Urbanization and dietary change

Lara Cockx, Liesbeth Colen and Joachim De Weerdt
Analysis and policy brief 35

Sub-Saharan Africa still evokes images of undernourished children in poor farming villages. And indeed, this is a region where one in every three children under 5 is stunted in their growth and in danger of irreversible physical and cognitive damage.  As recently as 2017, parts of South-Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria experienced episodes of famine.
However, the region is changing rapidly. While still mostly rural today, sub-Saharan Africa is the fastest urbanizing region in the world. The share of population living in urban areas rose from less than 15% in 1960 to nearly 39% in 2015 and is projected to reach 58% by 2050.  At the same time the total population in Africa is growing, making for an even more impressive increase. As can be seen on the infographic below, the absolute number of people living in urban areas in Africa will almost triple over the next 30 years.
This shift toward urban living is often put forward as an explanation for changing diets in the region. That is, traditional African staple foods such as maize, sorghum, cassava and pulses are increasingly complemented with and substituted by more processed food items, often with higher levels of sugar and fat. As such, urbanization is commonly linked to increasing rates of overweight and obesity. While undernutrition remains a major public health problem in sub-Saharan Africa, 39% of adult women in Africa were estimated to be overweight and sub-Saharan Africa was home to 6.4 million overweight children in 2017.

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