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“Food is not a peculiar challenge in times of crisis. Food is the common crisis”

TMG side event at ARFSD 2023 advocates for valorizing the informal sector as a critical lever for transforming food systems across African cities

by Sanelisiwe Siyotula-Tshappe | 2023-03-10

“Food is not a peculiar challenge in times of crisis. Food is the common crisis”

Urbanization is one of the most profound developments encountered by the African continent in the 21st century (OECD/UN ECA/AfDB, 2022). As reported by Africa’s Urbanisation Dynamics Report 2022, since 1990, the number of cities in Africa has doubled from 3,300 to 7,600 – with a cumulative population of 500 million. The informal sector is a crucial component of this trend, contributing between 25 and 65 percent of GDP and accounting for 30 and 90 percent of total non-agricultural employment (Allard, 2017). Despite this, official responses to deepening food insecurity and related crises continually fail to recognize the crucial role of the informal sector.

In the framework of the regional review of progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as well as Africa’s Agenda 2063, TMG and partners convened a side event on 26 February, ahead of the Ninth session of the Africa RegionalForum on Sustainable Development (ARFSD9). The aim was to highlight insights from the scoping phase of the Urban Food Futures programme that can inform review of progress towards SDG 11 (sustainable cities and communities), one of five SDGs under review at this year’s High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF). Panelists were drawn from TMG’s partner research and community-based advocacy networks: Gareth Haysom, African Centre for Cities; Nomonde Buthelezi, Food Agency Cape Town;Jane Weru, Muungano wa Wanavijiji; and Apsatou Diallo (Foyer Fama, Ouagadougou). Further policy insights were provided by Joseph Muturi, Slum Dwellers International, and Tamsin Faragher, City of Cape Town.

Food as a site of prevailing social, political, and environmental struggle

Although the informal sector accounts for more than half of all economic activities across African cities (Basu & Chau, 2015), there is a lack of consensus on the social and economic contributions of the sector, especially in relation to filling critical gaps in food security. The work done by three of the panelists, Nomonde Buthelezi, Apsatou Diallo and Jane Weru is illustrative of this lack. Across all three cities, in times of crisis and beyond, the panellists shared how their community-based organizations provide food and leverage this provision as a platform to engage and resolve ongoing struggles within their communities.

In Cape Town, for example, FACT’s food dialogues have facilitated the evolution of soup kitchens – mostly operated by women using their own resources to address growing hunger in their communities – into spaces where women and the youth convene to mobilize their voices in activism toward social justice. Through Foyer FAMA, a community kitchen in Ouagadougou, food has become a situational response to the security and humanitarian crisis Burkina Faso has faced since 2015. And, in the Mukuru informal settlement in Nairobi, Muungano wa Wanavijiji has mobilized efforts to tackle hunger in the numerous informal schools, which are not covered by government-initiated school feeding programmes. In this way, food across all three cities plays a crucial role in providing low-income households with more than just food and nutrition but also security when communities are beset with a myriad of challenges by positively influencing the availability, access, use, and stability of nutritious food.

Despite these positive contributions, all three panelists reiterated that their contributions remain unrecognized within local and national food systems planning and implementation processes. Too often, local authorities still associate the informal sector with low productivity, poor governance, a pursuit to operate outside of regulations, and poverty and income inequality. It is a situation, that has elicited consistent neglect and underscores an urgent need to transform the relationship between the urban and informal in local communities and local authorities.

Inclusive governance is the high hurdle toward meaningful transformation

Food systems across Africa and worldwide continue to feel the impact of multiple crises (Pais, Jayaram, & van Wamelen, 2020; Clapp, J., & Moseley, W. G. 2020). Even before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic (Batterby, 2017a) local authorities’ decision-making processes and policy frameworks were limited in their ability to adequately mitigate social, environmental, and political issues and challenges that played out within the context of food. The TMG discussions made a strong link between the food security deficit across African cities and continuing oversight or misrepresentation of the role of the informal sector. As Gareth Haysom emphasized, this oversight too often disconnects the mandates prioritized by both global and national food system agendas from the informal sector. The discussion also highlighted that working with the informal sector can contribute directly to reimagining and co-developing more resilient systems. However, this requires going beyond highlighting community level experiences and contributions – as called for in many global and national policy processes - but keeping them at the centre in all governance and policy actions.

Cumulatively, the various contributions placed a spotlight on how misrepresentation and misunderstanding of the informal sector directly undermines the resilience of Africa’s food systems in times of crises and beyond. As noted by Gareth Haysom, informal sector contributions are too often approached through narrow and stereotypical lenses of development deficit, which he characterized as a Northern or European gaze. This gaze often misconstrues and isolates the valuable contributions of the informal sector from development agendas, global, regional, and national governance systems, and resource allocation. For Nomonde Buthelezi and Jane Weru, this is a particularly condescending approach that too often leads to a temporary appreciation of the role of so-called informal organizations as a shock absorber for society in times of crises. This recognition is quickly forgotten once public attention to the crisis has passed. However, as Buthelezi repeatedly stressed, “…food for us is not a peculiar challenge in times of crisis. Food is the common crisis.”

Valorizing the informal sector as a critical lever

The recurring message across the ARFSD 2023 was that the African continent needs to catch up on track toward meeting both the global goals captured in the SDGs and the Agenda 2063. The UN Deputy Secretary general, Amina Mohamed, declared that it was only through African led solutions that global and regional goals could be met. TMG’s event echoed this call, by making a strong case for valorizing the many contributions those perceived as marginal make despite their persistent neglect. As TMGs collaborative scoping process found, when stakeholders work together to harness the strengths of groups that are often invisible in urban planning and governance processes, urban food and nutrition security can be developed more adequately from the perspective of those who experience these realities the most.

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