Document Type

Migration Policy Series

Publication Date



Balsillie School of International Affairs


Two issues have recently risen to the top of the international development agenda: (a) Food Security; and (b) Migration and Development. Each has its own global agency champions, international gatherings, national line ministries and body of research. Global and regional discussions about the relationship between migration and development cover a broad range of policy issues including remittance flows, the brain drain, the role of diasporas and return migration. Strikingly absent from these discussions is any systematic discussion of the relationship between population migration and food security. If the global migration and development debate sidelines food security, the current international food security agenda has a similar disregard for migration. The primary focus of the agenda is food insecurity and undernutrition and how enhanced agricultural production by small farmers can resolve these endemic problems. There is a tendency to ignore the reality that migration is a critical food security strategy for rural households up and down the African continent. If migration is a neglected aspect of discussions about rural food insecurity, it is almost totally absent from considerations of the causes and impact of food security amongst urban populations. In practice, therefore, there is a massive institutional and substantive disconnect between these two development agendas.

Current conceptualisations of the food security crisis in Africa provide an inadequate basis for working at the interface between migration and food security. First, there is the assumption that food security is primarily a rural problem that will be resolved through technical innovation amongst smallholders (in the guise of a new Green Revolution). What seems to be forgotten in this romantic view of the African rural household is that its food security is not simply, or even mainly, a function of what it does or does not produce itself. Up and down the continent rural households purchase some or most of their food and they do so with cash that they receive from household members who have migrated to earn income in other places within the country and across borders. The evidence for Southern Africa is that these rural households do not invest remittances in agriculture but in basic necessities, including food purchase. Rural food security, in other words, may be improved but will not be resolved by current approaches to food insecurity.

A second assumption is that food security in urban areas is about promoting urban agriculture. The obsession with urban agriculture may be well-intentioned but it derives from misplaced idea that increased food production is the key to urban food security. The primary determinant of food insecurity in African cities is not production shortfalls but the lack of access to food and that means the absence of a regular and reliable income with which to purchase it. Even within the poorest areas of the city, access varies considerably from household to household with wage employment, other income generating activity, the size and structure of the household, the educational level of the household members, access to social grants and being embedded in social networks.

There are some recent signs of recognition of the reality that migration and remittances play an important role in the food security strategies of rural households. A recent issue of the journal Food Policy, for example, suggests that “the sending of a migrant means the loss or reduced presence of one or more members of the household. On the consumption side this clearly means fewer mouths to feed and to support in other ways. On the production side, migration means the loss of labor and, in fact, the negative consequences of migration on nutrition are likely to come through this labor loss.” The major positive impact of migration is the remittances sent home by the migrant which can have direct and indirect effects on production and consumption. This is an important issue, but so is the relationship between migration and the food security of the urban household.

Food security needs to be “mainstreamed” into the migration and development agenda and migration needs to be “mainstreamed” into the food security agenda. Without such an effort, both agendas will proceed in ignorance of the other to the detriment of both. The result will be a singular failure to understand, and manage, the crucial reciprocal relationship between migration and food security. This report sets out to promote a conversation between the food security and migration agendas in the African context in the light of what we know and what we need to know about their connections. This report focuses primarily on the connections in an urban context. Four main issues are singled out for attention: (a) the relationship between internal migration and urban food security; (b) the relationship between international migration and urban food security; (c) the difference in food security between migrant and non-migrant urban households; and (d) the role of rural-urban food transfers in urban food security.

The simplest way to examine the relationship between cross-border migration and food security is to ascertain (a) how international migrants address their own food and nutrition needs in the destination country and (b) what happens to the income that they earn while away from home. The two questions are related to one another for the amount of money available to send home is to some degree contingent on the food-related expenditures of the migrant in the destination country. Migrants rarely live alone and their income may often have to support members of “makeshift” households (not all of whose members can find work) as well as second households.

Migration within and to the Southern African region has changed dramatically in recent decades. All of 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 temporary cross-border movement within the region. The implications of the region’s new mobility regime for food security in general (and urban food security in particular) need much further exploration and analysis.

SAMP has conducted major household surveys in several SADC countries which provide valuable information on food expenditures in migrant-sending households. The 2005 Migration and Remittances Survey (MARS) interviewed 4,276 households with international migrants. Cash remittances were the most important source of income in all 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 (37%). Remittances in-kind are particularly important in Zimbabwe and Mozambique. 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.

The vast majority of households (93%) purchase food and groceries with their income. No other expenditure category comes close although a significant minority of households pay for cooking fuel, transportation, clothing, utilities, education and medical expenses. A mere 15% spend income on agricultural inputs (mainly in Swaziland). The proportion of households spending remittances on food was over 80%. Average household expenditures on food were R288 per month which is much greater than the amounts spent on other common categories such as transportation, education and medical expenses. The average monthly expenditure of remittances on food was R150 per month. In other words, remittances provided over 50% of average household income spent on food. Without remittances the amount being spent on food would drop precipitously. Remittances are therefore a critical component of food security for migrant-sending households. The SAMP study found that 28% of households spend more than 60% of their income on food. Even with remittances, only 17% said that they had always or almost always had enough food in the previous year.

Cash remittances are not the only way in which migration contributes to household security as many migrants also send food back home as part of their in-kind remittance “package.” Further proof of the importance of migration to household food security and other basic needs is provided in the types of goods that migrants send home. There was little evidence of luxury goods being sent. Instead, clothing (received by 41% of households) and food (received by 29%) were the items most frequently brought or sent. In the case of Mozambique, 60% of households received food and in Zimbabwe, 45%.

The next question is whether migrants are more food insecure than longer term residents of the poorer areas of Southern African cities. AFSUN conducted a survey in 11 SADC countries in 9 countries in 2008 which helps to answer this question. Because access to income is a critical determinant of food security in urban areas, it is important to know if non-migrant households are more or less likely to access regular and reliable sources of income, both formal and informal. Across the sample as a whole, unemployment rates were high with nearly half of both migrant and non-migrant households receiving no income from regular wage work. This suggests that migrants do not find it harder to obtain wage employment than permanent residents in the city. Migrant households do find it easier to derive income from casual work while non-migrant households were more involved in running informal and formal businesses (20% versus 14%). Very few households in either category earn any income from the sale of home-grown agricultural produce.

The similarities in the access of migrant and non-migrant households to the labour market and to various income-generating activities suggests that they might have similar income levels and, in turn, levels of food security. In fact, there was one distinct difference in the income profile of migrant and non-migrant households. About a third of the households in each group fell into the lowest income tercile. However, 36% of nonmigrant households were in the upper income tercile, compared to only 29% of migrant households. The situation was reversed with the middle income tercile. In other words, migrant status is not a completely reliable predictor of whether a household will be income poor. However, nonmigrant households are likely to have a better chance of having better incomes, primarily because some are able to access better-paying jobs.

The Household Food Insecurity Scale (HFIAS) measures household access to food on a 0 (most secure) to 27 (most insecure) point scale. In terms of the relationship between the HFIAS and migration, migrant households had a mean score of 10.5 and non-migrant households a score of 8.9. This suggests that non-migrant households have a better chance of being food secure than migrant households. The Household Food Insecurity Access Prevalence (HFIAP) Indicator. found that only 16% of migrant households were “food secure” compared with 26% of non-migrant households. Although levels of food insecurity are disturbingly high for both types of household, migrant households stand a greater chance of being food insecure.

Another question is whether there are any differences between migrant and non-migrant households in where they obtain their food in the city. Migrant households were more likely than non-migrant households to patronise supermarkets. The opposite was true with regard to the informal food economy. This may have to do with the fact that nonmigrant households would be more familiar with alternative food sources compared with recent in-migrants, in particular, who would be more likely to know about and recognise supermarket outlets. A second difference is the extent to which households rely on other households for food, either through sharing meals or food transfers. This was more common among migrant than non-migrant households, suggesting the existence of stronger social networks amongst migrants. Thirdly, non-migrant households were more likely to grown some of their own food than migrant households.

The majority of poor households in Southern African cities either consist entirely of migrants or a mix of migrants and non-migrants. Rapid urbanization, increased circulation and growing cross-border migration have all meant that the number of migrants and migrant households in the city has grown exponentially. This is likely to continue for several more decades as urbanization continues. We cannot simply assume that all poor urban households are alike. While levels of food insecurity are unacceptably high amongst all of them, migrant households do have a greater chance of being food insecure with all of its attendant health and nutritional problems. This fact needs to be recognised by policy-makers and acted upon.