Exploring food system transformations in rapidly changing African cities

Project consortium and funding

  • Peter Verburg, Vrije Universiteit, The Netherlands (Principal Investigator)
  • Shuaib Lwasa, Makerere University, Uganda (Partner)
  • Patrick O’Farrell, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, South Africa (Partner)
  • Anton von Rompaey, KU Leuven, Belgium (Partner)
  • Tatjana von Boerman, Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), South Africa (Associated Partner)
  • Scott Drimie, University of Stellenbosch and Southern African Food Lab, South Africa (Associated Partner)

Total project budget: EUR 765,000

Thematic and geographic area of the project:

  • Sustainable water management
  • Sustainable food security
  • Nutritious value chain
  • Food and nutrition assessment
  • Food value-chain

The project responds to Sustainable Intensification (Focus 1) through developing food system models that couple within-city dynamics with broader global change and agricultural intensification. This will allow us to evaluate what alternative city food pathways mean for sustainable and equitable ecosystem service benefit flows and economies across the urban, peri-urban and rural landscape. Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition (Focus 2) is addressed by seeking strategies to diversify city food systems and make healthy food available, accessible and affordable to vulnerable, malnourished social groups in the city. Focus 3 (agricultural markets and trade) is addressed through quantifying the potential of small-scale or informal food chain operators to contribute to positive trajectories of employment and nutrition security.

Project’s summary/abstract:                    

Food insecurity and malnutrition, once restricted mainly to rural areas, are spreading rapidly in Africa’s expanding cities. Conventional production-based responses from the agricultural sector will not ensure nutrition security in these cities, without also considering drivers that affect food access, affordability and stability. A much more systemic perspective of city food systems is needed, from sustainable production through to consumption, and understanding functional cross-scale linkages along this pathway. Appropriate city planning and policy can play a major role in this endeavour, driving more sustainable and resilient food systems across the urban, peri-urban and rural food landscape. Yet food systems and nutrition security are distinctly lacking in most African city planning and policy. To address this gap, this project aims to promote sustainable and nutrition-secure city food systems by developing knowledge and tools for local and national development planning. The project focuses on two African cities (Kampala and Cape Town), and is built around four objectives: knowledge co-production and participatory planning, characterising city food systems, modelling current food system dynamics and exploring alternative futures, and collaborative planning. The project has a strong conceptual foundation in food systems analysis and modelling. It employs a range of scientific methodologies such as spatial analysis, systems-dynamics and value-chain modelling, trade-offs in bundles of ecosystem services, integrated social, economic and ecological assessment, scenario planning, and transformative pathways analysis. Importantly, the technical science is embedded in a knowledge co-production and participatory planning process to promote uptake of the information by end users and scale impact of the science.

Project’s main objective (s):                             

The project aims to promote sustainable, inclusive and nutrition-secure city food systems by developing knowledge and tools for local and national development planning. It accomplishes this through the following objectives:

  1. Develop model(s) to link within-city food systems to the broader landscape
  2. Co-develop alternative food scenarios
  3. Evaluate scenarios in terms of food and nutrition outcomes + equitable ecosystem benefit flows and economies
  4. Design interventions for local and national development planning, which highlight multiple co-benefits
  5. Reflect on case study lessons for scaling impact elsewhere

Theory of Change and Impact Pathway

Summary ToC with assumptions                         

Based on existing knowledge, challenges that this project need to influence to achieve its aim include:

  • Weak cross-sector, collaborative planning for city food systems at local government level.
  • Limited spatial data on food systems dynamics within cities, and its interlinkages to the broader system. This extends to measuring food and nutrition outcomes in marginalised groups.
  • Insufficient capacity to understand and apply planning approaches that recognise the complexity of city food systems.
  • Lack of awareness of socio-economic segregations and linkages within city food systems and beyond, and how these influence city food and nutrition outcomes.

We identified four impact pathways to address these challenges and effect change:

  • Cross-sector planning and decision-making for city food systems to promote collective action across scales and sectors
  • Science, data and decision-support tools for advancing city food and nutrition security, targeting end users in Cape Town and Kampala, and broader communities around the world
  • Human capacity development for enhancing food and nutrition security in city planning by empowering individuals and institutions to plan for food and nutrition secure cities
  • Communication materials for policy makers, planners and civil society to expand the project’s influence at local, national and international levels

Expected outcomes and impact:                          


  • Sustainable, inclusive and nutrition-secure city food systems are enhanced through local planning that is informed by a systems perspective, and supported by national policy


  • A systemic approach to planning for city food systems is adopted, which sees multiple sectors and levels of governance cooperating around response strategies developed in this project to support sustainable, resilient and nutrition-secure city futures
  • City planning and decision making is supported by science-based decision-support tools that consider city food dynamics, feedbacks to and from the broader environment, and the trade-offs and synergies of different development options on different social groups within the food system
  • Human capacity development and communication materials support city food planning beyond the lifespan of the project.