Beyond the silence: How can we create healthier food choices for people in Bulawayo townships?

The resilience of Zimbabweans is being tested. Currently facing hyperinflation at 300% and high food costs (bread prices up by 60%), citizens of Zimbabwe are struggling to stay afloat. Particularly vulnerable are the urban poor.

A new effort is on to explore options to improve diets and food choices in economically struggling urban areas, such as Bulawayo’s townships, seeing that there is little historical information on diversifying human diets under extreme financial constraints.

"Millets and sorghum, although more nutritious than maize, are hard to find in Bulawayo city", says Mrs Mthelia Moyo, trader at Shasha Market. After each drought, when the crops fail, maize is distributed to people to help them recover. The area under other cereals such as sorghum and millets, and legumes have been shrinking over years; with each drought, the seed sources have been depleted.

“Millets and sorghum, although more nutritious than maize, are hard to find in Bulawayo city”, says Mrs Mthelia Moyo, trader at Shasha Market. After each drought, when the crops fail, maize is distributed to people to help them recover. The area under other cereals such as sorghum and millets, and legumes have been shrinking over years; with each drought, the seed sources have been depleted.

The urbanization challenge around food

The United Nations Human Settlement Programme (UN Habitat) projects that by 2050 about 60% of Africans will live in cities. Providing urban populations with safe, nutritious foods, therefore, is a growing burden for many city administrations. In Zimbabwe, urban poverty has huge negative impacts on nutrition: One-third of all children under the age of five suffer moderate or severe stunting; half of these children live in urban areas (FNC, 2019). The cities have been crippled by unemployment, and Zimbabweans emigrate in search of greater prosperity elsewhere (IOM report 2018). So far, the response to food crises has generally focused on rural communities, leaving underprivileged populations in cities to fend for themselves.

Against this background, we are developing an approach for tackling malnutrition through healthier food choices in African cities. A deep understanding of people’s food choices is essential but often lacking. The everyday stories around food by residents of Bulawayo’s townships help us better understand their food choices. We must then engage the same people to turn to a new page, resume to healthier foods grown by local farmers, and create a new story born out of the realities of an African city.

Can the urban demand for small grains help to promote availability and access to these crops, that are also vital for farmers coping with droughts and climate change? 

A good and balanced diet is important to young mothers, but not always possible.

A good and balanced diet is important to young mothers, but not always possible.

Food environments shape diets

People in Bulawayo townships primarily survive on maize. Why are they not willing to seek alternatives? The story we often hear is that in the city everything requires money, including accommodation, food, water and electricity, which people in rural areas usually do not have to pay for. In addition, there is no space for farming, hence no option for people to grow their own food, either for consumption or as a source of income. Multiple families share a small yard, renting rooms to others to supplement the insufficient earnings, resulting in hygiene issues on top of nutrition deficits. The year 2019 has hit people particularly hard, as the drought dried up the supply of grain to the city. Prices of staple foods have gone up.

Finding healthier foods is becoming increasingly difficult, as Tonderai Matsure states, “We used to barter trade with the rural areas, buying 15 kg of millet in exchange for 2 kg sugar. This is no longer profitable, as the prices of sugar and transport have gone up. Things have become so expensive that we as traders cannot afford to buy larger quantities.”

Different people have different stories

“Many of us know what makes a balanced diet, but we don’t have the means to access those nutritious foods. Everyone ends up struggling in their own ways,” says Thembelihle E Ndlovu, a community health worker in Old Pumula township.

Gabriel Banda is a young father. He makes stands for vendors and uses mostly organic material – bamboo, dried banana plants, wood, sacks – that he collects from nearby. “There’s not a lot of money in this business but it is how I keep food on the table. I try and eat at home as few times as possible so that the food can go a long way to feed my family,” Gabriel explains. Many parents are forced to make the same choice, eating just one maize meal a day. And even that one meal also has very little nutritional content. “For us, it is about filling up the stomach and not about nutrition,” he says.

There is a young mother, Stella Nyathi, worried about the nutrition she can provide to her child. “I am glad that right now I am breastfeeding my baby, but I am worried about the quality of food I can afford her with the little income I make as a vendor,” she says.

Often, the onus is on the grandparents. “In our home, me, my son and my grandson go many days without food. Often our sadza (maize meal) is only held with water and salt. On better days we have some vegetables, but not very often,” says Belinda Mpanza.

Some have found new, often unsafe, ways to obtain food. “We take advantage of burst water pipes and redirect the water flow to our garden to produce maize. But, half of what we produced gets stolen,” rues Mr Nyarudsa.

Feel it to comprehend it

How can we anchor our efforts to improve nutrition in a meaningful way, facilitating a community-wide shift to alternatives to maize?

In this milieu, parents often have to choose between sending their kids to school and putting food on the table. As education takes a backseat to feeding the family, an entire generation of school drop outs is missing out on learning and opportunities to grow into productive and confident members in society. “If you walk the streets of Old Pumula or Makokoba townships during a school day, you’ll notice large numbers of children walking around. They should be at school,” says Dumisani Nyoni, Deputy Director of Agricultural Extension Services.

The story does not end here. Adolescents are taking up prostitution and other harmful activities to help feed their families; teenage pregnancies are on the rise. Many of these girls live with their grandparents or look after their siblings as the parents have gone to South Africa in search for employment. “There is a new generation of children with children. The young mothers are underaged and don’t qualify for birth certificates for their children; those children will not be eligible to enter school,” says Thembelihle.

As for the elderly, they don’t have many options; they cannot compete economically. “If I can just get through the day, I have won. I mostly have sadza once a day. My wife died many years ago. I had two children and both died while in South Africa. I only have me. I live a very simple life. If I manage to put something in my belly, then I have succeeded that day,” narrates 74-year-old Ben Ncube. Like many elderly people here, he has lost his pension, there is no retirement money or savings, and nobody to take care of him.

“As an old woman you might fall sick, but still have to take care of your family,” says Matilda Mabena. She looks after her six-year-old grandchild, as her only daughter is in hospital with HIV/AIDS. Mathilda also skips eating on some days so that her granddaughter can have something to eat instead. On most days, both of them survive on only one meal a day.

When there is so little money, food safety is not an issue.

When there is so little money, food safety is not an issue.

Elderly people are left to feed the children, with little means to survive the food crisis.

Elderly people are left to feed the children, with little means to survive the food crisis.

What if urban malnutrition is not addressed

Urban malnutrition harms the fabric of society. Interventions like fortifying and distributing food are insufficient by themselves, as they do not eliminate the root causes that led to malnutrition.

What is largely invisible and difficult to measure is depression in a large percentage of the population owing to the circumstances. Lack of food bears heavily on people. Parents and grandparents watch their children and grandchildren live a life of not enough food and not grow up to their potential. They feel like failures in taking care of their loved ones. This leads to a lack of peace and an underlying tension in homes.

In despair, crime and robberies are visibly increasing.

What can be done?

Accept the situation: The Sustainable Development Goals 2030 envisage an end to extreme poverty for all everywhere. For this goal to be reached, there is an urgent need for massive compelling sensitization about urban malnutrition. In low-income townships in Bulawayo, where malnutrition is rampant, economic development is downward and unequal. Situations like these require a dramatic change to influence dietary behavior, beyond aid-oriented nutrition approaches.

Make the shift: Urban spaces provide opportunities for more radical interventions: Can we get civil society, clinics and health workers and the food industry together to ignite a social movement, with small comprehensible steps, guided by constructive optimism, to give birth to a new meaning of food and nutrition? Maybe design meals with local preferences for nutritious foods, engage schoolchildren, adolescent girls, young mothers, old people etc.? Vest resources in townships to develop business models that produce such nutritious foods and make them locally available, and encourage youth entrepreneurship to deliver those foods to social assistance and targeted nutrition programs. Ultimately, we could connect healthier foods in the city with rural supply chains; small grains and legumes, with higher nutrient densities than maize, can find a space in that.

  • “The team EDUCATE mobilizes people in Bulawayo, including corporates and volunteers from different backgrounds, to help vulnerable communities to have a meal. The idea is to find an entry point into dialog and exchange with communities, to discover areas of needs that go beyond providing a meal, but to create a culture of becoming the change by engaging with others,” says Terrence Mugova, Educate.
  • “What we don’t have are simple, replicable and deployable models to assist people in accessing quality foods. We need commercially viable business models. One way is to brand good food from Zimbabwe for the diaspora. Small grains and groundnuts, with higher nutrient densities than maize, can find a niche in that,” says Busisa Moyo, CEO, United Refineries Limited, and Past President of the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries.

The power of messaging: To connect and accelerate collective responses that foster a social movement around nutrition, new stories need to be told. Peoples’ stories connect with communities, and represent hard realities with honesty. Putting faces to food, is a way to create a new identity for foods: nutrition that determines life, humble and compelling. They can tie people to programs, not only to provide for people in need, but to bring out new pathways to dietary choices. Through peoples’ alliances and initiatives, bolstered by public funding, social media can bring out more hopeful stories.

As researchers, our job is to illuminate trust and potency in socially motivated food transformations. 


We thank the people of Makokoba and Old Pumula townships, Bulawayo, for sharing their lives with us. This contribution is part of the ICRISAT GLDC study on Food Intake, Malnutrition and Dietary Diversification in Nairobi, Lilongwe and Bulawayo.

Short version on Thomson Reuters Foundation

About the authors:

Sabine Homann-Kee Tui,
Senior Social Scientist,


Kennedy Famba,
Focus Photography and Documentation of Peoples’ Stories.

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