While there is much talk in global and national policy arenas about the relationship between migration and development, the link between migration and food security rarely enters discussions.
At the same time, those debating food security disregard migration in their focus on enhancing agricultural production by smallholders.
And while these policy conversations are happening, rural households throughout Southern Africa are buying more and more of their food, rather than growing it, and doing so with cash that they receive from household members who have moved to cities within the country and across borders to earn money.
The reality is that migration is a critical food security strategy for rural and many urban households.
The evidence for Southern Africa is that households that receive remittances do not invest this money in agriculture but in basic necessities – mostly food.
Research by the Southern African Migration Programme has found cash remittances to be the most important source of income in all SADC countries with 74% of all migrant-sending households receiving remittances (with as many as 95% in Lesotho and 83% in Zimbabwe). In-country wage employment was a source of income for 40% of households followed by remittances in kind, including food (37%). At the other end of the spectrum, only 8% of households receive income from the sale of agricultural produce and only 5% receive social grants.
This means that rural food security may be improved but will not be resolved by the current approach that focuses only on agriculture.
The simplest way to examine the relationship between international migration and food security is to ascertain how migrants address their own food and nutrition needs in the country they move to, as well as what happens to the income that they earn there.
These questions are related because the amount of money available to send home is to some degree contingent on the food-related expenditures of the breadwinner in the destination country. Migrants rarely live alone and their income may often support people in their new households who cannot find work.
Migration within and to Southern African has changed significantly and all the evidence suggests that the region is undergoing a rapid urban transition through internal migration and natural population increase. There has also been significant growth in the numbers of people who cross borders for short time periods. They almost all head for cities, with South Africa’s major centres being the most popular destinations.
The primary determinant of food insecurity in South Africa’s cities is not production shortfalls but people’s lack of access to food, which is caused by not having the regular income they need to buy it.
In its research, the Cape Town-based African Food Security Urban Network (AFSUN) found that even within the poorest areas of Johannesburg, Cape Town and cities in neighbouring states, having enough food to meet the household’s needs varies considerably from household to household. Factors influencing this are wage employment, other income-generating activity, the size and structure of the household, the educational level of its members, access to social grants and the strength of social links that households have.
AFSUN conducted a survey in 11 cities in nine countries in the region and found that four out of five household sampled had insufficient food to meet their needs.
The researchers found that there is no simple and direct correlation between household income and food security because of many intervening variables including the price of food and the cost of other necessities such as clothing, shelter and transport.
Their statistics also showed a gender dimension to food insecurity, with female-centred households the most food insecure.
The research probed whether migrants are more food insecure than other residents of the poorer areas of Southern African cities and found that, while levels of food insecurity are alarmingly high among everyone, migrant households have a greater chance of being food insecure with all of its attendant health and nutritional problems.
The rapid urbanisation and increased movement across borders that has led to the growth in the number of migrants in cities is likely to continue. Most poor households in Southern African cities now consist entirely of migrants or a mix of migrants and locally-born. The impact of this on food security needs to be recognised by policy-makers and acted upon.
While improving food security for the poor at the same time as addressing the problems inherent in the current growth trajectory of cities is an enormous challenge, it comes with major opportunity. Addressing sustainability from the point of view of food security provides a tangible approach to creating healthier, more economically stable and resilient cities.