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​Breaking the cycle of poverty: Johannesburg as gateway to food security in Africa

, Art & Science

Food is key to economic growth and urbanization. Tackling the issues of food security and inequality in Johannesburg, which is often seen as the ‘New York of Africa,’ could help create solutions that can be applied across the continent.

Hillbrow, Johannesburg

This is why the field trip for the Advanced Urban Design students this week focuses on South Africa and Johannesburg’s troubled Hillbrow neighborhood in particular. Located in the center of the city, the area is known for high levels of crime, unemployment, and food insecurity.

The Advanced Urban Design program is a joint Master’s Degree from two Moscow-based Institutions, the Higher School of Economics (HSE) and the Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture, and Design that focuses on urbanization in developing countries, where urban growth is the most significant now.

The students will consult food security experts in Johannesburg, visit Hillbrow, and develop their research. The report based on the trip will be published by Strelka Press and presented during the Strelka Summer public program and on other platforms.

Strelka Magazine spoke to economic geographer and urban planner Ronald Wall, who leads the field trip.



There is a misunderstanding in the world of food security that it is only about the total country, but it is actually also divided into the rich and the poor. So a country like the US can also seem to be food secure, but actually there is a lot of hidden poverty there, and a lot of people that don’t have access to nutritious food.

Johannesburg is the key city of Africa, and inside the city there is a huge population of underprivileged people who do not have access to food in general, but especially nutritious food. What happens is that children don’t get nutritious food and they don’t perform well in school, so they don’t end up getting good jobs, so the poverty cycle keeps coming back.

Siyakhana urban food garden, Johannesburg

Johannesburg is in itself a fantastic case study to explore this dimension of food security. The interesting thing about this city is that it also has a very wealthy community; you have a fantastic food supply chain. It’s almost like two worlds in one. And therefore, it is interesting to see how the students can explore how to create sustainable informal food chains for the poor vs. the established formal food chains, and even more interesting: how can you benefit from the two, because two systems are working pretty independently.

There are many other cities in Africa that have much higher food insecurity, but there the issue with food security is simply that most of them are poor. But here in Johannesburg there is this weird juxtaposition of two worlds coming together that makes it very interesting to address.

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, and we can start to address the problem of food security much more clearly throughout the continent.



Hillbrow since the ‘40 and ‘50s, up until the end of the ‘80s, used to be a very cosmopolitan but white area. So that is the big difference with what it is now. It is still a very cosmopolitan area, but now it has a black population from different African countries. In the distant past it was an attractive place for Russians, East Europeans, Latin Americans, and people from other European countries.

Streets of Johannesburg

It was always seen as a platform for newcomers. When people would come to Johannesburg, they would normally get themselves an apartment in Hillbrow. It was a real Greenwich Village, Soho kind of area of Johannesburg at the time. In those days, Johannesburg was the area where white people lived, and you would have hardly any black people living there because of the apartheid system that kept them separate. In those days, the black community would be in townships around the city, and whites would live in the Inner City and in the suburbs around the Inner City.

In the ‘90s, when apartheid was removed, a lot of black people moved into the Inner City and a lot of white people started moving out. So what happened is that Hillbrow inverted – from a white cosmopolitan area to a black cosmopolitan area, and now 99 percent of the population is black. What also happened is that there was not many subsidies or resources anymore for the new Hillbrow, so the government did not spend much money on maintenance and support. So the area has deteriorated and also become unmanageable, has extremely high crime rates, and a lot of problems with black communities from outside South Africa.



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.

Migrants would hesitate to try to live in a place like [the township of] Soweto, because it is dominated by local black people. And there is xenophobia, so they would quite easily be chased out. Places like the Inner City, and Hillbrow especially, are the areas where the migrants live.

The interesting thing about it is that many people, even in government, see those communities as a problem for the city. Xenophobia is targeted towards most of the people living in Hillbrow because they are from places like Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, and Nigeria.

So they still don’t get much support from the government because secretly the government sees them as a problem and not as a possible solution.

Hillbrow receives 10,000 migrants per month; that is about 120,000 migrants a year, which is the size of a town like Delft, Netherlands. Imagine that every year another Delft is being added to the city. 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.



On the other side, it is a very interesting area – it is an area with a huge innovation potential, because just like New York it is also a city of migrants. But what happened here is that it has not been utilized; we have not tapped into this innovative, multicultural group.

Schooling is not good, housing is not good, access to healthy food is not good. Many of the children eat food to simply fill their stomachs, not food that is good for their growth.


Throughout Africa, one of the biggest problems is called stunted growth, meaning that children cannot fully develop into adults, and they do not have the ability to participate in the economy in a healthy way, therefore you get the cycle of poverty continuing.

Food is key, because food is linked to nutrition and nutrition is key to development, and then development to economic growth, and then city growth. That’s why the project looks at that.

Hillbrow is an area of the city that most researchers don’t dare to touch; it’s too scary, too complicated, and it’s easier to go to Soweto and do a project there. You have many foreign schools coming to Johannesburg to do projects, but very seldom does anyone take on Hillbrow.



A healthy city should be the drive for architects and urban planners. I think it’s no longer only about the aesthetics and making nice buildings and designing nice urban neighborhoods, because that is ultimately just for the lucky few.

Because of rapid urbanization and globalization processes, it is very important that architects spend a lot of their time understanding the socio-economic and environmental dimensions behind the city. This is the reason why I switched from architecture to economics – originally I am an architect and urban designer. But what I felt was lacking there is that the work they do is not based on a solid understanding of the socio-economic and environmental processes behind the city. So that is why I took that step in my life to eventually go back to design, but to design from serious research.


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