forward), there is still much to be done, especially with regard to feeding Africa’s burgeoning cities.

In a just-released World Bank report, “Growing Africa – Unlocking the Potential of Agribusiness,” Derek Byerlee and team project that SSA’s urban food demand to quadruple in 20 years. In the short run, much of SSA’s urban diet will have to be fed from higher imports. This is particularly true for rice and wheat which have an annual import tab of about $6.5 billion for SSA but also includes, notably, sugar, dairy and vegetable oils.

Per “Growing Africa,” SSA’s food import bill is $25 billion out of which only around $1 billion comes from intra-regional trade. However, as new policies, national and donor programs, access to finance, private investment, improved seed, fertilizer and irrigation systems (to name a few) all kick in, SSA should again be able to feed itself and produce food for export.

Reducing transport delays and costs are key to West Africa's food security.
Reducing transport delays and costs are key to West Africa's food security.
Getting food from port or field to the burgeoning [super] market will be a huge challenge. This is a subject which is very familiar to the USAID West Africa Trade Hub and where its specialists are doing groundbreaking work: comprehensive studies have highlighted the issues and led to concrete recommendations for improvement, industry alliances in the shea and cashew sectors have brought stakeholders together, Border Information Centers are providing on the ground support to traders and the Borderless Alliance is galvanizing the private sector to act on the issues.

With regard to the quadrupling of urban food demand mentioned earlier, commercial value chains, including processing, transport, storage, distribution and retail networks will need to be in place to serve incremental urban food and beverage consumption of about $400 billion per year - and within 20 years.

The price tag for feeding the cities goes well beyond the scope of this short article (and the author’s expertise), but suffice it to say that it will be massive, must be sustained and must bring together all concerned stakeholders (public and private) in a well-coordinated and concerted effort.

To get an impression of the scale of investment needed, rice has become a staple in the urban diet, especially in West Africa. It is a stated and understandable policy of most West African governments to increase local rice production for domestic and regional markets. This will be expensive.

In addition to recurring production costs, countries will have to build irrigation and associated infrastructure in order to achieve competitive yields and the international benchmark of two crops per year. Assuming an annual yield of 8.5 tons of paddy rice per hectare (about 5 tons of milled rice) and a cost to develop land with irrigation and drainage of $15,000 per hectare, it would require 20,000 hectares and cost about $300 million for each 100,000 tons of marketable rice produced (“Growing Africa,” Peter Jaeger).

Assuming that Ghana imports somewhere around 350,000 tons of table rice a year mainly for its urban market, the cost of necessary irrigation schemes alone could approach up to $1 billion.

There are two ways to look at the daunting urban food challenges in the coming years. One is to say that somehow SSA will muddle through (although this presents huge social and political risks – the so-called “time bomb” scenario).

The second is to view the challenge as an opportunity. Given SSA’s population and economic growth – particularly in urban areas – there are huge market demands and opportunities for improved food production (at enhanced profit margins), transport, storage and distribution.

Along the way, trade across Africa’s borders will have to be expedited. Here too, the USAID Trade Hub and the Borderless Alliance in West Africa have a continuing and critical role to play.


1 comment

Julien Custot wrote 45 weeks 6 days ago

Local food systems and sustainable diets


There are indeed huge opportunities associated with the development of African cities. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), through the "Food for the Cities" multi-disciplinary initiative, is advocating for local food system approaches (which can be trans-boundaries), supported by local authorities, with stronger urban-rural linkages. It is associated with the promotion of sustainable diets ( that mainly rely on traditional, local and seasonal crops.

There are many common grounds with the policies USAID Trade Hub and the Borderless Alliance in West Africa.

With my best regards,

Julien Custot - Food for the Cities facilitator

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