Urban populations are growing faster in Africa than all other regions of the world. Africaโ€™s population will be 2.5 billion in 2050 compared to 1.3 billion in 2020! It is likely that the new urban population will demand more access to dairy and meat products, as well as to cereals, vegetables and fruits, fats, oils and sugars than the previous generation did, which resided largely in rural areas. Feeding Africaโ€™s cities, and providing access to good quality food, presents a major challenge. However, it also means a major opportunity for the continentโ€™s 60 million farms.

Emerging is the urgent need for African country governments and all food security stakeholders to strategize to ensure that the third surge in COVID-19 across Africa does not result in new waves of food insecurity, particularly among the nearly 588 million of Africans living in cities.

Empowering urban dwelling youth, who comprise the majority of the population, and investing in building a thriving and sustainable urban agriculture sector in the African continent is the way forward. Moreover, urban dwelling African youth represent an untapped resource which if leveraged properly has the potential to help to build dynamic and resilient urban food systems. But if neglected as it has been done before, they could become a destabilizing force.

Importantly, African countries should not seek to simply copy existing urban agriculture models but inspire new designs that utilize materials and resources that are available in African countries. Alternatively, African countries can strengthen existing urban growing models and prototypes that are already working. For example, in Uganda, vertically stacked wooden crate units are a local and practical method of farming in urban cities. In Kenya and Ghana, sack gardens made from locally available sisal fibers that are cheap represent a local and practical form of a vertical farm.

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There is need for African governments to build databases and creating inventories of the urban agriculture initiatives across the African continent. Other resources including available support materials such as the United Nations framework on urban farming are important. Finally, time is also ripe for Africa to create a center that is dedicated to imagining and supporting all the urban agriculture needs for the continent. If the future is urban, why doesnโ€™t the African continent have a center that is dedicated to exclusively studying, researching, and supporting Urban Agriculture needs?

Environmental Benefits of Innovations

Urban and peri-urban farms provide an opportunity for innovation that could result in various positive environmental impacts:

  • Less land converted because of the space efficiency of urban farms, especially vertical farms, compared to traditional farms in rural areas.
  • Reduced food mileage by localizing produce and limiting the distance food travels from farm to fork. Globally, the average meal has traveled 4,200 miles just to get to the consumerโ€™s table, and some imports in Africa such as rice and chicken come all the way from Thailand and Brazil. A 2019 analysis by McKinsey looking at major agricultural-input chains in eight African countries, found that inputs changed hands at least three times before they reached the farmer, moving from national importers to regional distributors to โ€œagro-dealersโ€ (which are typically small, rural shops). On average, this fragmented supply chain led to a 20 to 50% mark-up over import price across major agricultural inputs, with about one-third to one-half of that captured as margin by the distributors and retailers in the chain.
  • Improved water recycling where rainwater tanks are utilised to collect the rainwater from the city roofs, which is then stored and pumped into the gardens as needed.
  • Increased pollination where urban gardens that have more flowers and trees, which allows insects and animals to help with pollination and improve the overall environmental status of the area. And in some cases, gardens can serve as a biodiversity refuge for wildlife and insects.
  • Reduced air pollution by removing pollutants which are in the air such as chemicals and allergens like pollen. And reduced noise pollution especially where green roofs and vertical gardens absorb sound waves through the soil and plants.
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Another important area of innovation concerns ensuring food safety. Land in the urban environment can sometimes be contaminated with many pollutants, including lead and a range of toxic hydrocarbons, and water may be contaminated with human pathogens.

It is clear, urban agriculture will be relevant now and into the future. African countries need to invest in building strong and resilient urban agriculture and food systems. Time is of the essence.

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