In this third part of urban poverty series, EPHRAIM NYONDO seeks expert opinion on what Malawi needs to do to deal with urban food security.
Renowned researcher on Malawi’s urban poverty Dr Liam John Riley says many of Malawi’s food insecure population live in urban areas.
Riley, who teaches at Canada’s University of Western Ontario, but has done extensive research on Malawi’s urban poverty, says the key challenge facing such people is how to access food from the markets and supermarkets.
Some urban residents with little income, he says, are fortunate enough to have land for cultivation and the time and resources to produce food.
However, he argues, the majority of these urbanites rely on the money they can earn through casual work and small informal businesses to buy food for their households.
The challenge is that when maize prices rise, households immediately feel the pinch and levels of insecurity rise.
That is according to a 2013 study ‘The State of Food Insecurity in Blantyre City, Malawi,’ by Chancellor College researchers Peter Mvula and Asiyati Chiweza.
Generally, with Malawi’s rapid urbanisation—estimated at 14 percent—which leads to a rise in urban informal settlements, Riley says ‘there is a need to further understand the phenomenon of urban food insecurity to help develop policies that addresses the problem’.
However, according to Mvula and Chiweza, the challenge is that government’s food security policy focus tends to focus on the rural areas.
The tragedy with such a policy, notes the two, is that Malawi is urbanising at a rapid rate and those who move to the cities do not automatically become food secure.
Development researcher Chimwemwe Hara concurs with Mvula and Chiweza arguing such a policy position is worrisome as it makes it unlikely for other actors to do something about the plight of the urban poor.
“The urban poor usually subsist on menial jobs from which they get a very low income on which survival is cumbersome.
“This notwithstanding, the urban poor face another problem which is high food prices which makes it difficult for them to purchase enough food or nutritious food to consume,” he says.
The problem with this kind of policy approach, adds Hara, is that the challenges facing the urban poor are not given adequate attention.
So what needs to be done?
For a start, government, as the number one actor in food security, should change its perception of the urban poor, says Hara, a development researcher with Stephanos Foundation.
He says government should do away with the mentality of seeing the urban poor as well off.
In addition, he adds, government should appreciate that the urban poor face additional problems such as high food prices which their rural friends do not have to endure.
“Government ought to bring urban food security in focus so that other actors such as non-governmental organisations can do the same and come up with requisite interventions,” he says.
This, he notes, would ensure that humanitarian—as well as social protection mechanisms government develops to address food insecurity—must take on board the urban poor.
Hara also proposes urban agriculture as an option.
However, he argues that to use urban agriculture as an additional source of food supply, policy makers need to pay attention to the range of variables that impinge upon it.
“Policy-makers need to consider the large population of poor urban farmers who are sidelined in the national subsidised agriculture input and extension programmes implemented by governments,” he says.
Hara further says that local and national governments should also provide an appropriate structure of incentives to promote urban agriculture, including policies aimed at stimulating more effective market chains.
“This can only happen if urban agriculture is viewed as an integral part of a broad national food security policy,” he says.
On his part, Riley says there are short and long-term ways of addressing the problem of urban food insecurity.
“In the short term, cities can ensure that markets are adequately serving the population and take initiatives to promote employment and food production opportunities in the cities,” he says.
He adds that policy initiatives that address the non-food costs of urban life, such as housing and water, will also help.
In the long term there is a need for better planning of urban food systems, he says. He notes that there are potential benefits in terms of connecting rural producers with urban consumers by considering the multiple actors in the food system such as processors, distributers, vendors and consumers.
“As Malawi continues to develop in a proud tradition of an agricultural nation, it is important to consider the ways in which a Malawian urban future can be different from other models of urbanisation by embracing a food-first approach to imagining healthy and sustainable cities,” he says.
Mvula and Chiweza, however, reason that food security in African urban areas is concerned with the ability of individuals to secure sufficient income to be able to afford food and other basic necessities. This, they note, is mostly dependent on wages and prices—as opposed to physical and climatic factors that traditionally dominate rural food security issues—or lack of entitlements to food.
The urban poor in Blantyre, for instance, utilise a variety of livelihood strategies in addition to formal employment, they argue.
These, they say, include marketing, casual labour and self-employment.
“The cash economy represents the main source of food, while food aid and social networks play a marginal role.
“The illness or death of an adult household member who either used to provide household labour or brought income from work is therefore likely to have a major negative impact on almost all food security indicators,” they argue.
Mvula and Chiweza also recommend that instead of, or in addition to, encouraging urban agriculture, the government and urban local authorities should pay greater attention to the barriers to a sufficient and nutritious diet: high unemployment, limited income opportunities and food prices. n