Picture: iSTOCK
Picture: iSTOCK

With the rapid growth of Africa’s urban population has come an explosion of informal settlements on the fringes of most cities. These settlements are marked by high rates of formal unemployment, grinding poverty, heavy reliance on the informal economy, poor health outcomes, very limited basic services provision, and heightened vulnerability to climate change. 

They are also areas with high levels of individual, household and community food insecurity. They are not, however, food deprived. The proximity of supermarkets and open markets, and a vibrant informal food sector, all make food available. The problem is accessibility. Households are unable to access food in sufficient quantity and quality, and with sufficient regularity.

Recent studies of food insecurity in African cities have suggested that low-income residential areas, and informal settlements in particular, can be viewed as “urban food deserts”. Food deserts are conventionally defined as urban areas where residents do not have access to an affordable and healthy diet, which is certainly an apt description of informal settlements in African cities. In much of the literature on food deserts in European and North American cities, however, it is the inaccessibility or absence of supermarkets that is the primary determinant of whether a residential neighbourhood is considered a food desert or not.

While few, if any, informal settlements in African cities have supermarkets within their borders, this conceptualisation is inappropriate for Africa for at least three reasons.

First, residents of informal settlements rely on a variety of informal market and non-market sources of food both within and outside their residential areas. Supermarkets are far from being the only, or even the main, source of food in African cities. Where they do exist they tend to be located in more affluent parts of cities.

The obvious conclusion is that supermarkets may be making more food available, but they are not making it more accessible, or accessible enough, to improve food security

Second, research by the African Food Security Urban Network (Afsun) shows that upwards of 90% of the residents of poor areas of many Southern African cities buy food at supermarkets, despite the distance. The typical purchasing pattern is to travel to supermarkets to purchase staples in bulk (especially cereals such as maize flour and rice) once a month. In other words, supermarket patronage meets a basic daily staple food need but does not necessarily lead to a more diverse or nutritious diet.

Third, the association of food deserts with the absence of supermarkets ignores the fact that most African cities have vibrant informal food sectors. Households in informal settlements tend to rely on informal food vendors for most of their immediate food needs.

Supermarket expansion

SA’s supermarket sector has expanded rapidly into the rest of Africa since the end of apartheid. Namibia is one of the major target countries. With the geographical proximity, it was unnecessary for supermarkets to build local supply chains from scratch. Instead, its cities were incorporated into existing supply chains, becoming retail nodes for large-scale SA agricultural producers and food processors. The levels of supermarket concentration in Windhoek are very similar to those in similar-sized SA cities.

Windhoek has undergone a supermarket revolution in the last two decades and there are now more than 30 supermarkets — mostly owned by SA companies — scattered throughout the city, which has an estimated population of 430,000 and is growing fast. While most supermarkets are in higher income areas, there are many budget outlets. What unites these is their spatial location in proximity to the informal settlements and the underlying corporate strategy to explicitly target low-income consumers.

A city-wide household survey conducted for the Hungry Cities Partnership — an international network of partner organisations focused on urban food systems — found that supermarkets in Windhoek are patronised by virtually all households, followed by markets, small shops and street vendors.

The 2016 survey was analysed to examine the current state of the city’s urban food deserts, with a particular focus on the food-purchasing behaviour of households in the city’s informal settlements.

The residents of Africa’s informal settlements identify putting daily food on the table as one of their most significant challenges

The survey’s findings are extremely instructive, particularly when compared to Afsun’s 2008 research in Windhoek. Food insecurity had increased in the city’s informal settlements from 89% to 92% and dietary diversity had fallen significantly. The obvious conclusion is that supermarkets may be making more food available, but they are not making it more accessible, or accessible enough, to improve food security.

The residents of Africa’s informal settlements identify putting daily food on the table as one of their most significant challenges. The growing presence of supermarkets targeting lower income areas and a busy informal food sector ensure that food is available and spatially accessible. It is simply not accessible in sufficient quantity, of sufficient variety, and with sufficient regularity.

While the informal food sector is complex with many different types of mobile and fixed enterprises, one of the features of many African cities is the clustering of food vendors in marketplaces. These marketplaces are an important element of the food system in many cities and play an important role in improving access to nutritious foods by the urban poor. They also provide informal employment opportunities. Understanding food markets is of critical importance to urban food systems, nutrition and food security.

The visibility of food in African cities may be partially responsible for official perceptions that there is no crisis and, indeed, no food deserts. Most African cities lack holistic and systematic food security policy plans that would help address the problem.

• Crush is the 2018/19 university research professor at Canada’s Wilfrid Laurier University and director of the Hungry Cities Partnership, the African Food Security Urban Network and the Southern African Migration Programme.