Urban Agriculture Notes

City Farmer: Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture

(with special reference to Africa)


4.2 Food: Basic Luxury for the Urban Poor

by Luc J.A. Mougeot
© Copyright 1994
International Development Research Centre

For a large and growing segment of the population, food is turning into a basic luxury. In 1990, households in nearly half (23) of the LDCs largest metropolitan centres were spending 50 - 80% of their average income on food (PCC 1990). Among the listed cities, most hard-hit are Calcutta, Ho Chi Minh City, Istanbul, Kinshasa, Lagos, and Lima. Global figures only tell part of the story; survey estimates for low-income groups are much bleaker. In metropolitan USA, for instance, households spend 9 - 15% of their income on food, but the poorest 20% of Americans spend 34% of their after-tax income on food (Ethelston, 1992: 16). Food-price surveys of five developing countries showed that city dwellers paid between 10 - 30% more for their food than rural dwellers (Yeung, 1985: 2).

In India, 80% of urban families typically spend 70% of their income on food; master plans of Indian cities rarely, if ever, provide land for food production (Newland 1980, cited by Yeung 1985: 2, 5). In Bangkok, the lowest-income families spend 60% of their income on food (Sukharomana 1988: 7). In Ecuador, 74% of urban households had insufficient incomes to afford basic food purchases: percentages vary from 62% in Babahoyo to 84% in Tulcan, with Quito and Guayaquil scoring 67 and 71% respectively (Fundacion Natura, 1993, II). A small sample of urban households in Bolivia suggests that, on average, they were spending 32% but the poorer households, 70 - 89% of their income on food (Leon et al. 1992: 72, 73, 77). In the low-income urban district of La Florida, Chile, 64% of interviewed households were spending more than 50% of their budget on food; even so, 42% could not fully cover their basic food costs and 63% were not managing to satisfy their basic nutritional needs (Cereceda and Cifuentes 1993: 273, 277).

In Africa, poor urban Kenyan households have to spend 40 - 50% on food and cooking fuel alone (Lee-Smith et al. 1987: 14). In 1983, 34% of 189 surveyed households in Bamako spent 32 - 64% of their average income on food and cooking (Diallo and Coulibaly 1988: 20). In Egypt, food represents 60% of family budgets for more than 50% of all urban households, despite state control of food supply and distribution channels, and state subsidies on basic items (Chair- Dagher 1987: 37). For low-income households in Dar es Salaam, the percentage of income spent on food rocketed from 50% in 1940 to 85% in 1980 (Sawio 1993: 55). In Kinshasa, in 1982, food purchases were already absorbing an average 60% of total household spending (Pain 1985: 44); a 1988 study of food consumption showed that in major Zairean cities 67.4% of monthly household expenditure went to food purchases (MacGaffey, 1991: 14). In the early 1980s, a minimum wage fed a Ghanean family for a week with a staple starch. An official in Conakry could only feed his family for three days with his monthly wage. Senior Ugandan civil servants could only buy 1.5 bunches of banana with theirs. An Angolan official would pay six days of his salary for one chicken. And an average Tanzanian household of six could be fed on formal wages for six days of the month (MacGaffey, 1991: 15-16). Apolo Nsibambi, was writing in 1988 (151): "In Uganda, where the salary of an ordinary wage-earner lasts for two weeks, food alone wipes out the entire salary."

Dar es Salaam illustrates how badly urban wages and their purchasing power can trail behind food price increases. In this city, a daily minimum wage could buy 10 kg of maize or 4.8 kg of rice in 1973, but only 1.3 kg of maize and 0.8 kg of rice in 1985 (Bagachwa 1990: 26, cited by Sawio 1993: 10).

Food insecurity grows as the share of household budget which must be spent on food rises. The fewer the household's alternatives to buying food, the more it will be food-insecure. If one is a city poor, one's coping strategies are fewer than in rural areas. In the Ecuadorian city of Cuenca, 56.5% of street scavengers interviewed precede the collector-truck runs by 5 or 10 minutes and sort out of residential, office, and public garbage, meal leftovers and overripe or rotting fruits and vegetables in order to feed their family (Fundacion Natura 1993, II).

In African cities, to eat only one meal a day is becoming commonplace, and this undoubtedly affects people's nutritional health (Vennetier 1988: 222). Even when doing so, if one is poor, one will tend to pay relatively more than do higher income consumers for the food one buys. More likely than not, one will be forced into inefficient shopping practices: smaller, more frequent purchases from various and distant sources, more cash spent on transportation, more losses from bad storage, and so forth. Vennetier (1988: 222) considers the micro-retailing of food as increasing food prices in African cities, the higher prices being charged to those who are less able to pay.

The nutritional energy requirements of urban dwellers is generally greater than that of rural dwellers, regardless of differences in income or expenditures. Furthermore, poor urban manual workers may have higher energy needs than the average urban resident. Calorie costs are higher in metropolitan than in smaller centres, and, in poor regions, intra-urban differences can be greater than rural urban differences (von Braun et al. 1993, p. 14). Micronutrient deficiencies can be much more prevalent among lower-income than among higher-income families, as shown in Manaus, Brazil (Amorozo and Shrimpton 1984, cited by von Braun et al. 1993: 18).

Available findings are collapsing the myth of urban privilege over rural neglect. In some countries, malnutrition is as prevalent in large cities as it is in rural areas; rates of malnutrition are often likely to be higher in urban slums than in a typical rural area. Although some doubted that there were marked rural urban differences in malnutrition levels in Africa during the 1970s, the experience of the 1980s now has clearly dispelled such doubts for many countries. Schilter (1991: 11) and staff of the United Nations Children s Fund (UNICEF) (Francis Kamondo, personal communication, August 1993; Bjorn Ljungqvist, personal communication, August 1993) believe that malnutrition in Nairobi, Lome, and Kampala is now more acute than in rural Kenya, Togo, and Uganda, respectively. In Cairo Giza, the rate of malnutrition is nearly as high as in rural areas of Egypt. An eight-country survey revealed that between 25 and 30% of the urban population was malnourished and more so than rural populations in five of the eight countries studied (von Braun et al. 1993: 13, 23).

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revised, June 12,1995

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