March 16, 2016 | By

Growing Food for Growing Cities: Food System Development to Improve Food Security

On March 2, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs launched a new campaign, “Growing Food for Growing Cities,” to explore the challenges posed to global food security by urbanization and the opportunities it creates for small-scale farmers to connect with burgeoning urban markets. We will publish one blog post each week addressing these issues, and our series will culminate with the release of a new Council report at the Global Food Security Symposium 2016. Look for a new post each Wednesday, join the discussion using #GlobalAg, and tune in to the Symposium live stream on April 26.

If small-scale, rural producers are to bear the burden—and capture the opportunity—of feeding the world’s growing cities, they will have to adopt a host of new practices to improve their efficiency and productive capacity. Likewise, the vast food system that lies between the farm and fork will need to evolve to deliver a wider variety and much larger volumes of food to cities. This food system is comprised of a network of supply chains that link rural areas to burgeoning urban markets.

Supply Chain Development to Feed Cities

Supply chains encompass the services and activities involved in bringing an agricultural product from the farm to the consumer in rural, peri-urban, and urban areas—from the planting, growing, and harvesting, to the storing, processing, and transporting, to the retail sale of food. An effective network of supply chains is able to deliver a variety of foods year-round to urban centers by reaching climatically diverse, and often distant, rural zones. Ideally, these linkages would produce a consistent and sustainable supply of safe and nutritious foods for urban consumers.

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Whereas supply chains in developed countries operate with a high degree of efficiency, the supply chains that link rural areas to growing urban markets in developing countries are limited by a number of shortcomings. Road access allows farmers and other small and medium enterprises (SMEs) along the supply chain to interact with a more diverse set of buyers, processing facilities, and options for compensation. However, roads are scarce and of poor quality in many developing countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, where less than 50% of rural people live near an adequate road. While investment in transportation infrastructure is increasing and roads are expanding along with urban growth, poor road access stymies supply chain activity. Similarly, of the 1.3 billion people across the world who are without access to electricity, 600 million of these live in sub-Saharan Africa, and over 300 million live in India. These regions are hard-pressed to deliver food across long distances without sufficient transportation or storage technologies, like refrigeration. And, without this access, small farmers are unable to participate in the economic growth presented by urbanization.

Beyond this dearth of basic inputs, supply chains in many developing countries operate without most of the advanced agricultural and sales technologies employed in developed contexts: new processing, packaging, or marketing techniques; sales tracking or accounting procedures. Without such technologies, developing supply chains will not produce food in accordance with safety regulations or in an amount sufficient to meet growing demand. Thus, the supply chains that link rural areas to urban markets in developing countries must strengthen to ensure future food security.

Bolstered Urban and Rural Food Security

Supply chain development will offer a wide range of benefits to urban consumers. A steady food supply would insulate urban areas from shocks, stabilize prices, and reduce the need for imports. Expanding the amount and consistency of the food choices available to urban consumers will greatly reduce their vulnerability and improve food security.

However, this development would also present a number of benefits to rural food security. Urban and rural food systems are not separate entities, but rather a continuum between rural and urban actors. Hundreds of millions of farmers and other actors involved in rural SMEs, including wholesalers, producers, suppliers, and transporters, will be impacted by the development of supply chains in low- and middle-income countries. Rural producers that receive help to participate will have opportunities to produce higher-value goods with greater efficiency—their incomes and livelihoods will improve as a result, as well as their ability to feed their families. Additionally, the need for expanded supply will also facilitate investment in rural production and the creation of additional non-farm wage jobs.

It is important to note that without support, rural smallholders and entrepreneurs stand to be left out of the growth of supply chains and urban markets. For the most part, these actors will require assistance to adopt the technologies and the training necessary to supply, process, and transport high-value goods at scale. Beyond these, they need access to the most basic of inputs—roads, water, and secure land tenure. If they cannot access the tools necessary to compete in new markets, they will be passed over for larger entities and corporations who do not require the same support to scale-up production.

Sustainable and effective food system development will require a variety of investments in many links of the supply chain. However, if the international community harnesses the innovations that have revolutionized food production and delivery in the developed world and applies them to low- and middle-income contexts, rural producers can effectively supply food to growing cities throughout the world. The next several posts in our series will zero in on advancements in fields like climate resilience, food storage, food waste, and others that must be applied to developing supply chains to feed the future. 

Read previous posts in the “Growing Food for Growing Cities” blog series: 

Urbanization Is an Opportunity for Many Small-Scale Farmers

Food Security in an Urbanizing World


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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| By Janet Fierro

Guest Commentary - Rural Niger Women find Opportunity and Hope through Innovative Business Model

When researchers set out to find natural ways to manage a crop-destroying pest in sub-Saharan Africa cowpea fields they knew the results could have significant positive impact on smallholder farmers. What they may not have expected was the significance of the cottage industry it inspired and the entrepreneurial spirit of the rural women of Niger who led it.