Course:GEOG352/Food Security in Khartoum

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We are living in a highly urbanized world, with the Global South in particular seeing higher proportions of people living in cities. One issue that becomes increasingly prevalent in urban environments is food security. As defined by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, food security "exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. Household food security is the application of this concept to the family level, with individuals within households as the focus of concern[1]." In an urban context, food security challenges present themselves in unique ways. Khartoum, the capital city of Sudan, has been plagued with a dynamic history of civil conflict and rapid rural to urban migration, making it an interesting case study for looking at urban food insecurity.

A map of Sudan.

The issue of food insecurity is scalable from localized communities experiencing high rates of poverty to nation and region wide levels, and impacts millions of people currently living in the city. Using the lenses of informality, gender, and forced migration, the complex issues that have led to the current state of the city will be discussed. Relating to many themes discussed in GEOG 352, food security in Khartoum is a case study that can be used to further investigate topics of urbanization in the global south. A key component to this course is looking at the development and urbanization of the global south, and how it differs from previous urbanization growth conditions. Specifically the rate of growth in the current environment tends to be more rapid than it has been historically, creating a situation where previous models of urbanization may no longer be relevant. This can be explored by looking at where Khartoum is succeeding and where they are failing in creating an urban environment that is sustainable for all of its members. By looking at the organizational structure of the city, the links between the formal and the informal, and key power relations, we can start to understand the relationship between modern urbanization and food security.

Sunset Khartoum.jpg


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Food Security: an urban challenge

Food security is an important issue for all people because not only is it an issue of quality of life, but also can be an issue of life or death. Khartoum, the capital city of Sudan, is home to over 5 million people. 60% of these inhabitants are considered part of the urban poor, spending more than half of their income on food[2]. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica (1999), it is The Sudan’s largest conurbanization, a joint city with Khartoum North and Omdurman located at a disection of the Nile river.

Map of Khartoum as a conurbanization of three cities

The North-South conflict, which stemmed from previous civil wars as well as the militarization and monetization of the country’s periphery, as well as conflict in Darfur led to many people moving to the cities for a variety of reasons, including seeking new job opportunities, fleeing violence, and in search of food [3]. Now, with vast areas with high rates of poverty, the city will be facing rapid, unplanned and differential recovery, and is standing at a tipping point where chronic poverty could be the future if issues are not addressed appropriately[4]. With sudden land use change, climatic shocks, and civil conflict, food security is a pressing issue for the many inhabitants of the city, and future livelihoods are at risk of worsening if measures are not taken to address some of the root causes of urban food insecurity in Khartoum.

Khartoum was first established in 1821 as an outpost for the Egyption army, and was historically a major trading post for the region. The population grew from 250,000 in 1956 to an estimated 3.3 million by 1990. It has continued to grow and a census in 2008 found Khartoum to have a population of over 5 million people, though many believe that due to the number of informal and peripheral areas that the actual number of city citizens may be closer to 7 million [2]. This is an incredibly large strain on the area considering its declining agricultural sector, due to the oil sector having gained momentum since 1999 [5]. Though the oil sector seems to be benefiting the state overall, it is an industry that has shown it is advantageous for those such as outside investors, government and a small wealthy class, and the wealth the oil sector imports is not dispersed throughout the classes the same way the agricultural wealth had been[5]. This wealth distribution, or lack thereof, has become more important with the increase in the price of food and the lowering of wages. Access to food is not considered to be of primary concern in Khartoum, but more significantly, the increase in the price of goods has led to a considerable portion of the population unable to afford a reasonable standard of living.

Broader Scope

Beyond the urban area of Khartoum, food security continues to be a global issue. However, Africa remains one of the most affected continents due to high rates of poverty, climate change, and challenges facing the agricultural sector. In 2016, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) released an overview of food security and nutrition in Africa, reporting 153 million people or 26 percent of the population of sub-Saharan Africa suffered from severe food insecurity [6]. Most families suffering from food insecurity live in starvation and have little or no support from government. To put this into perspective, Canada’s severe food insecurity rate is at 2.5 percent, and there are government resources, such as food banks, in place to help these families [7].

Case Study of Theme/Issue

Sudan remains one of the poorest countries despite having significant natural resources. At one time agriculture was the most important economic sector, but a devastating civil war forced many farmers to migrate to cities, allowing the oil industry to become the country's highest economic driver[8]. Khartoum is the largest city in Sudan, which gives a larger population of people to study the effects of food insecurity in an urban area. As of December 2017, Sudan had 3.8 million people in need of food, nutrition, or livelihood assistance, rising from previous estimations of 3.5 million people in July 2016 [9].

Influx of Migrants and Displaced People

After Sudan’s independence in 1956, Khartoum’s population grew exponentially, mainly from migrants including Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) or refugees from neighboring countries[2]. Since the 1970s in particular, internal displacement has played a major role in the population growth of the city [2]. This was caused by periodic droughts during the 80s and 90s [10] as well as several conflicts in the region, including the First and Second Sudanese civil wars (1956-1972 and 1983-2005 respectively)[4]. The influx of migrants resulted in the growth of informal settlements around the periphery of Khartoum [10]. In 1991, the city authorities removed the illegal settlements and forced displaced people into official IDP settlement camps [10], although illegal, “squatter” settlements continue to exist [2]. The populations of settlement camps currently comprise a mix of IDPs, poor migrants, and other urban poor, and these people make up 10% of the population of the city [2].

Women in Khartoum

Sudan - young girl in Khartoum

The high proportion of female-headed households in settlement camps are even more likely to suffer from food insecurity [11][12]. Many women were forced to become the main source of resources for the family because of death or desertion of their husbands, which lead the women to a multitude of coping methods to support themselves and their families. Food security in Sudan is a gendered issue. Where men are more likely to pursue mobile strategies to obtain resources, women have been found to become more stationary. [12]For this reason women are considered the backbone of family units in Khartoum and have had to adopt many coping strategies in order to survive. However, many of these strategies are just short-term solutions. Women have implemented a diversified approach to help themselves. People have turned to foraging for wild, potentially toxic plants as an alternative food source and processing them in order make them edible to enhance their nutrition.[12]The majority of people in Khartoum (95%) work in informal sectors including food or tea selling, housemaids, or illegal activities such as sex or alcohol selling.[10]. Women living in informal camps might purchase food on credit, rely on help from neighbours, beg, or engage in prostitution in order to feed themselves. [10]. Scavenging for food in dumps has become a source of food for many people, not just women [2]. Women in general can be looked at to see the ways in which people have responded to crisis in Sudan. These types of coping strategies may be helpful to cover food and cash needs at the time, but can be a hindrance to long term security.[4]

Bazaro en Ĥartumo 007

Bazaro en Ĥartumo 011

Food Access in the City

The rapid population increase has put extra strain on the urban economy, which has created another major issue facing the urban population of Khartoum as the costs of commodities such as food and services continue to rise. Since the 1990's the average cost needed to sustain oneself has risen significantly, so that now the average wage in the city is often not enough to cover the expenses of daily life. Many people in these communities report that because of this their nutrition has suffered more so than in their former rural settings.[2]. Despite the majority of the urban population relying on purchased food products rather than growing food themselves, agricultural production in the rural areas surrounding Khartoum are relatively unproductive. Poor infrastructure prevents appropriate access to trade for nomadic pastoralists and makes post harvest crop loss rates high. In addition, most productive agricultural land is being used to grow cash crops, notably at the Kenana Sugar Estate 250 km South of Khartoum, a massive sugar plantation employing over 100,000 Sudanese workers[13]. The most cultivated food crop is sorghum and other grains, which makes sense as to why most of the urban poor consume a mainly carbohydrate based diet [11].

Climate, Environment, and Water Challenges

Another huge barrier preventing urban populations from accessing appropriate levels of food is the rate of water scarcity. The climate of the area is such that there is only a small amount of precipitation from July to September, so irrigation schemes become very important for agriculture in Khartoum[14]. Although, despite this, 90% of the country's agricultural production relies exclusively on rainfall[12]. Not only does water scarcity negatively influence the many rural areas relying on rainwater, but residents of Khartoum are also forced to spend 40% of their daily income on drinking water[2]. Climate change is expected to worsen droughts in the area and exacerbate water issues. On top of all this, it is also predicted that environmental degradation will occur in Khartoum and beyond, from overexploitation of the land[4]. The expansion of the city in such an unplanned fashion will invariably lead to environmental damage, which can worsen existing food insecurity.

Lessons Learned

In this wiki, we have looked at how informal settlements, the role of women, and agricultural challenges have altered how people get food. It is evident that Khartoum is a unique case study where urban poverty is hugely affecting food security rates, and that a complex history of conflict and migration have played a significant role in shaping the city. Moving forwards, there needs to be policy shifts that look to support the city’s overall economic development and consider contemporary challenges of changing environmental conditions. If parts of the population that currently struggle to access food were able to somehow have their lifestyles legitimized through land tenure, access to banking facilities or credit, or provided with employment opportunities, the vast population of people living in temporary or permanent settlements may be more able to have a degree of agency in purchasing food. By providing people with security, they may no longer need to spend as high a proportion of their income on water, and may no longer need to resort to informal earnings working in dumps, begging, or prostituting. As noted earlier, these communities are often spearheaded by women, who are responsible for finding food in some cases. By empowering them to be central in lifting people out of poverty, spillover improvements in the livelihoods of everyone will be evident. In a city with a legacy of restricting women to accessing public spaces at night time, they should be encouraged to participate in economic activity. In looking to increase the productivity of food growing in the Khartoum area, there are a few key steps that can be taken. Relying on rain water for most agricultural products in a time when climate is changing and unreliable, The Sudan should look to developing its irrigation practices [13]. Whether this is low input agriculture that looks to more organic or traditional methods, supporting small to medium sized farms instead of large plantations, or increasing investment in irrigation mechanisms, any change in agricultural policy needs to be accompanied with appropriate water management strategies. The same is true if Khartoum were to look at urban farming as a potential source for food in the future. A major factor contributing to the food insecurity in Khartoum has been the rapid population growth and urbanization. There have been strategic plans made by government officials with the aim to aid people during this growth, but many of the attempts have been unsuccessful in their actual implementation, leading to the further marginalization of the urban poor[2]. Because of the inadequate attempts made by the formal government, many people in Khartoum have been forced to come up with their own solutions for issues in their families and communities.


Reference List

  1. FAO, Trade reforms and food security (2003). Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, p.Chapter 2.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 2.8 2.9 Pantuliano, S., Assal, M., Elnaiem, B. A,. McElhinney, H., and Schwab, M. 2011. City limits: urbanisation and vulnerability in Sudan. Overseas Development Institute, London. [Online]. Available from:
  3. Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (2008). Internal Displacement to Urban Areas: the Tufts-IDMC Profiling Study Khartoum, Sudan: Case 1. [Online]. Available from:
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Matus, J. 2007, "The future of food security in the Three Areas of Sudan", Disasters, vol. 31, no. s1, pp. S91-S103.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Siddig, K. (2011, August 18). Oil and Agriculture in the Post-Separation Sudan.
  6. FAO 2016. Africa Regional Overview of Food Security and Nutrition. [Online]. Available from:
  7. Roshanafshar, S. & Hawkins, E. 2015, “Food Insecurity in Canada”, Health at a Glance. [Online]. Available from:
  8. Sudan a Country Study (2015)
  9. FAO 2018. Monitoring Food Security in Countries with Conflict Situations, World Food Program. Available From:
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 10.4 Daud, K.M. 2009, "Coping Strategies of the Displaced Women for Achieving Food Security at the Household Level in Mayo Camp, Khartoum State", Ahfad Journal, vol. 26, no. 2, pp. 59-74.
  11. 11.0 11.1 FAO 2010. Food and Nutrition Security Assessment in Sudan: Analysis of 2009 National Baseline Household Survey. [Online]. Available from: [Accessed 8th Feb 2018].
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 Ibnouf, F.O. 2011, "Challenges and possibilities for achieving household food security in the Western Sudan region: the role of female farmers", Food Security, vol. 3, no. 2, pp. 215-231.
  13. 13.0 13.1 Nile Basin Initiative (2012). Agriculture, Food Security, and Livelihoods in the Nile Basin. State of the River Nile Basin. [online] Nile Basin Initiative. Available at: [Accessed 27 Mar. 2018].
  14. Schumacher, J., Luedeling, E., Gebauer, J., Saied, A., El-Siddig, K. & Buerkert, A. 2009, "Spatial expansion and water requirements of urban agriculture in Khartoum, Sudan", Journal of Arid Environments, vol. 73, no. 4, pp. 399-406

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This urbanization resource was created by Course:GEOG352.