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​How to improve food systems in developing countries

Developing countries face a unique set of hurdles when it comes to urbanization, with food insecurity being one of the most pressing issues. Advanced Urban Design students traveled to Johannesburg to study urban conditions and come up with possible solutions to help combat food insecurity in the city. Their report will soon be presented to the city's mayor.

The master's students, who are part of a joint program from Strelka Institute and the HSE Graduate School of Urbanism, traveled to Johannesburg in November. The project was organized by Prof. Ronald Wall and the academic director of the program, Anastassia Smirnova, as part of the Urbanization in Developing Countries course.

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Anastassia Smirnova (center)

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Ronald Wall (left)

The troubled neighborhood of Hillbrow was of particular interest to the students and Wall, due to a number of historical and present day factors. Once an upscale district designed only for white residents, it degentrified after the fall of apartheid and has been plagued with various social and economic problems ever since.

“Hillbrow is an extremely interesting area because it does not have many local black people living there; it is more the base for people from other countries in Africa,” Wall, who is Chair of Economic Development of the City of Johannesburg, a professor at Wits University (Johannesburg) and head of the Urban Competitiveness and Resilience Department at IHS Erasmus University Rotterdam,  told Strelka Magazine. “And a lot of the people do not find jobs, and end up in informal trade and informal activities – there is a lot of crime and violence in the area.” 

To better understand food insecurity issues being faced by the neighborhood’s residents, the Advanced Urban Design students had to first understand exactly what it means to be food insecure, particularly in Hillbrow. It is estimated that 12 million people in South Africa go to bed hungry each night. 

Less is known about the water situation, but it’s a reality that South Africa has a water scarcity issue and poor maintenance of infrastructure, both of which make water access limited to many across the country. 

After examining the situation, the students broke into three groups to create three proposals of how to tackle the issue of food insecurity in the area. 



The first proposal focuses on creating healthy diets and lifestyles for children between the ages of five and 10 through an integrated program of school snacks, a garden partnership, and an educational program. The project is designed to overcome the limitations of  social and economic barriers in home and school environments which make healthy eating difficult and rare for young learners.

The first step would be to provide children with a nutritious and appealing snack, as 51.1 percent of South Africa’s children don’t take a lunch box to school, according to the South African National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Another 29.8 percent don’t have anything at home to put inside their lunch boxes.

Since the Balance Box would be targeted at children from average and low-income families, the team aims to maintain the lowest price possible for the snack box. As a result, its cost could successfully compete with junk food and sweets from nearby shops, which are typically sold at cheap prices.

Secondly, an educational program would be put into place to engage children in learning healthier daily habits, decisions, and lifestyles, especially as 71.7 percent of the country’s children received a “low” score in that category. Community cooperation would also be a major component, including a garden partnership which would not only provide healthy produce, but would also teach children about food and its production. 



The second group of students focused on integrating independent water catchment devices into the existing water supply infrastructure of Hillbrow, in order to increase consistency and accessibility of water for residents. 

The proposal consists of three parts. One would include water catchment units on top of homes, which would provide drinkable water to residents. The second would see catchment devices put in public spaces throughout Hillbrow in order to provide collective gathering space in the most densely populated area of the city. Third would be the construction of boreholes, tapping into the city’s untouched ground water supply. These three interventions acting together as a system would be especially helpful to residents during times of emergency, such as drought season.

The target group of the project would be those who are affected by severe water shortages and insufficient city water infrastructure. Although water is not currently considered in the discourse of food security in Johannesburg, the team stressed that food insecurity and overall quality of life in the city would improve if access to water was made easier.



The third group of students focused on two elements: food waste management and accessibility of nutritious food. Within those categories, their proposal introduces a system that consists of three elements: food supply, food stations, and ‘foodcoin.’ 

The food supply phase utilizes existing food markets. Surplus food would be collected from market vendors and from other locations. It would then be sorted into two categories – food and waste (compost). Any food deemed safe and edible would be packaged to be delivered to a food station, where it would be cooked. Compost would accumulate and be sold to local farms.

The food stations would be aimed at making use of food from supply points and offering healthy food to people who cannot typically afford it, as well as to other customers looking for quick and healthy meals.

‘Foodcoin’ would be an alternative financial currency which would help make the system affordable for a broader audience. One particular example described in the project is ‘wastecoin.’ Waste collection - one of the key sources of income for poorer groups of Johannesburg’s population - is integrated in the system, with a portion of the profit gained from waste recycling being used to cover food supply logistics for the food stations. 



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Ponte City Tower, Johannesburg

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The three teams agreed that addressing food insecurity in the urban context requires a holistic approach which takes a number of factors into consideration – from economic to social, cultural, and spatial conditions which contribute to the problem. The students were careful to ensure that their proposals were realistic and built upon existing elements, rather than bringing radical and unrealistic solutions to the table. 

Advanced Urban Design student Daniel Roche says it’s also important not to look at work in developing countries as charity work. Instead, it should be treated in a “very business-like and objective manner.” 

Roche is also aware of a need to look beyond the work itself. “The most important thing that a project designer can do in a context like this is to think about who you hand the project off to after it’s over...when you keep that transition in mind and design for it, the project will take on a life of its own afterwards, if it’s a successful one.”

“Johannesburg is seen as the New York of Africa. Once we can show in Johannesburg how to do it locally, it can become an export product to the rest of Africa. Then we can start to address the problem of food security much more clearly throughout the continent,” Prof. Wall told Strelka Magazine.

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