Urbanisation, structural change and the food system: The crucial role of rural-urban linkages

By Cecilia Tacoli,  International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED)

Both urban and rural areas in West Africa are undergoing considerable transformation. As an ever greater proportion of the region’s population live – and will live – in urban centres, how can policies help ensure that rural residents are not ‘left behind’, and at the same time food production satisfies the needs of the growing urban population?

One theme of growing interest for policy makers is the potential role of rural-urban linkages in supporting inclusive and sustainable development that benefits both rural and urban people and enterprises. But what exactly do we mean by rural-urban linkages?

Defining rural-urban linkages

A basic definition of rural-urban linkages is that these consist of flows (of goods, people, information, finance, social relations) across space, which link rural and urban areas. Perhaps a less descriptive definition is of the functional links between sectors (agriculture, industry and services). These include agricultural production’s backward linkages(the manufacturing of inputs) and its forward linkages (processing, transport, distribution of produce). These functional, cross-sectoral links are central to structural change taking place in both rural and urban areas. As the world becomes ever more urbanised, the distinction between ‘urban’ and ‘rural’ is increasingly blurred.

Urbanisation is closely linked to transformations in the structure of national and global economies. The proportion of people living in areas classed as urban  is connected to the shift from agrarian to industrial and services-based economies, where employment opportunities are increasingly concentrated in urban centres.

The impact of urbanisation on rural food production

Urbanisation has significant impacts on rural areas, and demand for food is perhaps the most important, together with demand for other natural resources (water, fuelwood, etc.). In many regions of the world we are witnessing an increase in production, especially of perishable and high-value products such as fruit, vegetables and dairy, in response to urban demand. This is especially the case in rural areas that are well connected to urban markets by transport links, communications and electricity, and by networks of local traders.

From a policy perspective, infrastructure is without doubt a priority for positive rural-urban linkages. However, this should not be limited to connecting rural areas to large urban centres; urbanisation is not merely the growth of large cities, but is also the often more important (in demographic and economic terms) growth of intermediate and small urban centres. These can play a central role in the development of their rural regions, which is strengthened by adequate infrastructure.

Rural income diversification and the role of small towns

What we are also seeing almost everywhere is a considerable increase in income diversification: rural incomes are less and less based only on agriculture. As the local, national and global structures of the economy undergo major shifts, access to non-farm employment becomes increasingly important for the livelihoods of rural residents. In many cases income diversification involves migration to urban centres; but in the most positive cases, income diversification goes hand in hand with the diversification of the local economic base, where processing of agricultural produce retains added value and provides non-farm jobs. This usually happens in smaller urban centres, often described as ‘rural market towns’.

While such structural change has positive impacts, as the diversification of income sources reduces vulnerability and can encourage investment in smallholder agricultural production, it also often entails growing inequalities and social polarisation. Landless households, households with limited labour, women and young people with restricted access to assets and skills can be net losers in such transformations.

Structural change also has important implications for food security.  Increasingly, a large proportion of rural residents are net food buyers, placing as much importance on cash incomes and accessing food markets as urban residents. In West Africa, research by CIRAD1 shows that subsistence production accounts for less than half of the economic value of food consumed by rural residents, while in Vietnam — the second largest exporter of rice in the world — more than half of the rural population are net rice buyers2.

From a policy perspective, supporting the diversification of rural economies and strengthening the role of small towns where these activities take place is an important way to strengthen positive rural-urban linkages. This means supporting agricultural production that responds to urban demand and at the same time providing non-farm employment opportunities to local residents.

Territorial development and decentralisation are thus central. But to be successful, there is a need for a better fit between national and sectoral policies and local development strategies that reflect context-specific opportunities and challenges. This, in turn, requires local institutions and governments that can also address issues of inequality. To do so, they need to have access to disaggregated data, have financial autonomy and achieve legitimacy through accountability to their citizens.

Cecilia Tacoli is a principal researcher with the Human Settlements Group at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED). This blog builds on work on rural-urban linkages conducted in the past 20 years with partners in Africa, Asia and Latin America, as well as on current research on food consumption, urbanisation and rural transformations (for more information  please consult www.iied.org and http://pubs.iied.org/17281IIED.html ).


1.Bricas N. and C. Tchamda (2015), “Sub-Saharan Africa’s significant changes in food consumption patterns”, A Question of Development – Syntheses of AFD Studies and Research, n° 26, 4 p,

2. Hoang Xuan Thanh, Truong Tuan Anh, Luu Trong Quang, Dinh Thi Giang, Dinh Thi Thu Phuong, “Food security in the context of Vietnam’s rural – urban linkages and climate change”, http://pubs.iied.org/10649IIED.html.

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