Building sustainable food systems in Africa’s booming cities cannot wait

Building sustainable food systems in Africa’s booming cities cannot wait

This news is part of the following focus area:

Investing now will pay off later: Evidence from Arusha

It is that time of year again… Every year, in September, the African Green Revolution Forum takes place, the most important conference for African agriculture. This forum pulls together influential stakeholders to share actions and lessons learnt to take African agriculture to the next level. With this year’s topic being “feed the cities, grow the continent”, our colleagues are looking forward to sharing their insights on Arusha’s food system and what other cities can learn from it, albeit virtually.

Map by Bieke Olemans

In 2018, Rikolto initiated its Food Smart Cities programme to build bridges for sustainable and fair food in cities. In Africa, we kicked off the work in Arusha, a booming city at the foot of Mount Meru, the smaller brother of Mount Kilimanjaro. The city has almost half a million inhabitants.

The two biggest chunks of work we have been doing in Arusha, together with our partners, are improving the food safety of fresh fruits and vegetables with the Arusha Food Safety Initiative on the one hand, and strengthening Farmer Business Organisations and improving the sustainability of their farming practices on the other hand.

Data-driven action

As to the work of the Arusha Food Safety Initiative, it is too early to measure the impact of the activities. There are however already some noteworthy milestones. In 2019, the Tropical Pesticides Research Institute (TPRI) conducted a food risk assessment of fruit and vegetables in Arusha. They found that 63.2% of fresh fruits and vegetables are biologically contaminated. Furthermore, according to this study, 47.5% of fruits and vegetables have detectable levels of pesticide residues. Nearly three-quarters of these 47.5% exceed safety levels, posing a serious threat to public health. Kapelaka Jones, who conducted the TPRI study, went to see farmers to find out what the most common problems are. Excessive use of pesticides is one of the biggest problems. Kapelaka Jones explains that “Specific products work against specific pests, but farmers sometimes mix two or three products randomly. The mixture may be more toxic and may equally no longer be effective.”

This study forms the basis of the work of the Arusha Food Safety Initiative, which supports farmers in the production of safe food, guides sellers on safety and hygiene standards, informs consumers about health risks, and engages with the national and local government to develop food safety policies. As a next step, we will measure the impact and positive changes that these activities have leveraged.

Challenge accepted! Farming as sustainable business

The Food Smart Cities programme has already made an impact despite only having been set up in Arusha two years ago. We will zoom into three concrete examples where the programme has had an impact.

Firstly, we have seen an increase in the membership of Farmer Business Organisations. This means that a higher number of farmers can reap the benefits and services provided by these organisations. In Arusha, the farmer organisation Muvikiho coached farmers on good agriculture practices to improve sustainability and reduce post-harvest losses.

Secondly, the coaching on good agricultural practices had a huge impact on the share of the income that is derived from quality food sales. According to Walter Seleman, monitoring and evaluation officer at Rikolto in Tanzania, “Quality food is food that is produced in line with procedures that ensure the safety and quality for eating. Examples are quality storage and proper handling to avoid chemical and toxic contamination.” By 2021, we would like to see 90% of the income come from quality produce. As shown in the graph, by 2019, we had already reached a share of 66%, greatly surpassing the mid-term target of 45%.

These positive outcomes are tangible for farmers as they improve their lifestyles. More and more farmers are now being sensitised about food safety. Farmers adopt good agricultural practices in their farming techniques and ensure the production of safe food by having minimal residual levels of pesticides. Together with the increased diversity of crops grown by the farmers (from 1.5 to 2.2 crops per farmer on average), this shows the strength of farmer organisations in making smallholder farmers and whole communities more resilient against challenges like food shortages and climate change.

Monica Ombeni proudly poses with her husband outside of their newly constructed house

Monica Ombeni, a member of the Muvikiho farmer organisation, shares her story: “After the training from Muvikiho and Rikolto, I learnt how to prepare my farm as per expert advice which led to better production. I can now farm throughout the year and with the oncoming green bean harvest, I am expecting one and a half tonnes of beans from the farm with each kilo of beans fetching approximately 1,000 Tanzania shilling   on the local market. I have been able to buy my own piece of land for farming and send my children to school for better-quality education.”

What does the future hold?

The year 2019 has proven the success and impact of the Food Smart Cities programme in Arusha. However, there are still many challenges along the road. Consumers for instance don’t have sufficient information about the importance of food safety, and as a result they lack incentives to pay a higher price for safe fresh fruits and vegetables. Awareness campaigns are therefore crucial but changing the behaviour of consumers is never an easy task. Transforming the food system is after all a complex step by step process that involves many actions and actors.

Building on the positive results in Arusha, we are now expanding this programme to other cities in Africa. Inspired by Arusha, we plan to kick off activities in Ougadougou and Bobo Dioulasso in Burkina Faso, Dakar and Rufisque in Senegal, Kampala and Mbale in Uganda, and Mbeya in Tanzania. We are meeting with their mayors and city councils, visiting markets and farmer organisation, conducting research on urban and peri-urban agriculture, and consulting with partners and other stakeholders to prepare these cities for the Food Smart City adventure! For the Democratic Republic of Congo, the food systems context study will provide guidance for the programme. This study will soon be launched, and three cities are involved: Bunia (in Ituri), Bukavu (in South Kivu) and Kalemie (in Tanganyika).

Now only one question remains: Which city will be the next Food Smart City?

Our global Food Smart Cities initiative

Our global Food Smart Cities initiative

How do we provide quality food to an increasing urban population? And how do we do this in such a way that the effects of climate change are mitigated, the environment is not damaged further and smallholder farmers are valued as key protagonists in sustainable urban food systems? These are some of the critical questions that Rikolto’s Food Smart Cities Cluster is trying to address.

Discover more

Cover picture by Philippe Leyssens