Partnerships for healthy diets and nutrition in urban african food systems – evidence and strategies

Project consortium and fund         

Coordinating Institute:

  • Center for Development Research, University of Bonn, Germany

PI and contact: Dr Nicolas Gerber,


  • Wageningen Economic Research, Stichting Wageningen Research, Netherlands

PI: Prof. Ruerd Ruben – Contacts:,

  • Institute of Statistical, Social and Economic Research (ISSER), University of Ghana, Ghana

PI and contact: Prof. Felix Asante,

  • Centre of Excellence (CoE) in Food Security, the University of Western Cape, South Africa

PI and contact: Prof. Julian May, Funding: EUR 827’964

Thematic and geographic area of the project:    

  • Food and nutrition assessment
  • Food value-chain

The causes of urban obesity and diet transition in Africa have been investigated recently, but little is known about African urban undernutrition, considered less of an issue than in rural areas. Our novel approach is to assess over- and under-consumption of energy and/or micronutrients (and their drivers) as co-existing and interactive malnutrition outcomes at community, household and individual levels, in a comparative study of urban food systems in three African cities at different stages of socio-economic development. Study sites will be chosen in the cities of Accra in Ghana, Kampala in Uganda, and Cape Town in South Africa.

Food value chains are parts of the systemic drivers of urban food and nutrition security. Under-researched but key components of these value chains are the multitude of small, informal actors of the urban food system, spread along the food value chains. These include (small) producers, transporters, processors and retailers. We aim to provide a more complete picture of the urban food systems and their value chains by including all these small actors, tracing the food safety and nutritional quality of some of the products exchanged along these value chains, and by providing a clear description of the interactions between the formal and informal food sector.

Project’s summary/abstract:                    

Africa’s cities are expanding, with adverse consequences for food and nutrition security of an increasing share of their population. In urban Africa, malnutrition is a complex issue related to factors including the middle class’ growing purchasing power, but also poverty, poor health environments and insufficient access to safe, quality food. African urban food systems and their rural-urban value chains are characterized by the intersecting formal and informal food sectors: small scale producers, transporters, processors and retailers provide a multitude of food products, the composition, quality and final destination of which is largely undocumented. This project aims at investigating the structure and dynamics of urban food systems in Africa (including rural-urban food value chains), to reveal the co-existence of different facets of malnutrition and their drivers, for a transect of poor to moderately wealthy countries, settlements and neighborhoods, and to develop partnerships for coherent, nutrition-sensitive policies. To that end, the project will rely on participatory research with stakeholders of the food system in selected urban study sites in Ghana, South Africa and Uganda. In particular, the project will describe the systemic drivers of food choices, by mapping the formal and informal urban food sectors, their interactions and rural linkages, and by tracking urban food sources and their characteristics. Second, the project will examine individual drivers of food choices: income, access to nutrition-related knowledge, or food tastes, habits and culture. Finally, researchers will assess the impacts of systemic and individual drivers of food choices on people’s actual consumption and nutrition outcomes. Together with nutrition and public health practitioners and the identified actors of the three local food systems, they will devise and test policy scenarios to develop a blueprint for partnerships seeking improved urban nutrition in Africa.

Project’s main objective(s):                             

This project aims to impact the nutrition of the urban poor in Africa. This is achieved by gathering and analyzing missing evidence on African urban food systems (UFS) to outline a partnership concept for effective interventions in the food environment of the urban poor in a participatory process.

The research will investigate:

  • urban food sources, characteristics and rural-urban linkages as “systemic” drivers of food choices and nutrition,
  • people’s access to nutrition-related knowledge (formal and informal, indigenous and Western), income, food tastes, habits and culture, as “individual” drivers of food choices,
  • how systemic and individual drivers combine to determine people’s food consumption and nutrition status.

Theory of Change and Impact Pathway

Summary ToC with assumptions                         

This project aims at improving urban nutrition in Africa by bridging key knowledge gaps about its systemic and individual drivers. The assumption is that co-describing the urban food systems with its stakeholders will facilitate the participatory delivery of a partnership concept for improved policy interventions based on our analytical results. The evidence-based partnership concept is the project’s main contribution to foreseen impacts. Their scalability is assumed to be enhanced by the analytical design based on (i) new surveys conducted at the project’s study sites in South Africa, Ghana and Uganda, and (ii) a national level analysis of the nutrition transition across major and secondary cities (where the urbanization push largely takes place) designed around existing, nationally representative data.

By engaging the stakeholders (including decision-makers and implementing actors in the spheres of urban public health or food safety) in a collective reflection towards a concept for common action and impact, we hope to deliver a blueprint for future impacts beyond the project lifespan.

Expected outcomes and impact:                          

Consumption and food / dietary habits are too difficult to influence or change in the short / medium term for the project to bring a sizeable change in nutrition (security) indicators over its lifespan or soon thereafter. Nonetheless, the project can realistically expect to lead to recommendations for safe pathways toward improved delivery of nutritious food for the urban “at-risk” groups. Notably, a clearer understanding of the interlinkages between over- and under-nutrition will help creating future impacts by identifying (a blue print for the involvement of) the necessary actors for a more beneficial urban nutrition transition, as well as helping change resulting in new, coherent, and interactive policies.