How do the cities we live
in shape what we eat?

Local government needs to be much more actively engaged in planning for and designing cities with the food system in mind

Local government needs to be much more actively engaged in planning for and designing cities with the food system in mind

6 White Elephant

Once all the market forces that shape the city’s food system have been accounted for, and the different players have had their say, one big question remains: where is local government in terms of decision-making, planning, and crafting policies so that the people living in our cities are not just free from hunger, but properly nourished, too? This is where the big gap still lies: strong local governance.

If you travel north on the Kakamega Highway for about six kilometres from Kisumu’s central business district, with the city to your back, you’ll come across a tangle of half-built offramps along the way. Once this highway upgrade is finished, it will be the gateway to the biggest shopping complex in western Kenya.

If you believe the media hype, the Lake Basin Mall will ‘revolutionise’ the shopping experience for this fast-developing area.

A local real-estate ad crows about the mall’s modern finishes and “futuristic sail-like curving roof”, the five-storey three-star hotel, the 62 000 square metres of retail space, and the expansive undercover parking. Once you look past that, you’ll see that the place has been standing largely empty since its last fittings were added in August 2016.

By the time the mall was finally finished, the cost for the development had run to nearly double its original estimate, topping out at KSh4.2 billion (Kenyan shillings) and by early this year its anchor tenant, the Kenyan supermarket chain Tuskys, had pulled out. There are reports that they had found premises in the centre of town, according to local sustainable urban development and food security researcher Paul Opiyo, who is also part of the CUP research team.

The mall has received plenty of media attention over the years. Breathless television journalists escorted their news crews through the echoing food court early in 2017, reporting that the mall had been spared a hasty auction to settle the debt owed by the developer, the Lake Basin Development Authority (LBDA), a government agency. Later in the year, the Kenyan parliament approved a national government bail-out by Treasury to settle the agency’s outstanding KSh2.5 billion debt owed on the property.

The complex has had plenty of political support, which might explain the central government’s justification of the bail-out: when the Lake Basin Mall finally opens, it will be a “landmark national asset which will improve the economy of the Lake Basin region in line with (Kenya’s) vision 2030”, the country’s Auditor General Edward Ouko said.

Yet by March 2018, even though newspaper reports said the mall complex was finally open for business, only about a third of the floor space was booked at the time, there was little trading, and no sign of a new anchor tenant.

From the perspective of the urban geographers who are concerned about questions of governance in the interests of hunger-proofing a city, this mall’s history is important. It pulls into focus the fact that the decisions which shape the layout and structure of a city fundamentally inform the food system, but they are often made without giving much consideration to how they impact on the food system of a city.

The Lake Basin Mall has been on the drawing board since the 1980s, but an attempted coup against the Daniel arap Moi regime in 1982, followed by years of political instability, stalled the sod-turning, which finally happened in 2013. After that came the cost over-runs, the delays, the unpaid debt, the parliamentary oversight, and the national government bail-out.

The development has always been politically motivated, explains Opiyo. This wasn’t a private-sector development, but was the idea of the LBDA that, until recently, was housed in the Kenyan national government’s Ministry of Water, Environment and Natural Resources. Now it’s in the Ministry of Devolution and Planning.

“The LBDA is a semi-autonomous government agency that dates back to 1979 and deals with community development, agriculture, food security, and water resources,” explains Opiyo.

“The agency conceived the idea of the mall because it needed a place for its headquarters, and argued that if it built a shopping mall and put its offices there, the agency could earn revenue from the mall and pay for itself rather than lean on central government for grant funding.”

Its location, out here on the edge of the Kisumu-Kakamega Highway, is probably to do with the fact that this is where much of Kisumu’s middle-class suburban expansion is likely to happen, with wealthier neighbourhoods springing up on the hills surrounding the congested city centre. Kisumu took root on the banks of Lake Victoria, and its southern boundary is the water’s edge. The city can only expand north, west, and to the east.

“There are many residential estates coming up in this neighbourhood outside of Kisumu,” says Opiyo. “High-income people are moving out of town and into this area.”

City officials love the mall

Some of the stories in this book already illustrate the kind of preferential treatment that shopping malls and supermarkets get, because they’re seen as clean, modern and aspirational. They clearly have a special place in the hearts of local government.

“We can see from our work in Kisumu and Kitwe that local governments see shopping malls, and the supermarkets that occupy them, as symbols of modernisation and economic opportunity,” says CUP researcher, Dr Jane Battersby.

Four key ideas spur on the development of these malls and supermarkets, Battersby says: “the vision of the ‘modern’ city; the imperative of economic growth; the notion of the rising middle class as the investment frontier (explaining why so many complexes are built closer to middle-class suburbs); and the belief in public-private partnerships as the means to achieve development objectives”.

Because of this, Battersby says local governments need to be scrutinised more closely so they can be held accountable in terms of how they view these developments, what they approve and where.

“Local government needs to be much more actively engaged in planning for and designing cities with the food system in mind”

Alison Pulker is a research assistant at the University of Cape Town’s African Centre for Cities where the CUP project is based. Like Battersby, she’s also concerned with how municipality-level decision-making impacts on whether poorer communities in our cities experience a food gap or not.

“In terms of the relationship between the urban poor and the different food systems in the city context, we know that informal food traders are an important safety net for people,” Pulker explains. “We know that supermarket expansion, including into low-income communities, shapes how people access food, in terms of affordability. We also know that supermarket and mall developments can sometimes push informal traders out of key trading areas. But do our cities’ land-use and spatial planners understand this?”

And so, in 2016, Pulker decided to speak with land-use and spatial planners in the Cape Town municipality, to gauge their understanding of the link between the spread of supermarkets and the food needs of the urban poor, and to test their attitudes towards mall development in the context of city layout and planning.

“According to the planners we interviewed, the rapid expansion of these kinds of developments into low-income areas is aligned with the city’s current political landscape,” she says. “They see it as a question of ‘all development is good development’.”

How should these city-level officials shift gear so that they can make sure their current development focus doesn’t put the city’s poorer communities on shaky nutritional ground?

“Well, at an institutional level, this means crafting policy that reflects an understanding that where you locate supermarkets will ultimately shape how informal traders operate,” Pulker explains.

Cape Town’s food-security policy emphasises urban farming as something of a panacea to address the food gap, without considering the impact of mall development on whether or not informal markets are allowed to operate effectively or thrive, she says. “Yes, urban agriculture does play a role, but on its own it’s not enough to address the systemic nature of food insecurity.”

Well-informed land-use and spatial planning can help create a city that has an affordable and equitable urban food system, Pulker says, because planners can decide where to allow supermarkets and malls to be built.

Planners can also influence the kinds of regulations that apply to specific sites. This means deciding on whether or not to allow informal food trading to happen close to a mall, and stipulating how much of that land should be earmarked for informal food trading, or whether food markets are close to public transport routes.

Returning to the Kisumu story, it’s not clear how much the local government there was involved in decision-making and planning around the location of the Lake Basin Mall development. Although it’s hardly surprising that the complex sprang up close to land earmarked for a middle-class development, because where the richer suburbs go, supermarkets and malls tend to follow.

The local government ‘gap’

From the vantage point of a city administrator, there’s no quick or easy route to understanding their role in shaping the urban food system. But if they want to design a city that is not only free from hunger, but properly nourished in the long-term too, they need to understand who all the players are in the food system – governments themselves, the private sector, or civil society organisations – and what their competing interests are.

“The problem is that cities have never seen food as their problem,” says Battersby, “and even if they did, local governments generally have quite limited financial and human capacity. So, from what we’ve seen in Kitwe, Kisumu and Epworth, there’s little direct governance focus on food.”

Local governments don’t seem to be thinking about how their decisions relating to trader conditions, market sites and mall developments shape how food flows in the city, how much it costs, and whether people can access it.

“This means that most policy and planning decisions are informed by national governments, large international donor agencies and private-sector actors,” Battersby explains.

Local government needs to be much more actively engaged in planning for and designing cities with the food system in mind. These secondary cities may have a ‘vulnerable economic base’, but will nevertheless be development hubs in the future, with a likely concentration of development challenges, but also with plenty of development opportunities. This reality is often missed in the planning of city systems.

From Opiyo’s perspective, the Kisumu- Kakamega Highway that passes by the Lake Basin Mall may be the answer to the complex’s woes, but may also be contributing to them. The tangle of half-completed overpasses and underpasses along this stretch of road have been part of a dual-lane upgrade that’s been ongoing for over three years now.

“The place is dusty, and getting into the mall is challenging,” he says, after a visit to the site in June 2018, when there was still a gaping hole in the space where the anchor tenant was supposed to be, and no rumour of a replacement.

“This may be one of the reasons why retailers are reluctant to commit to opening up shops here – that they’ll be renting space but that customers might not come soon.”

Percy Toriro is an urban planner based at the University of Cape Town and was part of CUP’s Epworth research team.

Most planners in Zimbabwe want their cities to be ‘world class’ – even places like Epworth, outside the capital Harare. This community is poorly planned and undeveloped, but the settlement now has nearly 170 000 residents in all. The city administrators responsible for managing it have a low revenue base and the bureaucracy is under-staffed.

After speaking with city planners from Harare and from the central government agency that oversees Epworth, it was clear that there’s a disconnect between how they perceive the settlement, and the reality on the ground.

To most city officials, their vision of a ‘modern’ city is one where there is no informality, be it housing, livelihoods, or anything they see as rural or backward. They advocate a rational, scientific planning approach where they prepare blueprints. Their day-to-day preoccupation, thereafter, is about ensuring that the situation on the ground matches that blueprint. Anything outside this ideal of what a city should be is therefore seen as illegal and must be dealt with ruthlessly, be it through demolishing informal traders’ structures or closing businesses.

Epworth’s reality doesn’t match city planners’ perception of the place. In fact, it embarrasses them; they wish it could be better and different.

Policymakers need to accept the reality of the people’s day-to-day struggles as they try to pursue different livelihoods and create their own employment. They need to embrace the fact that an ideal city is context specific; it need not look like Dubai or Hong Kong. As long as it works, as long as it meets minimum requirements and local needs, and reflects different stakeholder aspirations, that should make it a good city.

Great expectations

Robyn Park-Ross is an urban planning researcher with the African Centre for Cities, the institutional home of the CUP project.

“If you buy [at Margie’s Kitchen], then it’s like being at home. She cater (sic) for people that wants cooked food and cater (sic) for people who wants like chips and chicken and fast food. You can have breakfast, lunch and supper at Aunty Margie’s kitchen.” (Customer, 15 September 2017)

Margaret Fredericks has been trading around Bellville station, near Cape Town, South Africa, for 24 years. She operates out of a 4x4m municipal kiosk, which allows her to make a living, helps pay towards her daughters’ education, and employs four women. Traders like Margie bring a host of food options to city folk, particularly those whose daily commutes keep them out of home for long periods.

But businesswomen like Margie face challenges, ranging from systemic ones, to issues that are specific to where they trade. Systemic issues are linked to elements of identity, such as gender, race, or nationality. For instance, being a female trader means that she often has to limit her operating hours due to family responsibilities, or she may be vulnerable to harassment and discrimination.

While her South African identity is a protection for her, other foreign national traders doing business in her neighbourhood often find their trading constricted by the prejudice they face, both from other traders, as well as by trading regulations.

Traders are quick to find solutions to these problems, though. Margie stores her stock at home to reduce the possibility of theft in the face of high crime levels. She also employs someone who used to live on the street in the area to take care of cleaning around her kiosk in response to the lack of municipal cleaning. Margie has also been a central part of the African Traders Association, which has struggled to influence city governance relating to their businesses. Self-organising can be time-consuming on top of already long business hours, and disillusioning when she feels the work is having limited impact.

There’s little recognition of the important role these traders like Margie play in boosting people’s access to food, and so there’s little support for them.

Margie’s Kitchen, Cape Town
CHAPTERS: 1234567