Africa’s Urban Food Deserts

Urban Forum 2014, 25(2): 143-151.

Since the mid-1990s, the concept of the ‘urban food desert’ has been extensively applied to deprived neighbourhoods in European and North American cities. Food deserts are usually characterised as economically-disadvantaged areas where there is relatively poor access to healthy and affordable food because of the absence of modern retail outlets (such as supermarkets). This idea has not been applied in any systematic way to cities of the Global South and African cities in particular. Yet African cities contain many poor neighbourhoods whose residents are far more food insecure and malnourished than their counterparts in the North. This paper reviews some of the challenges and difficulties of conceiving of highly food insecure areas of African cities as conventional food deserts. At the same time, it argues that the concept, appropriately reformulated to fit African realities of rapid urbanisation and multiple food procurement systems, is a useful analytical tool for African urban researchers and policy-makers. Although supermarkets are becoming an important element of the food environment in African cities, a simple focus on modern retail does not adequately capture complexity of the African food desert. In the African context, the food deserts concept requires a much more sophisticated understanding of over-lapping market and non-market food sources, of the nature and dynamism of the informal food economy, of the inter-household differences that lead to different experiences of food insecurity and of the Africa-specific conditions that lead to compromised diets, undernutrition and social exclusion. The papers in this special issue explore these different aspects of African food deserts defined as poor, often informal, urban neighbourhoods characterised by high food insecurity and low dietary diversity, with multiple market and non-market food sources but variable household access to food.

Jane Battersby and Jonathan Crush