Comment & Opinion

Combating hunger and food insecurity in a rapidly urbanising continent

Published May 31, 2019, by Julian May

In the face of a population boom, uncertain political and environmental contexts, increasing numbers of undernourished people, and changing diet habits, there are immense and dramatic challenges ahead for food systems in Africa over the foreseeable future, writes Professor Julian May

Transitions in food systems, diets and health are of relevance throughout the world.

However, changes are especially notable in the 54 countries of Africa. Here food systems are rapidly changing due to increasing affluence, urbanisation and globalisation. This is taking place within an environment that has the highest projected agricultural production growth rates but also the highest prevalence of food insecurity in the world. Africa is also likely to experience the greatest variability in climatic and political conditions.

The UNESCO Chair in African Food Systems was awarded to the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Food Security hosted by the University of the Western Cape and co-hosted by the University of Pretoria, with the intention of harnessing African scholarship to address these challenges.

Food systems are responsible for ensuring the availability, access, utilisation and stability of food that provides diets that are sufficient, safe and nutritious. These diets must also meet the changing food preferences of Africa’s population whilst having minimal environmental impacts. Food systems comprise sub-systems through which these diets are produced, processed, transported, sold, cooked, eaten and enjoyed, and include how waste produced by these activities is disposed of.


The global food system is well advanced in a transition, moving from mostly being produced on family farms and sold through fresh produce markets and small business, to industrialised commodity production, ultra-processing, mass distribution and globalised trade. Similar trends are emerging in Africa, with middle-income countries such as South Africa, Ghana, Kenya, Tunisia and Egypt leading the way.

Although levels remain low, recent food security trends are positive in Africa. While food production in the continent traditionally lagged, since 2005, the FAO’s Food Production Index for Africa has been similar, or greater than that for the rest of the world. As a result, food availability in Africa has increased by nearly 12% over the past two decades. Concomitantly, the prevalence of under-nutrition (having a level of food intake that is insufficient to meet dietary energy requirements) has declined from 33% to 23% between 1990-92 and 2014-16. Nonetheless, the total number of undernourished people continued to increase to an estimated 220 million in 2014-16, compared to 176 million in 1990-92.

Africa now has the second largest share of the world’s undernourished people after Southeast Asia.

There are important challenges ahead. The total population of Africa, estimated to be 1.3 billion in 2016, experienced an increase of almost 50% from 2000. This was the fastest rate of change of all regions. By 2050, this population will have doubled again. Half of the increase in population will be concentrated in five countries: The DRC, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Tanzania and Uganda.

Much of the expansion in population numbers will occur in urban areas. At almost 500 million people, the urban population in Africa accounted for 40% of the continent’s population in 2015, and is expected to reach over 1.1 billion by 2050; one third of the world’s urban population. Africa will then have the second largest number of urban dwellers after Asia.

Just over 25% of this urban population will be living in Nigeria alone, concentrated in Africa’s largest mega city, Lagos. This city currently has a population of 21 million, exceeding that of Cairo by 2 million. Kinshasa became the continent’s third mega-city in 2015 with a population of 12 million while Dar es Salaam, Johannesburg and Luanda are expected to grow beyond 10 million by 2030. Population growth is not confined only to the capital cities of the continent. One quarter of the 100 fastest-growing cities in the world are located in Africa, and in 2011, 52 cities on the continent had more than one million inhabitants, expected to increase to 94 cities by 2030.

In most countries, population change has been accompanied with economic growth and an increase in the size of the population earning incomes categorised as middle-class. Estimates by the African Development Bank (AfDB) place this at 34% of the continent’s population, projected to reach 1.1 billion by 2060. Consumer spending by this group amounted to over one quarter of the continent’s GDP in 2015.

For food systems, the implications of economic growth, urbanisation and rising incomes are complex. One aspect is increasing consumption of animal proteins, the decline of starchy staples and greater dietary diversity. Consumers also have greater selectivity in the products that they consume, choosing to discard parts of animals (such as offal) and plants (such as the stalks and leaves) that are less preferred. Urban consumers also prefer convenience foods that require less time to prepare and increase their consumption of caloric sweeteners, especially from sugary beverages. Such food systems are described as being obesogenic, containing stimuli that encourage over-consumption. They can result in a growing share of the population that is over-weight or obese, with a heightened risk of diet-related non-communicable disease.

In April 2019 the ten founding institutions of the Chair reflected on these trends and deliberated its objectives and activities in Hammamet, Tunisia[1]. It was agreed that the UNESCO Chair in African Food Systems must increase the contribution of the academic community in Africa who are working towards meeting these challenges and opportunities. Though collaborations with outstanding institutions and scholars on the continent and elsewhere, the Chair will focus on reducing knowledge gaps between disciplines and stakeholders in the food. The Chair will promote Africa-wide, South-South and North-South partnerships for research, innovation and training activities that are based on trans-disciplinary research. In this way, the Chair will provide evidence for decision-making and informed debate, and critique of policies and programmes aimed at addressing food insecurity.


  • Prof Julian May is the director of the national Centre of Excellence in Food Security, co-hosted by the University of the Western Cape and the University of Pretoria. He also holds, as of 2017, the UNESCO Chair in African Food Systems.

[1] The founding members are: African Academy of Sciences, Bahir Dar University; Ethiopia; Centre of Biotechnology of Borj Cedria (CBBC), Tunisia; Coopération Internationale en Recherche Agronomique Pour le Dévelopment (CIRAD), France; Institut National Polytechnique Félix Houphouët-Boigny (INP-HB), Côte d’Ivoire; Institute for Social, Statistical and Economic Research, University of Ghana, Ghana; Laboratoire de recherché, Alimentation, Nutrition et Sante (ALNUTS-INATAA), l’Université Frères Mentouri, (UFMC1), Constantine 1, Algeria; UNESCO Chair in World Food Systems, France; UNESCO Directorate, South African Department of Basic Education; University of the Western Cape and University of Pretoria, South Africa.

related Articles

CoE-FS 10th Anniversary Symposium – Governance and policy

Date: Wednesday, 22 May 2024 Time: 10h00 – 12h00 (SAST) Register for Zoom here. Co-chaired by Professor Julian May (CoE-FS…

CoE-FS grantees, researchers take part in the 2024 Montpellier Process

The CoE-FS grantees were joined by students from Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Kenya, the Netherlands, Senegal, Spain, the UK, and…

World Food Day 2023: CoE-FS director Prof Julian May chats to CapeTalk

On World Food Day 2023, Prof Julian May spoke to CapeTalk about the importance of water for food and nutrition…