Malawi is among the least urbanised countries. Most Malawians live in rural areas.
Urban poverty may be a secondary policy concern, but it deserves increased attention from policymakers because cities are growing rapidly. In informal settlements, poverty is mostly acute. The urban-rural populations are inter-linked through migration, businesses, and environmental impacts.
As the World Bank states, sustainable and inclusive urbanisation can have many benefits to the whole country. Yet few topics capture the dynamic urban-rural interaction in terms of poverty and livelihoods, especially food security.
Most food in cities is produced in rural areas and delivered by a network of traders. The rural producer benefits through access to urban markets.
But Ceclia Tacoli and Bill Vorley of the UK-based International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) note that “our food security narratives are outdated: “Urban dwellers are not all ‘over-consumers’; rural communities are not exclusively producers.”
Policymakers need to be better informed about the multiple linkages to respond to the challenges on urban food security on Malawi’s development.
What is the role of food producers in urban and peri-urban areas? What is the role of cities in the distribution of food consumed in rural areas?
A gap in thinking about urban food security at the global level creates a blind spot in the development literature that holds back policy development.
However, gaps in Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which expired in 2015, continue into the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The MDGs were ill equipped to address persistent food insecurity in a rapidly urbanising Africa.
Reducing urban poverty was limited to improvement of slums in the Global South and living conditions of100 million slum dwellers.
Food security was reduced to the elimination of hunger, marginalising malnutrition and the cultural significance of food. The development implications of urban poverty and food insecurity were inadequately tackled.
But Dr Jane Battersby, from the University of Cape Town, argues that the lack of integrated thinking about these two issues was a broader problem as the big picture of development was deemed inferior to reaching specific targets.
The SDGs and the “Rome-based” UN food agencies—FAO, Ifad and WFP keep emphasising food availability and rural agrarian economies.
An urban-centric lens on food security suggests that the other dimensions of food security— access, utilisation, stability and safety—are critically important in the context of rapid urbanisation.
Urbanisation is often portrayed as threatening food security—increased demands, inequalities, conflict and erosion of cultures. Cities are reduced to consumer markets. Urbanites are too often seen as privileged groups exploiting the work of farmers.
These perspectives are also evident in development planning by the African Union (AU) and its Agenda 2063.
UN Habitat has traditionally avoided inclusion of urban food security agenda in its programming priorities.
Most recently, the New Urban Agenda (2016-2036), prepared at the third Habitat conference, omits any reference to food security. This mirrors the continued separation of food security from the urban agenda. Even the African regional declaration for Habitat III and Agenda 63 do not explicitly name food as an urban challenge or development priority.
The gap in understanding of urban food security internationally should not limit the policy innovations of Malawian leaders.Malawian cities are still small by global standards, but urban poverty will become more complex unless action is taken.
Resolving the urban food policy gap in a way that reflects Malawi’s environmental, economic, demographic and cultural context can bring wide-ranging benefits to the whole country. n