Rural areas in many African countries are undergoing manifest transformation processes fuelled by population growth, urbanisation and increasing mobility. The relationship between rural and urban areas is changing and the rural-urban divide is fading, with increasing flows of people, goods and services between the two and the emergence of new migratory and livelihood patterns. Next to the growth of major cities, much of the urbanisation witnessed in African countries has taken place in rural towns and smaller cities below 500,000 inhabitants, fuelled in part by better infrastructure and digital connectivity as well as the search for economic opportunities.
Rural towns and smaller cities have the potential to invigorate rural areas in their function as market hubs, centres for processing and storage, and basic service providers. Strong rural-urban linkages will be key to this and include the physical movement of goods, people, money, information, social networks and relations that span rural and urban locations, and also interactions between different economic sectors – agriculture, industry and services. Strengthening rural-urban linkages in terms of infrastructure, transport, market access and exchange of information, ideas and innovation can also catalyse economic development in rural areas and provide future perspectives for rural populations and especially youth.
Increasing urban populations represent a strategic opportunity for rural food economies. Changing consumption patterns towards more processed, higher value non-staple or perishable goods – notably meat, dairy, fruit and vegetables – in urban areas create demand for processed foods. Rural economic policies that incorporate changing consumption patterns can stimulate growth in the rural farm and non-farm economy and assist in shifting value-adding activities and jobs in the ‘middle’ of value chains (often related to processing, packaging and distribution of agricultural products) to rural areas. At the same time, better integrated city-region food systems can contribute to increasing the food and nutrition security of whole regions by supporting local production and establishing short supply chains.
Demand for convenience – foods that are quick and easy to prepare and consume – is an overarching trend cutting across all countries and income groups. Increasingly pressed for time, consumers are willing to pay for others in the food system (processors, street-food vendors) to carry out some or all of the food processing and preparation for them, leading to rapidly growing demand for processing activities. Therefore, an improved understanding of their evolving preferences in terms of quality, convenience, safety and other food attributes is a prerequisite for producers to respond better to demand and successfully compete with imports. Safely and efficiently producing and delivering these to consumers entails tight coordination along all stages of the food system and upgraded infrastructure, such as reliable cold chains and improved product grades and standards. More attention should also focus on improving the performance of off-farm elements of the food system, such as marketing, processing, packaging and logistics.
Governments have an important role to play in investing in towns and intermediary cities as hubs for economic growth and service delivery for rural areas. Policies to increase rural non-farm employment will involve many sectors, including financial services, transport, health, education and the management of natural resources. The spread of ICTs will also help to stimulate rural employment. Moreover, Africa urgently needs massive increases in investment for energy and transport. Employers need reliable energy to produce goods and services, and reliable roads to compete in product markets. Yet Africa invests only 4% of GDP on infrastructure financing, which is far lower than most other emerging markets. The returns of infrastructure investments to both growth and employment can be extraordinary.