Politics of Poverty

Taking on urban food systems, one hero at a time

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At Jero Farm outside Kampala, Uganda, owners raise vegetables and livestock and train women and young people on how to practice sustainable agroecology in and around the city. Photo: Oxfam

An initiative to create equitable and resilient urban food systems—led by women and young people—is taking hold across the globe.

Urban food insecurity and hidden hunger are on the rise. Many people living in and around cities have migrated from the countryside—some to escape conflict and some in search of economic opportunities—but find themselves barely able to put food on the table on the income of an urban day laborer.

Why do we call it “hidden hunger”? Because we’re talking about a phenomenon not captured in the global data and policies on food insecurity—in part because urban populations have relatively easy access to food that is rich in calories but poor in nutrients, so a person can be simultaneously overweight and malnourished.

Researchers from Oxfam and partner organizations in Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda, Colombia, and the Philippines are documenting some of the painful realities of urban hunger in a series of reports that identify gaps, barriers, and opportunities. A few highlights: the Uganda report, which has been published, highlights the barriers to and opportunities for youth and women to engage in food production and entrepreneurship in the cities of Kampala and Soroti. The Kenya report will document lack of dietary diversity. The Nigeria report will identify potential value chains that could improve access to more and better food. The Philippines report will document hunger reaching historic peaks. And the Colombia report will promote short supply chains that can move food from peri-urban areas to city markets.

Inflation—which has been exacerbated by extreme weather triggered by climate change, COVID-19-related disruptions, and more recently by shortages created by the war in Ukraine—is a major driver of hunger in both urban and rural areas. Years of failed rains in Kenya have contributed to a food inflation rate of nearly 13 percent in 2022; the rate in neighboring Uganda is a staggering 23 percent, due in part to the impact of COVID-19 and disruptions to global food-supply chains. In all the countries we studied, soaring prices are pushing families deeper into poverty and creating huge inequities.

No time to waste

The solution is to build equitable, resilient food systems that enable even the lowest-income families to access nourishing food.

And there is no time to waste. In 2022, Nairobi’s metropolitan population was 6.2 million; it is projected to reach 10 million by 2038. About 80 percent of the population is under the age of 35. Uganda has also witnessed rapid urban population growth—seven percent annually—and young people comprise more than 70 percent of the population.

But the suffering is happening now.

A team of Oxfam staff and partners recently visited some of the informal communities where the research had taken place. We met with residents who told us they are eating meals that consist only of the corn dish ugali, and skipping some meals altogether.

Urban food hives

Solutions are emerging from the struggling communities themselves.

With support from Oxfam and partner organizations, people living in and around major cities in five countries are linking their businesses together to reshape the food system in ways designed to improve their communities’ access to healthy, affordable food.

Foodpreneurs, including food growers, processors, distributors, waste managers, recyclers, vendors, and consumer advocates, are forming networks we call urban food hives, where together they can solve problems, exchange knowledge and best practices, and advocate for change.

In the process, they are demonstrating how to grow food using agroecology and organic farming methods, how to reduce waste through circular economies, and how to use digital technologies to market and distribute produce—while creating job opportunities for young people and women.

Meet the foodpreneurs

The foodpreneurs engaged in the urban food hives represent a range of backgrounds, perspectives, and motivations, but there’s one thing they have in common: a passion for good food—food that is healthy and affordable, and grown in ways that respect the Earth.

In one of the low-income neighborhoods of Kampala, foodpreneur Nakazibwe Liz showed us around an urban garden she and other youth leaders are cultivating and took us to their Internet café. The garden and café serve as platforms for sensitizing the surrounding community about food entrepreneurship, sanitation, nutrition, and the impact of climate change; they are also places where young people are learning about and organizing food-related businesses. Some told us their experience with the group helped them decide to study food and agriculture. Many no longer perceive agriculture and food businesses as the work of their parents’ generation; they see a path to earning a living while contributing to the health and nourishment of their Kampala communities.

On the outskirts of the city we visited Jero Farm, a social enterprise owned by Mr. and Mrs. Mugisha. They raise vegetables, medicinal herbs, and livestock, and they aspire to train 5,000 women and young people on how to practice sustainable agroecology in and around the city. They also serve as aggregators, providing local farmers with a means of getting their produce to the city markets. And they open their arms to visitors: demonstrating thoughtful farming practices is an important part of their mission.

In Nairobi, we visited the farm of a woman named Sylvia, who 13 years ago started growing fruits and vegetables in her backyard and noticed the fresh produce was improving the health of her family. Now, she raises livestock and organic vegetables and fruit on 20 acres of land outside the city, and helps other organic farmers market their goods through her store and an online platform called Sylvia’s Basket. "My goal,” she said, “is to make organic food affordable to everyone in Nairobi and throughout Kenya.”

We also met with Kaari Abidan from the Nairobi City Council, and a group of 100 young people—nearly half of them women—that she supports in an informal settlement in Nairobi City. They have received training from Oxfam, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, Nairobi’s city government, and others on transforming food waste into fertilizer, aging avocados into avocado oil, and other refuse into briquettes to use as cooking fuel—reducing waste and pollution while generating incomes. “If we could bring everything that we are doing here to other marketplaces,” said youth trainer Ruth Korogocho, “Nairobi would be the cleanest and healthiest city. And we would have more jobs, too!”

Taking action

Transforming urban food systems will require strong partnerships, and investment on the part of governments, donors, civil-society organizations, and the private sector.

Here are few actions city governments and their partners could take:

  1. Invest in urban farms, to enable food production, entrepreneurship, and learning.
  2. Encourage landowners to lease farmland to young people and women engaged in urban food hives.
  3. Design and implement a campaign to educate consumers on the importance of buying healthy, environmentally sustainable food.
  4. Work with women and young foodpreneurs, civil society organizations, consumers, and investors to create and implement an urban food systems policy and framework.
  5. With the private sector and civil society groups, set up an innovation fund to address challenges related to infrastructure, storage, green energy, e-commerce, transportation, and foodpreneur access to financial services.

The potential benefits of the transformation are huge—improved public health, environmental protection, employment for young people and women, and greater resilience in the face of the climate crisis to name a few. Oxfam and the local organizations we work with welcome the chance to join forces with communities and their food heroes to help make it happen.

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