FUEL Project

FUEL: Food, Urbanization, Environment and Livelihoods


The FUEL project highlights the rapid transformation taking place in African secondary cities and its impact on food security, food systems, livelihoods, poverty, and governance. Defined broadly as cities with fewer than half a million inhabitants that are not a capital city, secondary cities are absorbing the majority of Africa’s urban growth but receive less infrastructure investment, policy focus, and academic attention than large primary cities. The lack of resources and policy attention to secondary cities is acute across sub-Saharan Africa, where highly centralized national governments in partnership with global actors control much of the policy agenda for geographically dispersed and culturally diverse populations, often leading to severe policy gaps in addressing the needs of residents in secondary cities.

FUEL builds on research findings of three allied projects: (1) the African Food Security Urban Network (AFSUN), which identified widespread food insecurity in southern African cities, (2) the Consuming Urban Poverty (CUP) project, which explored poverty, governance and urban planning through a food lens in secondary cities in Kenya, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, and (3) the Hungry Cities Partnership, which produced new insights into the linkages between urban food security and informal food systems in primary cities across the Global South. FUEL provides a unique contribution to this emerging field of scholarship by focusing on:

  • Secondary African cities in all regions of sub-Saharan Africa
  • The interaction of household food security with food system transformation
  • City-wide surveys of household food security and informal food system actors
  • Interdisciplinary approaches

FUEL is located at the intersection of three bodies of scholarship:

  • “Southern” urban geographical theory that challenges Western biases by studying diverse human settlements in the Global South;
  • Secondary urbanization in Africa, which has received insufficient empirical study and where there is untapped potential to develop policies at the local level to address residents’ daily needs; and
  • secondary urban food systems in Africa, which are shaped by cultural, ecological, economic, and political factors across multiple scales and provide a focal point for imagining tangible pathways to ecologically sustainable and socially inclusive urban futures.

FUEL aims to produce research that facilitates policy innovations for sustainable food governance in secondary cities by generating new evidence and by working with local researchers, communities and policy-makers to develop progressive development strategies. The evidence and policy recommendations will influence a broad set of actors in global development, municipal and national governments, and interdisciplinary scholars in food studies, urban studies, development studies, and policy studies.

FUEL is based on research conducted in three foundational case study urban areas:

  1. Mzuzu, Malawi

Mzuzu is the administrative centre for the Northern Region of Malawi. It is the country’s third largest city (2018 population 221,272); although it is much smaller than Lilongwe, the capital, and Blantyre, the “commercial capital,” it is Malawi’s fastest growing city (5.4% per annum from 2008-2018). Most of the rapid urbanization is in the form of rural to urban migration within the northern region. The municipal boundaries encompass an area of about 144km2 including forested and peri-urban areas. Mzuzu was established as a tung oil estate by the British government’s Colonial Development Corporation in the 1950s in what was then an economically remote part of Nyasaland, known by colonial planners as the “Dead North.” After the failure of the tung oil estate, the site was sold to the government and became an administrative hub of the Northern Region. Mzuzu was designated a city in 1985 as part of a national planning initiative to redirect urbanization away from the two main cities and to develop the economy of the Northern Region. Today, the north of the country enjoys some advantages relative to other areas, such as land abundance, high levels of education, and economic trade with East Africa via Tanzania. Mzuzu has been receiving increased investment and faces the benefits and challenges of rapid growth. With growth has come the expansion of informal settlements and the consequent problems of high rates of poverty and inequality and deteriorating environmental conditions.

The research in Malawi is supported by faculty, staff and students at the University of Livingstonia. The core team includes:

  • Emmanuel Chilanga, Lecturer, University of Livingstonia (on leave)
  • Lovemore Zuze, Lecturer, University of Livingstonia
  • Bernard Kamanga, Associate Professor and College Principal, University of Livingstonia
  • Amanda Joynt, PhD Candidate, Geography and Environmental Sciences, University of Waterloo
  • Anil Dhakal, PhD Candidate, Geography and Environmental Sciences, University of Waterloo
  • Liam Riley, Adjunct Researcher, Balsillie School of International Affairs, Wilfrid Laurier University
  1. Oshakati-Ongwediva-Ondangwa Corridor, Namibia

The Oshakati-Ongwediva-Ondangwa urban corridor is a rapidly growing population centre in Owamboland, Northern Namibia. Ondangwa, a royal seat, is the oldest town in north-central Namibia and the first Christian mission in Owamboland was established there as early as 1870. In 1966, South Africa established Oshakati as the administrative capital of Owamboland. During the 1980s, South Africa used Oshakati as a base for its economic intervention in northern Namibia as well as for its military operations against the liberation movement during the Namibian War of Independence. Large military structures were established, as well as hospitals, schools, a meat-processing plant, and several small factories. Both Oshakati and Ondangwa grew rapidly during the 1970s and 1980s because of the presence of the South African army of occupation, as well as in-migration from the countryside and the arrival of refugees from the Angolan civil war. In 1981, only 3,684 people lived in Oshakati and this number had grown to 22,000 by 1991. Ongwediva was only founded in the early 1990s after independence. After 1990, Oshakati became an important trading hub for the region, and by 2011 its population had increased to 35,600. Ondangwa grew in similar fashion but at a slower pace. Between 2001 and 2011, however, its population almost doubled to 21,100. Ongwediva grew quickly and had a population of nearly 20,000 by 2011. These three towns have been major centres of post-independence development in the north and are in close proximity to one another. Oshakati and Ongwediva are 5km apart and Ondangwa is 30km from Ongwediva. They constitute an urban corridor with a combined population of over 100,000 and share an airport located in Ondangwa. They are also the hub of trans-border trade with Angola.

The research in Namibia is supported by faculty, staff and students at the University of Namibia. The core team includes:

  • Dr Ndeyapo Nickanor, Dean, Faculty of Science, University of Namibia
  • Lawrence Kazembe, Associate Professor, Department of Statistics and Population Studies, Faculty of Science, University of Namibia
  • Jonathan Crush, Professor, Balsillie School of International Affairs, and University Research Professor, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Canada
  1. Dschang, Cameroon

Dschang has a particularly dynamic demography as its growth is mainly due to the presence of the University of Dschang, which was established in 1994 and enrols thousands of new graduate and undergraduate students annually. The University of Dschang is part of the national system of tertiary education and as such many civil servants are posted to Dschang from other parts of the country, contributing to a highly mobile and nationally connected population. The third General Census of Population and Housing in 2005 (the most up to date source of local population figures) lists the Dschang municipality’s total population at 120,207 and the 2020 population is estimated to be 200,000. Dschang’s written historical record begins with a visit in 1895 by a German government representative. It became an administrative and civil city in 1903 and, after the first world war, came under French control after Cameroon was split between the British and the French. Dschang became the capital of the Bamiléké region in 1920 but at independence in 1960 was replaced as regional capital by Bafoussam. The administrative census of 1956 listed Dschang as having a population of 3,000 people. While under colonial rule, Dschang played an important role in the provision of commercial, educational, and administrative facilities to the adjacent rural communities. Dschang is now the administrative centre of the Menoua Division in the West region. Agriculture is the main economic activity in Dschang and involves more than 70% of the municipality’s working population. Production systems are still largely hand made and crops are mixed. In the same field, one can find both food and perennial crops, including Arabica coffee, plantains, beans, maize, cassava, cocoyams and taro.

The research in Cameroon is supported by faculty, staff and students at the Université de Dschang and the University of Buea. The core team includes:

  • Yanick Borel Kamga, Lecturer, Department of Plant Biology, Université de Dschang
  • Lekeufack Martin, Senior Lecturer, Department of Plant Biology, Université de Dschang
  • Patrick Njukeng, Vice Dean, Research and Cooperation, Faculty of Science, University of Buea
  • Alexander Legwegoh, Independent Researcher
  • Liam Riley, Adjunct Researcher, Balsillie School of International Affairs, Wilfrid Laurier University

FUEL seeks to increase the breadth of its geographical scope through the Transforming Urban Food Systems in Africa (TUFSA) initiative, which gathered secondary city case studies from an additional eight sub-Saharan African countries (Mozambique, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Uganda, Kenya, Ghana, Senegal) for a workshop meeting which was postponed due to the COVID pandemic. These case studies explore various aspects of transforming food systems, including environmental change, dietary change, urban geographical change, economic change, and gendered vulnerabilities.

FUEL is based at the Balsillie School of International Affairs at Wilfrid Laurier University.