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Booming cities, new entrepreneurs

Exponential population growth and rapid urbanisation are prompting the development of gigantic African metropolises that must be supplied with resources such as food, water and energy. This creates economic opportunities, drives migration and presents political challenges. Researchers from Leiden combine qualitative and quantitative methods to understand the dynamics between local businesses, African multinationals and international players.

The global price of commodities such as oil, gas and copper fell in 2014. This was a test for many African economies: were their growth predictions based on the export of such commodities or could they manage without? With the emergence of African multinationals such as cement giant Dangote and the growth of a class of business owners, this is a legitimate question. Will Africa be able to feed its cities if its population increases from 1.3 billion to 4 billion in 2100, with the majority of people living in cities?

Africa: food exporter

Demographer Akinyinka Akinyoade and professor of African Development Ton Dietz believe so. In their book ‘Digging Deeper’ they conclude that agricultural production is increasing to such an extent that Africa would easily be able to feed its population, also in 2100. 

More and more convenience foods are appearing on the African market, such as cassava flour, which cuts out the labour-intensive process of chopping cassava roots.
More and more convenience foods are 
appearing on the African market, such as
cassava flour, which cuts out the 
labour-intensive process of chopping 
cassava roots.

Currently, part  of the produce is being sold to international players such as China, and agricultural land is being leased to countries such as Qatar. Furthermore, Africa exports expensive produce and imports cheap produce. Much grain comes from Russia, whereas some Nigerian urban farmers are exporting their fruit and vegetables to the Netherlands.


However, it is not only grain from abroad that feeds the hungry urban population. Akinyoade gives the example of Nigerian mega city Lagos, which is burgeoning into a multinational metropolis that will encompass cities in the neighbouring countries of Ghana, Togo and Benin. To feed its current 18 million mouths, the region already rents land in other parts of the country, and local entrepreneurs are constantly thinking of new ways to market the produce to meet the needs of the new urbanites. Spin-off economies are consequently developing in the areas that supply the city as well as in the city itself.

Local variation

Whether entrepreneurs manage to develop a successful means of existence often depends on local dynamics, says development economist and human geographer Marleen Dekker. She is following a group of farmers who settled on the farm of a former land owner in Zimbabwe after the country's independence under black majority rule in 1980. Although the community seemed to fare well in the first twenty years, its income fell when the Zimbabwean economy collapsed at the turn of the millennium.

However, for another group of farmers who took over the land of a large landowner during the economic crisis the economy actually improved. The departure of this large company that had made its purchases in the Zimbabwean capital of Harare cleared the way for local initiatives. A host of small shops opened in the area, where the farmers could purchase their fertilizer, seeds and food.

Informal strength

The hyperinflation forced people to be creative: Zimbabwean farmers had to spend their money on the day that they sold their produce, because otherwise it would be worthless. There was little option for bartering in places where everyone was selling the same produce, but where there were alternatives: farmers traded their crops for exercise books, for instance, which they could barter again for other products. Many Africans still have five or six different income streams, and they survive the lean years by helping each other out, says Dekker. This strong informal strength enables them to survive if the formal economy fails.

Digging Deeper: Inside Africa’s Agricultural, Food and Nutrition Dynamics

The hyperinflation in Zimbabwe resulted in one hundred trillion dollar notes. People ignored the ban on foreign currency or resorted to bartering.

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