The Food Desert as a Concept and Policy Tool in African Cities: An Opportunity and a Risk
The idea that food insecurity can be resolved by increasing the presence of supermarkets has been gaining traction in African cities and has recently gained political traction in Africa. This paper interrogates the potential value and risks associated with the adoption of the discourse of the food desert in the African context. The paper draws on findings from a households survey, neighborhoods-scale food retail mapping and surveys, and city-wide supermarket mapping conducted in Cape Town (South Africa), Kisumu (Kenya), and Kitwe (Zambia). Following a discussion of why the concept is gaining traction, the paper identifies false assumptions associated with the food desert framing in Africa, namely: supermarkets provide better access to healthier food, low-income areas have poor access to healthy food; and food security can be reduced to economic and physical accessibility. The paper concludes that although the food desert concept may be valuable for African researchers to provoke debates about systemic inequality, the food desert policy narrative should be rejected as it is ill-informed by the lived experiences of food insecurity in African cities and may promote policy interventions that erode rather than enhance the capacity of the food system to meet the food security needs of African urbanites.