Document Type

SAMP Special Reports

Publication Date



Balsillie School of International Affairs


The need for a new research agenda

Globally, the transfer of funds by migrants to their home countries or areas (cash remittances) is at an all-time high. By 2017, it is predicted to rise to US$500 billion – and there is a growing policy consensus that cash remittances can be mainstreamed into development. Equally, food remitting also has a role to play in urban and rural food security. Yet despite its importance, researchers and policymakers tend to ignore food remitting.

The growing literature on rural-urban linkages highlights their complex, dynamic nature in the context of rapid urbanisation and growing rural-urban migration in Africa. Food remitting cannot be treated in isolation from the ‘complex web of relations and connections incorporating rural and urban dimensions and all that is in between’ (Tacoli, 2007). Yet the remitting of goods, and especially foodstuffs, across international boundaries and within countries has received little attention, particularly in Africa, where it seems that ‘transfers of food are invisible in the sense that they run within the family and outside market channels’ (Andersson Djurfeldt 2015a: 540).

This report is aimed at researchers and policymakers interested in transforming rural-urban linkages and the implications for food security of rural and urban residents. The current rural-urban binary is arbitrary, outdated and unhelpful. At a time of rapid urbanisation in the South, a wider lens is needed: focusing on rural-urban linkages and moving beyond cash-based, market transactions to consider the bidirectional flows of goods – including food – and their impact on food security. This report contributes to the study of changing rural-urban linkages by:

  • Expanding the geographic and thematic scope of research,
  • Demonstrating the value of examining the links between informal food transfers and urban-based household food security, and
  • Arguing for a new research and policy agenda focused on food remitting.

Using case studies from Zimbabwe and Namibia, this report also demonstrates how lessons related to food remitting can be applied in other African contexts – and highlights the urgent need for a new research agenda. The report concludes with recommendations for policymakers and researchers.

What are the main lessons?

Rural-urban linkages in a rapidly urbanising world require much more attention from researchers and policymakers. As this report shows, several key findings have emerged from the existing literature on food remitting.

The importance of bidirectional food remittances: Most studies overlook food remitting as a key link between rural and urban areas and food security. Understanding these linkages must move beyond cash-based, market transactions to consider bidirectional flows of goods, including foodstuffs, and their impact on food security. Concepts of the divided or stretched household (Francis, 2000) and multi-local household livelihoods (Andersson Djurfeldt, 2015a) should guide any analysis of the dynamics of food remitting.

Cross-border migration and food remittances: Food remitting is an important livelihood strategy. Remittances across international boundaries are important to food security (Crush, 2013) and there is a massive informal trade in food in Africa.

Internal migration and food remittances: Reciprocal rural-urban-rural remitting is ‘fundamental to the ability of poor urban households to survive’ (Frayne, 2004). Many urban migrant households rely on informal, non-marketed food from rural counterparts. But we still know little about what it means for rural food security in terms of food sent and received.

Comparing rural-urban and urban-urban food remittances: For food-insecure households, food remittances from both rural and urban sources are important. In one study around a third of poor urban households received food remittances from outside the city the year before (Frayne et al., 2010). But while rural-urban food remitting was significant, urban-urban food remitting was greater still. This phenomenon suggests that we need a much more nuanced notion of linkages and flows.

Frequency and types of food remitting: Frayne et al. (2010) also showed that households receiving food from another urban area did so far more often. This might suggest that urban-urban networks and support mechanisms are stronger than rural-urban ties. What impact this has on the food security of producers and purchasers requires additional research.

Food remitters in rural areas: Rural-urban food flows tend to focus more on poor urban neighbourhoods and households and are important to food security. There is some evidence that better-off rural households remit more than their less well-off counterparts – and that the effects of food remitting are much more severe on poorer rural households. Food remittances can be seen as ‘social security’ (Andersson Djurfeldt and Wambugu, 2011) but also as having an important cultural dimension (Kuuire et al. 2013).

Lessons from the Zimbabwe and Namibia case studies

These case studies highlight different facets of food remitting with potentially broader applicability. The first, of Harare in Zimbabwe, looks at the significance of food remittances under conditions of extreme economic and political duress. It allows an assessment of the impact of macro-economic and political stability on food remitting. The Windhoek case study provides an important example of cash remittances for food remittances reciprocity. It also raises important hypotheses about food remittances that need further elaboration and testing, such as the relationship between urban poverty and the level of food remitting and whether the volume and frequency of food remitting is related to the strength of links between urban and rural residents.

What are the main recommendations for researchers and policymakers?

The massive global attention paid to cash remittances over the past decade provides a solid evidence base for policymaking and advocacy at international, regional and national levels. Policy prescriptions for maximising the flow and impacts of cash remittances on development are now legion and part of a growing policy consensus that remittances can be mainstreamed into development planning and the practices of the private sector, for the benefit of both senders and recipients, whether individuals, communities or whole countries. Yet no equivalent knowledge base or policy dialogue exists with regard to food remittances.

  • A new research agenda and policy dialogue are urgently required relating to food remittances and urban and rural food security. Food remitting is a major research gap that demands much greater attention and a systematic, comparative programme of primary research.
  • The case studies from Zimbabwe and Namibia in this report highlight how a deeper understanding of food remitting can be applied in other African contexts: the nature of rural-urban linkages under conditions of state failure and crisis (Zimbabwe) and the importance of reciprocal cash and food remittances for food security (Namibia).
  • The notion of a rural-urban divide is outdated and oversimplifies the issues. Food remitting cannot be treated in isolation from the complex web of relations and connections between both rural and urban contexts. An extremely useful starting point is to explore how stretched or multi-nodal households drive and impact on food remitting at both urban and rural ends of the spectrum.

Much additional research on this important, yet much-neglected, aspect of urban-rural linkages and informal cross-border transactions is urgently required. By drawing attention to the importance of food remittances for urban and rural food security and identifying the current knowledge gaps, this report creates a platform for the design of a new research agenda.