What do food systems have to do with urbanisation?

Published on 10 April 2017

Globally, more people live in cities than in rural areas and this number is estimated to increase to 66 percent of the world’s population by 2050. This means that every farmer will need to be producing enough food not just for herself and her family but also enough to feed three urban families. With this as the context, last month experts gathered together at the Cracking the Nut Conference: Reinforcing Urban Food Systems to reinforce Urban Demand, to discuss some of the challenges, and potential solutions to ensure global food security within the context of urbanisation.

Photo Credit: [Cropped] A Crowded Market in Dhaka, Bangladesh by International Food Policy Research Institute / 2010

Photo Credit: [Cropped] A Crowded Market in Dhaka, Bangladesh by International Food Policy Research Institute / 2010: https://flic.kr/p/8puwFf

Engaging with the ‘hidden middle’

As populations become increasingly urbanised, supply chains are longer and “the hidden middle” of the chains increases in importance, as highlighted by the conference keynote speaker, Dr Thomas Reardon. Projects and programmes aiming to increase food security usually focus on increasing agricultural productivity, but most of the value created by the food system is post farm gate (50 to 70 per cent).

We need to start engaging and understanding the middle more, and the opportunities these longer food chains present, particularly for local small and medium companies and the informal economy. However, he also cautioned how longer supply chains are more vulnerable to shocks including climatic and socio-political as well as food safety challenges and there needs to be an increasing focus on reducing shocks to food systems.

Ensuring food security for urban populations does not necessarily lead to improved nutrition security. Available data shows urbanisation is leading to a “nutrition transition”, where people have less time to cook and more disposable income, and are thus relying on more processed foods. This is leading to increasing intakes of calories often from sugars and fats. Urbanisation is now linked to an increased incidence of non-communicable diseases including diabetes and cardiovascular disease, co-existing in some contexts with high rates of undernutrition.

Markets for nutrition

At the conference IDS presented a conceptual framework, developed through research on agricultural value chains in both Sub-Saharan Africa (Ghana, Nigeria, and Tanzania) and South Asia (Bangladesh, India and Pakistan). This framework helps understand how to make agricultural value chains and markets more efficient when delivering nutritious foods. It considers the “missing middle” of the value chains in relation to linking markets and value chain actors, and understanding the informal sector and SMEs, to effectively deliver nutritious products to those most at risk of undernutrition including the poor, pregnant women and young children. The framework assesses both the consumer (households in which the target population group resides choosing to eat the target food) and the supply (there must be aligned interests for actors, private and public, to produce and distribute the products) side of the value chain.

Participants of the conference had the opportunity to work through a number of case studies and consider the steps, activities, assumptions and challenges of engaging with the private sector to deliver nutritious foods.

We shared three cases:

  1. Production of biofortified cassava in Nigeria
  2. Partnership between Grameen and DANONE to sell fortified yogurts in Bangladesh
  3. USAID project to support small and medium mills fortify maize with micronutrients in Tanzania.

The challenges which emerged varied, such as the trade-offs between maintaining a low price to make the product affordable despite having high distribution and marketing costs; trying to equally distribute incentives and value across the value chain; or the low capacity of small scale mills to adopt the new fortification technology, combined with low monitoring enforcement.

Understanding how markets and value chains operate is critical to establishing effective connections between agriculture and nutrition.

We hope you – practitioner, donor or policymaker – can use this framing as a tool to better design a policy or project, around how to engage effectively with the private sector to deliver nutritious foods. This approach will allow you to consider the implications of your intervention on the larger system in which the value chain operates, supporting you to better identify key areas or requirements for intervention, from better coordination, to improved targeting of certain products or nutritional awareness campaigns.

Join our online discussion to share findings from our research in South Asia, with specific recommendations and examples. The discussion is on 25-26 April; so RSVP by 17th April to confirm your place.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


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