The Power of the Urban

Cities play an important role in the transformation of food systems. But what exactly are the potentials and challenges? A three-way discussion between Ruth Okowa (Gain), Delphine Larrousse (World Vegetable Center) and Conrad Graf von Hoyos (GIZ).

© GIZ Ratchanok Suwatthanabunpot

By Jan Rübel

Jan Rübel is author at Zeitenspiegel Reportagen, a columnist at Yahoo and writes for national newspapers and magazines. He studied History and Middle Eastern Studies.

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By Ruth Okowa

Ruth Okowa is Country Director in Kenya at the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN). Previously, she was Regional Director for Africa at BRAC International for 4 years. Her expertise includes agriculture and food security, water, hygiene and sanitation, youth development, advocacy and emergency response and more.

All contributions

By Delphine Larrousse

Delphine Larrousse has been Regional Director for East and Southeast Asia at the World Vegetable Center based in Bangkok, Thailand, since January 2019. Previously, she was a Senior Program Officer in Agriculture and Food Security at Canada's International Development Research Center (IDRC). Her expertise in international development is based on 15 years of experience in designing, managing, monitoring and evaluating projects around the world.

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If we are concerned about fighting global hunger, why should we worry about urban food systems? The fields and pastures are in the countryside.

Ruth Okowa: Urban areas are important because, as we know in data, by 2017, over 50% of the world population was living in urban centres. And it's projected that by 2050, 67% of the population will live in urban centres. So naturally, looking at food systems in urban centers is very important to ensure that there's adequate food. Not just food, but nutritious food to support the growing urban population.


Conrad Graf von Hoyos: The urban population is powerful. They play a crucial role as voters, influencing policy makers through their collective voice. They set the tone and shape the demands placed on policy makers. They are the ones that really are good advocates for any change in the system.


Are our cities now more part of the problem or more part of the solution?

Delphine Larrousse: Many urban residents face challenges accessing nutritious and affordable food. So cities must be part of the solution. Cities can really serve as hubs for innovation and sustainable practices in food production, distribution, and consumption. With the right policies, investments and collaboration among actors, cities can increasingly become part of the solution.


Sorry, I haven't quite understood yet: To what extent can cities become pioneers in transforming food systems?

Okowa: Cities can do a lot in transforming food systems. They have the capacity to work on the infrastructure, meaning both transportation systems and also the local infrastructure needed in markets to transform food systems. So, in terms of passing legislation, in terms of working on protocols and guidelines that would enhance the space for food system implementation, cities should be at the forefront in ensuring this happens. If there is no structure, if there is no system to support this, then we are going to see very chaotic cities. There's an urgent need to really structure that and to better engage with those working in urban food systems, especially around malnutrition vulnerable communities. The formal and informal urban food sectors play a critical role in this respect. Traditional food markets and their committees, last mile vendors and small and medium enterprises have agency that can be leveraged. This includes empowering them with soft skills to manage infrastructure like cool rooms and innovate food waste reduction.


What's the problem with the infrastructure? What is lacking?

Larrousse: A very important issue is around aggregation centers and wholesale markets, because this is where the product reaches the city, before it gets to the supermarket or even the wet markets. Aggregation centers are crucial to harmonize production and marketing of vegetables. These are structures built in a strategic location. It is a place to sort, grade and cool vegetables. Hence, you need an efficient wholesale market where the producers can actually come and interact with the different sellers, the buyers, everyone. And it's also about the whole management of the infrastructure. You need clean floors, you need water, you need a place for the trucks to be able to upload and offload. The wholesale market is a business by itself. Logistics are complex, especially for highly perishable products such as fruits and vegetables. In Bangkok, there is a very impressive wholesale market where they don't even use cold chain. And Thailand is really hot, so you think all the fresh vegetables should come refrigerated. Everything is rather simple with open air trucks, but it works so well because it's open 24 hours. There is always somebody to receive the produce. It is sold very quickly. So, this is also about the logistics. It's not just about infrastructure. For vegetables, what is key is having quick turnaround systems to get fresh products to the consumer.


Okowa: If you really want to improve nutrition, it's about fruits and vegetables. 50% of what we eat should be fruits and vegetables. It's not only about feeding the population, but also about nourishing the population, making sure that they get healthy food and the right nutrients.


The urban population is powerful. They play a crucial role as voters, influencing policy makers through their collective voice.


What's the state's homework in order to improve all this?

Okowa: I talk from a perspective of sub-Saharan Africa, where the infrastructure, first of all, means the road network to transport the goods from the production to the market. We need to also work on the cold transportation and on the cold rooms of the market. We need to lobby the government in many cases. They're budget holders to improve on that infrastructure. And we also need to work on the infrastructure, like irrigation at the production level. Climate change has disrupted the whole climatic pattern in the world. Hence, it's sometimes very difficult to know when you're going to have rains for farmers. We should actually no longer depend on rain fed agriculture but move towards irrigation as one of the things that should be done to improve on productivity. In Africa, there's very little waste at the household level. That shows you how they value food. We should improve on our marketing by having platforms. E-commerce should be promoted as a way of business in most of the markets.


Hoyos: That's right, for example, the GIZ global programme "Scaling digital agriculture innovations through start-ups" (SAIS) supports an agtech start-up MyVarm in Egypt, which specialises in urban agriculture and offers hydroponic microkits for growing fresh produce. The innovative app provides technical support and connects users with consumers to sell or exchange their crops. I also agree, infrastructure is the responsibility of the government. However, food business is primarily private. It is important to acknowledge the pivotal role played by the private sector.


Okowa: States have to provide the routes. I'm a private person. I need to move my wares from one place to the other. I need you to provide cold storage because the markets belong to the government. They are not individual markets.


So, how do we create a win win situation?

Larrousse: In addition to investment in infrastructure, let us bring up the importance also of the government in creating a better enabling environment, regulating the market, the prices, regulating what products get rejected – the quality standards. Right now, in many countries, standards are still a major issue. Many farmers actually pay the cost of getting their produce rejected by the sellers just because the fruit is not looking as good. But there are no well-defined aesthetic standards. And if you go to a wholesale market, there should be different places where you can clearly identify food which is produced using agro-ecological principles or organically. These vegetables have a better shelf life, and have higher quality, and should not be mixed with vegetables grown conventionally. Farmers do a lot of effort to decrease the amount of pesticide, for example, and produce with better practices, but then arrive at the wholesale market and everything is mixed together so they don't have an added value.


Okowa: Let me just support what you said, because in my country Kenya, we are working with the government now to do minimum residual tests on produce like vegetables to ascertain safety of the produce…


Larrousse: …governments tend to create standards for the staple crops or for export crops, but not enough for domestic markets. There is really a need to focus on domestic market and especially on fruits and vegetables. They regulate banana or mango or pineapple because it goes outside the country. And it's very important for the export market and it needs certification. But for domestic consumption, that's often where there is a lack of regulations and policies and investment support in general.


Do rules not also run the risk to block sales, especially for small holder farmers who have to cope with all these new regulations?

Okowa: The rules are not meant to curtail anybody from producing. The rules are meant to give you a better environment to ensure food safety. We did a consumer study and consumers are really concerned about food safety; especially the levels of metals, chemicals etc. In every system, there are rules and regulations that guide. So even in production, some farmers do this out of ignorance. They don't do what they need to do, but once they are taken through the training, then they should be able to do it. It's not an extra work for them.


Larrousse: There are many power dynamics along the value chain from the farmers throughout the whole value chain and to the consumer. Those rules I wouldn't call them rules, but more like measures, regulations or policies that help to make the whole value chain more equitable as well, because at the end of the day, if the product gets rejected, then it will always fall on the farmer to pay the price. Or it will also fall on the consumer because the product will be less affordable for him or for her.


Hoyos: Rules have to be specific to the local markets. In addition, it is about efficiency. If you have good rules, people are trusting, they can trade much easier. Standards are lowering the transaction costs, the costs of marketing. And even think about digital models. Standards are essential to facilitate e-commerce through the internet.


Larrousse: I just want to add that everything is very context specific. So, whatever will work in one city may not work in another city in a country. It's so complex and the challenges are so different from one place to the other that when we talk about policies or rules or standards, it has to be very context specific. It's not like we can easily come up with global rules or even regional rules. And that's why we need a lot more learning from the different experiences of the different cities and continue to run some comparative studies in different areas and share the learning. Then we can see how each city is able to innovate in its own way and then learn and see how can we scale that or replicate that? Is it possible at all? What's the role of the government in one place? What's the role of the private sector? Like the example I brought up with Thailand: Actually, it's a private sector-led market. Can we not set up similar systems in Laos or in Cambodia, which are the neighbouring countries?


When it's such context specific, how can we share knowledge?

Okowa: There's still the room to share knowledge. Context specific doesn't mean that there are no aspects that can be shared. Okay, there are some that need to be domesticated to the local requirements.


And can this knowledge also wander from one continent to another?

Larrousse: Absolutely. Let me give you an example. WorldVeg, together with GIZ and GAIN, is ready to set up a consortium called Urban Fresh where we really want to capture that learning. We plan to conduct assessments, look at successful models, or run different pilot projects in different cities around the world and then see how we can share the knowledge across the cities and understand what can be done at the different levels. By joining hands, different organizations and cities together in a consortium mode is, we think one of the solutions to really make sure that this knowledge can travel from one continent to the other, from one city to another, with cities as the main actors; as the innovation should come from them.


Are new opportunities opening up for women, for young people?

Okowa: In Africa, the majority of people working in food value chains are women. There's lots of opportunity for them to grow and also to learn. And we have young people who are very innovative, not just in the digital space, but also in terms of technology, agricultural technology on crops, and even manage crop management and other forms of livestock. There's room and there's opportunity to grow as the world's population is growing, there's need for more food. People have become very innovative on how to produce more food at different levels.


Larrousse: Processing is very attractive for women and youth. We're not talking about ultra processed food because, of course, we would prefer the fruits and vegetables to be consumed fresh. But in many instances, you can also think of dry vegetables using solar drying. You can think of different pastes or juices or cans, the bottles, juices, jams. There are so many examples of how fruits and vegetables can be lightly processed. And this is an industry that is quite attractive for women and youth.


Hoyos: Women and girls play a key role within agricultural and food systems. Therefore;


We must put women at the core of our efforts and address the structural barriers that limit women in developing their full potential.


...This is at the core of German foreign and development policy. Also, I worked in China, and we saw that the Chinese food systems is getting digitized. Especially women and young people in villages, are opening internet stores and are selling their produce through the internet directly to consumers.


And it's also a factor for adapting to climate change….

Larrousse: Yes, absolutely. And it is critical to work more on traditional vegetables specifically, they are often more resilient. They resist to harsh environments, to pests and diseases.


Okowa: And they have very high levels of micronutrients. They are also easily available seeds. These are just passed over from one family to the other.


Larrousse: WorldVeg is very active in the rescue and conservation of those. And we are continuously trying to see how we can revive the production and the consumption of those traditional vegetables.

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