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Food system transformation requires a compass: Ours is the progressive realization of the right to food in low-income urban settings

TMG’s Urban Food Futures programme publishes its scoping report

by Nicole Paganini | 2023-03-22

Food system transformation requires a compass: Ours is the progressive realization of the right to food in low-income urban settings
An informal food market in Nairobi. Photo credit: Patrick Njoroge

After one and a half years of intensive collaboration with partners in Cape Town, Nairobi and Ouagadougou, TMG’s Urban Food Futures programme has published its Scoping Report, Pathways to Transform Urban Food Systems. Setting out at the height of the Covid-19 crisis, our work was driven by one overarching question: how have low-income communities in the three cities responded to the impact of the pandemic on food security? And, subsequently, what can we learn from immediate community responses to design pathways for transformation of urban food systems?

To achieve the right to food, it is essential to address the specific context of food insecurity – including the underlying social, economic and political dynamics. This entails, among other explorations, examining past, present and future trends. TMG’s Urban Food Futures programme does this by making connections between global and national normative frameworks (the imperative to realize the right to food) and the governance context at the local level (including local knowledge systems, social networks, political dynamics, and other factors that determine the engagement of different actors to drive food system transformation).

Over the last few months, as we have taken stock of the research outcomes together with our partners Muungano Alliance, Miramar College, Food Agency Cape Town (FACT), and the African Centre for Cities. One overarching conclusion is that without taking both the global and local perspectives into account we run the risk of not matching food system interventions to local needs, or failing the test of proof of concept. For our methodology, this implies on the one hand working with people who have lived experience in low-income urban areas, as well as their representative organizations and relevant government agencies.

From pilots to scalable innovations

Proof of concept is at the heart of our work. Pilots that partners tested during the scoping phase are gaining traction. In Nairobi, Miramar established a controlled environment agriculture (CEA) greenhouse as a demonstration unit to supply the school feeding programme of Reuben Centre, a community space in Mukuru. A year later, the greenhouse remains operational and an increasing number of visitors continue to come to learn from our experience. Similarly, the Mukuru community kitchen built by Muungano following FACT’s Cape Town model, is now generating an income for a local women’s group. With the commissioning of the first of 17 mega kitchens promised by incoming Nairobi Governor Johnson Sakaja, the County’s Nutrition Unit team has turned to us to ask how to best plan a school feeding system for informal schools, which are currently not included in the official feeding programme.

In Cape Town, food dialogues coordinated by FACT continue to receive wide attention and communities’ priorities for food system change are increasingly discussed with government actors. However, one of the key lessons learned from this process is that deliberate efforts are needed to destigmatize the shame that people feel about their own hunger. Moreover, when government fails to act on food-related challenges these obligations get passed to society. This is clear from the hundreds of community kitchens run mainly through women volunteers, who are also often forced to contribute their own resources to keep the kitchens running.

TMG’s Urban Food Futures consortium at their partner meeting in February in Cape Town. Photo credit: Natalie Nolte
TMG’s Urban Food Futures consortium at their partner meeting in February in Cape Town. Photo credit: Natalie Nolte

The path to transformation

To achieve food system transformation, therefore, we need to re-politicize issues around food and hunger. While celebrating individual successes, the impact we want to see goes beyond the single project. One of our main objectives for the second phase of the programme is to establish “Urban Nutrition Hubs” as spaces for learning, dialogue, and piloting of innovation. Using a living lab approach, the Hubs will serve as spaces for co-creating knowledge with local communities and other actors, and driving the implementation of our programmatic pathways as we continue to pilot and link multiple local innovations with municipal action.

More broadly, we view the informal sector, its economy and social capital, as a solution space for addressing current global trends arising amidst a multitude of crises impacting food security in urban Africa. The informal sector shapes cities and provides livelihoods for urban dwellers. Indeed, 60% of African women work informally (UN Habitat, 2020). From Cape Town and Nairobi, we have witnessed the importance of informal traders’ contributions to food availability for the urban poor. Often, the informal sector is labelled as illegal or criminalized. However, we consider the informal sector to be an important source of innovative solutions that directly respond to the needs of communities in low-income areas. By focusing on this sector, therefore, we can learn how low-income urban communities bounce back during crises, build networks, and jointly create enabling environments that reduce the risks associated with informality. In this way, we can also learn how to recognize the contributions of the sector as a space to innovate and strengthen critical social capital during, and beyond crises.

To achieve food and nutrition security in urban areas, food and nutrition policies must be fundamentally rethought from the point of view of the needs of those who are experiencing food and nutrition insecurity. Food security policies tend to neglect cities as a distinct entity requiring distinct policies, and they tend to focus on increasing food production. This negates the recommendations arising from a range of findings that show that food insecurity is often tied to income, gender, and social status. By shifting policy orientation to the consumer, we can address the rural and productionist bias of many food security policies. At the end of the scoping phase, we hosted a Policy Event in Cape Town end of last year and we are counting the days to welcome government officials, our partners and food system actors in Nairobi. Those events mark the end of the scoping phase and our transition to action. Approaching change from a rights-based approach therefore emphasizes the search for innovation that go beyond immediate needs and coping to crises and address questions of, for example, accountability of governments or representation of people in vulnerable positions in policy processes. Both Kenya and South Africa, and their cities and counties, further have additional constitutional mandates to proactively govern urban food systems.

A working session at an Urban Food Futures policy event. Photo credit: Sanelisiwe Nyaba
A working session at an Urban Food Futures policy event. Photo credit: Sanelisiwe Nyaba

Our work going forward will continue to foster learning between communities and the policy sphere to ensure that the five interconnected transformation pathways we present in the scoping report can jointly contribute towards the state’s obligations to support the progressive realization of the Right to Food.

Download the full report here: Pathways to Transform Urban Food Systems: Progressively realising the right to food through a strengthened informal sector in Cape Town and Nairobi

Edited by Wangu Mwangi

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