Closer links between towns and rural areas benefit farmers. Urban markets provide opportunities to grow and sell more, including higher-value produce i.e. fruit, vegetables, dairy, meat and fish. Better transport to towns cuts transport costs so more of the market price gets back to the farm. Closer links to towns also means better access to industrial farm inputs, such as manufactured fertilisers, metal tools, simple machinery and irrigation equipment. It should also be easier to access financial services, advice and information.
Quite apart from the advantages for farming, for rural households, further benefits arise from rural-urban links. Opportunities for alternative off-farm employment increase. Urbanites often look to the surrounding countryside for their leisure, with the provision of accommodation and catering as resulting new rural activities. In addition, when towns are within an hour or so’s road journey, some rural people may be able to commute to towns for work. Thus, closer rural-urban links can help diversify the rural economy.
To improve rural-urban linkages, government does not need to do much more than what most governments are already doing, or intend to do. This means, for example, building roads and maintaining them. It also means investing in rural people, in their health, education, clean water and sanitation so that educated, healthy rural people can take up employment opportunities. Such investments and services are neither novel, nor that challenging: it is largely a question of giving them sufficient priority when budgeting.
More difficult, but valuable, is finding ways to overcome what – once roads are in place – is usually one of the main bottlenecks to rural enterprise: access to financial services. Many promising initiatives, from e-money transfers to agent banking and micro-finance, have been pioneered. Further development and scaling up of the best of these is warranted.
Does the form of urbanisation make a difference? Recent research suggests that secondary towns, rather than major metropolitan cities, tend to generate more jobs that are accessible to people with relatively low skills and a lack of experience – thus offering nearby rural populations the possibilities for commuting to work, or migrating over short distances. Government needs to ensure that secondary towns get adequate investment in power supplies, water and sanitation; eschewing the temptation to spend on showpiece projects in the capital.
Much interest has been generated around local economic development, clusters of medium-scale industries, and rural territorial development as ways to create more decentralised expansion, where secondary towns flourish with greater rural synergies. No simple, general lessons have emerged, but a combination of investments in roads and power, health and education, financial services with local leadership, awareness-raising and training hold promise.