What urbanisation means for rural areas in Africa

Alvise Forcellini 2006 urbanisation blog

“How to feed our cities? Agriculture and rural areas in an era of urbanisation” – that was the theme of the Global Forum for Food and Agriculture, or for short, the GFFA, hosted in Berlin in mid-January. With Habitat IIItaking place in October in Quito, Ecuador, urbanisation features on top of the agenda of many meetings and conferences in 2016 including the Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ annual flagship report and the Committee on World Food Security (CFS). These forums are important as they draw attention to what urbanisation will mean for rural areas, the agriculture sector and those millions of smallholder farmers, upon which urban areas rely for their food supply. This is particularly important in a developing country context.

Urban and rural transformation

According to UN figures, in 1950 only about a third of the world’s population lived in cities, but rapid population growth has led to increased urbanisation, which has seen this figure rise to 54% in 2014. As this trend is set to continue, by 2050 over two-thirds of the global population will live in urban and peri-urban areas. Take for example Nigeria. Under current trends, by 2050, at 397 million, Nigeria’s population would be larger than Central Africa’s population in its entirety. Lagos’ population of 17.9 million is set to double by mid-century. This has a significant impact for the development of rural areas and our food systems. In order to support growing urban areas, to improve rural livelihoods, reduce poverty and to lower Africa’s food import bills, local agricultural sectors in the rural and peri-urban areas will need to adapt to an increased demand for food and changing diets. Pressure on natural resources, such as water, and climate change make the sustainable production of nutritious and affordable food ever more challenging.

The challenges of urbanisation

Raul Soler 2013 urbanisation blog

This means that we need a thriving agriculture sector that can sustainably intensifyits production and cater to the needs of an increasing (urban) population and the demand for more livestock products, such as eggs and meat. Young people in particular believe that better opportunities await them in cities – “a better life” so to speak. Few of them consider that cities cannot cope with the increasing levels of rural to urban migration. Cities do not have the adequate infrastructure, energy, electricity, water or healthcare, to satisfy demand for jobs, housing and other basic needs. Not to mention the already skyrocketing unemployment figures that can be seen in many urban areas. As most rural to urban migrants are uneducated and unskilled workers they tend to find work in the informal sector that accounts for 93% of all new jobs and 61% of urban employment in Africa. So how can we encourage those young people to stay in rural areas? How do we create viable opportunities?

Providing prospects

Governments must work hard to provide prospects for those living in rural areas. This must include increased public investments in mechanisation, new (digital) technologies and improved infrastructure to facilitate access to markets in nearby towns and cities, access to finance for farmers to grow businesses, education and training and last but not least, the right policy environment that will create a more level playing field between urban and rural areas.

Jeff Attaway 2011 urbanisation blog

While urbanisation is important and often seen as a sign of economic development, we need to carefully consider the implications for rural transformation and for food and nutrition security. Meeting future urban food needs will require sustainable rural strategies and investment in research and innovation, and technology transfer for agricultural production and productivity, to meet changing demand. In countries where urban growth and population growth is high, substantial public, but also private sector investments are needed in the agricultural sector. Appropriate financial instruments need to be developed in view of matching the needs of farmers and rural enterprises concerning access to capital.

Finally, land and tenure rights need to be strengthened. To maintain vibrant rural areas, it is necessary to ensure that value addition is linked to rural areas and owned by farmers. This also applies to peri-urban areas. These areas are often the most desired pieces of land – in close proximity to cities and markets, with easier access to inputs, such as seeds and fertilisers.  A rapid and largely uncontrolled process of urbanisation in many developing countries has increased the pressure on peri-urban landed assets, and led to the spread of peri-urban – and urban – agriculture. In many countries, these fertile agricultural lands are being converted for urban use, depriving members of these previously rural communities of their livelihoods. Weak mechanisms for conserving, controlling or integrating urban agriculture into urban land use and land management systems have allowed urban users to appropriate fertile agricultural land for residential development and undermine the importance of peri-urban areas as a source of food.

With nine months till Habitat III, let’s hope that policy makers build on initiatives, such as the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact, to ensure that the ‘rural voices’ are heard and that the importance of rural areas as ‘bread baskets’ for domestic and international markets is recognised.

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