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2.1 - The magnitude of urbanization and its repercussions
2.2 - Poverty and living standards
2.3 - Socio-economic and political instability

2.1 - The magnitude of urbanization and its repercussions

2.1.1 - Is there a new urban consumer?
2.1.2 - Enlarged distribution networks

In 1960, West Africa’s urban population was 14% of the total. Today it has risen to 40% and is forecast to rise to 63% by the year 2020. However, there are major differences between countries. Mali, Niger and Chad had urban populations of around 15-20% in 1990 while Senegal and Nigeria had already reached 50%. But whatever the country, the increase will be steep, around 4-6% per year between now and 2020.

Urban growth is a powerful factor for development but over-rapid urban growth causes instability. Above a certain threshold, urban growth eventually leads to social exclusion and creates increasingly more resistant pockets of poverty. In the long term, these pockets of poverty become virtually impossible to deal with, and are the cause of insecurity and high social costs which may even outweigh the urban achievements. How can towns and cities reasonably absorb so many population flows and provide employment for them? It would appear reasonable to try to curb migration from the countryside, which only accentuates the gravity of urban problems. But this can only be done if innovative agricultural development policies are introduced. Urban poverty is fuelled by rural poverty, just as urban progress is fuelled by progress in the countryside.

Five strategies have been followed in different African countries to try to stem this influx of migrants: strict control over banning immigration to the towns or banning it altogether (the Republic of South Africa); forcible return to the rural regions (Mozambique); scattered urbanization (Nigeria); decentralization by promoting medium-size towns and by developing the regions (Zambia, Algeria), and creating new capital cities (Nigeria, Tanzania). None of these scenarios has really resolved the problem once and for all. One of the most effective and sustainable solutions would be to restore the pleasure of living the countryside. By reappraising and enhancing farm work, little by little the rural exodus would slow down.

There are many causes of this accelerated urbanization process (Pérennes, 1994):

More often still, urban growth of this kind is not controlled, and takes place haphazardly and illegally. The main consequences are an unhealthy environment, air and water pollution, the accumulation of waste, increased insecurity and rising crime rates. Governments are finding it difficult to play their proper role under these conditions. This negative image of the towns in the developing countries causes people to forget that in the West the towns have played a major locomotive role by fostering trade, making it possible to collect and disseminate information, acting as a place for the accumulation of capital and wealth, and that towns have had a dynamizing effect on the countryside. In Africa, the towns appear to be playing the reverse role: they are draining energy from the countryside. The younger and more highly skilled people are moving into the towns. But this underemployed and scarcely productive mass of people demand high-cost urban developments, that are poorly managed and rapidly deteriorate. Urban development is taking the place of the rural infrastructure that is an essential precondition if the economy is to take off.

The rise in the urban populations has boosted the development of towns and satellite districts (Pikine, and Grand Yoff in Senegal) increasingly further away from the town centres and the large traditional markets. This is causing a spontaneous mushrooming of local markets with all the problems they entail. Furthermore, because of the distance between home and the workplace, and the difficulties of using public transport, the problem of the mid-day meal for the majority of wage- and non-wage earners has increased considerably.

Urban growth only brings problems with it. Its acceleration is a source of concern because the increasing flow of goods must be rapidly diverted towards these concentration points, and internal distribution in the towns has to be organized. Yet its also represents an opportunity to give fresh impetus to agriculture and trade, because it guarantees a stable market. The former scattered and fluctuating rural demand was incapable of generating any structural effects. But today there are guaranteed outlets for food of stable quality and quantity, and these opportunities are increasing. Without the market, the system cannot be galvanized.

2.1.1 - Is there a new urban consumer?

As far as diet is concerned, urban consumers remain comparatively static. One of the main reasons is that urbanization is taking place too rapidly. The present town dwellers are only first or second generation. Social and cultural changes, as far as diet and feeding patterns are concerned, take a long time to come about. Several socio-cultural models have been seen to coexist in some African towns (Bricas, 1996):

The urban population is not segmented between these different models. Every individual uses them all, rotating according to the time of day or the week.

There are varying positions and opinions regarding the proportion of imported food in the diet. Some say that in the urban regions traditional food and beverage consumption and distribution is declining. However, the composition of the diet still partially resembles the diet eaten in the rural areas. Urbanization is limited to developing eating habits based on imported products (bread, biscuits, confectionery, beer and non-alcoholic beverages). Most of these foodstuffs are now being produced locally. The raw materials for them are mostly foreign imports. Why do townspeople need imported food? The urban consumers want food that is easy to prepare in order to save time and fuel. Poor town dwellers want cheap food. Urban food policies have been based on imported products which are often cheaper than local products, and on food aid. Lastly, the expatriate communities and an emerging middle class have created a demand for processed products. Other authors have found that local fresh food forms an important part of the diet, but with only a small proportion of imported products (particularly at Cotonou). Local processed products are frequently adapted to meet the needs of urban life (Bricas & Thuiller-Cerdan, 1996).

Industrially-produced food has also been introduced into the traditional eating patterns of town dwellers with medium to high incomes. At Ouagadougou, for example, food accounts for a major share (averaging 40%) of total cash expenditure (Savané, 1992). Expenditure on industrial foods accounts for 16% of the total food bill, which is quite considerable. Food processing costs are also high, considering that water and fuel costs account for as much as 18% of the amount spent on food. Purchases of products to make sauces (meat, fish, vegetables, spices) are high in urban areas. Bread has now become an integral part of the daily diet of urban families. But the share of bread in the diet depends very much on income differences.

Eating out is typically linked to the urban situation. It is the low-income households that eat out most, because they do not have the means of preparing three meals at home. Eating out includes full meals taken outside the home, and snacks eaten between meals in the streets.

One of the features of the urban food demand is that it is very largely based on non-traded food. It seems that over 20% of urban food passes through these grassroots circuits (Bricas & Thuiller-Cerdan, 1996; Egal, 1997), using urban redistribution channels thanks to urban farming, and the fact that town dwellers maintain links with their family members still living in the country.

Consumers in urban and peri-urban zones are, however, dependent on locally prepared food which can be bought on market stands or in the street. However, the nutritional quality and the hygiene levels of this food is dubious.

Physical access to food is possible virtually everywhere except in a number of marginalized zones because of a lack of infrastructure (north and eastern Burkina Faso) and in the rainy season (in northern Côte d’Ivoire). Surveys carried out at Dakar, Abidjan or Ouagadougou (Savané, 1992) have shown that animal and vegetable products are comparatively plentiful on these markets. This shows that the supply circuits are working well. Supplies are more regular in the towns than in the countryside, particularly cereals. Seasonal variations are larger for fruit and vegetables than for animal products.

The main obstacle to food security at the present time is monetary access to products, because price deregulation has caused sharp increases (although they have been slowing down slightly over the past few months). The recent devaluation of the CFA franc has made imported products extremely expensive. There has also been a return to the consumption of local traditional products (attiéké, plantains, maize, leaf vegetables) at the expense of processed and non-processed imported foods (rice, wheat, industrial products, frozen meat). The necessary increase in purchasing power certainly depends on global economic development, but one effective measure would be to control the flow of financial resources towards the developed countries or countries offering a high return on capital. Lastly, where no purchasing power policy has been included in the structural adjustment plans, the only way of guaranteeing sufficient food for everyone is to offer products at reasonable prices by rationalizing the food chain.

African consumers typically lack an awareness of their status as consumers. The only thing that seems to concern them is to have a full stomach. Rights, nutrition education and rules of food hygiene are often unknown. Consumer associations are beginning to develop but they are mostly based on political considerations or the desire to hit the headlines rather than being run by specialized teams with competence in their particular field. They hardly affect the consumers because of illiteracy or the fact that the consumers’ concerns are not represented. Burkina Faso has two consumer organizations: the “Ligue des consommateurs” and the “Association Burkina des consommateurs”. Attempts are now being made to set up something similar in Côte d’Ivoire.

For the consumer, the social aspect of food purchases seems to be more important than quality (nutrition, hygiene, convenience and low cost). Consumers need to be educated, and this could be done mainly through the schools. The best way to bring pressure to bear on the market would a consumer boycott of certain foods. However, this kind of education demands funding which is not at the present time available.

The quality of the urban diet is such that the food use and consumption patterns are “time bombs” as far as personal health is concerned. Contamination and food poisoning are the order of the day. This public health problem is not one of the priorities of the health ministries which implement a curative rather than preventive health policy, and are not sensitized to nutrition issues and the connection between nutrition and health.

Rather than introducing punitive measures at the end of the food chain to stop inedible products being sold, it would be more useful to create a consumer-oriented mentality, to enable people to know their rights and to give them a minimum of health education.

2.1.2 - Enlarged distribution networks

Urban population growth has had many different repercussions on the food systems:

2.2 - Poverty and living standards

2.2.1 - Extent, depth and features of the new poverty
2.2.2 - At-risk groups, and where they are
2.2.3 - The living standards of the urban African population under the SAPs

In the Sub-Saharan African countries living standards are overall lower than in other economically less developed countries. This can be seen from the demographic indicators:

Tableau 1




Annual population growth (%)

1960 - 1990




1990 - 2000




Urbanized population (%)









Birth rate (1990)




Death rate (1990)




Life expectancy (1990)




Source: Human Development Report, UNDP, 1996.

2.2.1 - Extent, depth and features of the new poverty

Information on low urban living standards is very limited and fragmentary and it is difficult to evaluate the extent and the depth of poverty. The most we can say is that the nature of poverty has changed, as well as the type of people affected by it. In the ‘60s, and subsequently, urban poverty was mainly fuelled by rural poverty. It was rural migration into the towns as a result of poverty that led to population shifts to the towns, rather than being the result of a demand for urban labour because of the economic development of the towns (Egal, 1997). Since the ‘80s, with the implementation of the structural adjustment plans and more recently with the devaluation of the CFA franc, impoverishment has affected every socio-economic class because of strong family pressure on solvent families. This impoverishment is the result of a reduced purchasing power which has led to a decline in food expenditure: -30% between 1980 and 1985, -30% between 1986 and 1995 (Egal, 1997). The middle classes are the most badly affected by this, because they depend on the market economy. UNDP estimates that one-third of the urban population now lives below the poverty line in the Sub-Saharan African countries (UNDP, 1996).

2.2.2 - At-risk groups, and where they are

The following households are more vulnerable than others, and suffer from food insecurity:

These at-risk groups mostly live on the outlying neighbourhoods that are ignored by the local authorities, which lack infrastructure and where the people are concentrated in temporary or precarious dwellings. It is only when the population becomes extremely dense that the authorities are forced to provide a few facilities, when they can (electricity, water, roads, evacuation of waste water and subsequently solid waste, in that order of priority).

2.2.3 - The living standards of the urban African population under the SAPs

Low and medium-income households spend virtually all their income on food (about three-quarters). The high and medium-income households are not in an easy situation either, because they have to cater for an increasingly large population: more and more people are migrating from the rural areas, and the new arrivals are finding it increasingly more difficult to meet their own needs, which is placing an ever heavier burden on the incomes of households that have already settled in the towns. The urban households are increasing in size as the number of adults continues to grow. But very often the family mutual aid system breaks down. Considering the level of prices of goods and services in the urban areas, incomes are no longer sufficient to cover basic food expenditure. Women’s incomes are therefore having to be used to cover an increasing large proportion of household costs. These are now an essential component of the urban food balance.

Urban household strategies are designed to maintain living standards, particularly food consumption levels. They may be summarized as follows according to surveys carried out in Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal, even though it is not possible to rank these patterns:

The poor households use very specific food supply structures, of which the most frequent are the small local markets, and eating street food. It is therefore through these FSDS structures that these vulnerable people or those already suffering from food insecurity can be reached.

2.3 - Socio-economic and political instability

The unfavourable period through which Sahelian Africa or Sudano-Sahelian tropical Africa is passing at the present time can certainly be explained in terms of an inadequate development of technology, the ineffectiveness of the services to agriculture and the poor operation of the markets. But the main reason has to do with political and social instability. Of 34 countries in which food availability has worsened since 1970, 20 have been through civil wars. Concern about feeding Africa must therefore be focused mainly in the political area (Griffon, 1996).

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