The management of edible food waste in Cape Town’s informal settlements


Cape Town | South Africa

local partners

GreenCape (not-for-profit organization to support a transition to a resilient green economy)

Sustainability Institute (not-for-profit centre providing learning experiences in ecology, community and spirit)


The flows of food through cities are notoriously difficult to quantify, yet they play a crucial role in urban sustainability and resource management as significant portions of the energy and water humans depend on for survival are embodied in food. The lack of food data is especially evident in informal settlements, where the food chain shifts from large formal institutions toward smaller, less formal networks that typically do not keep formal records.

Recent research suggests that edible food waste from retailers and urban agriculture is efficiently distributed through informal areas, allowing for value and nutrition to be derived from food that would otherwise have gone to waste in the more formal parts of the system. Despite government mandates to improve informal food systems, much of this activity occurs in the absence of centralized leadership where complex networks of human interactions and power dynamics govern
the distribution of edible food waste.

The city of Cape Town provides an ideal location to investigate informal flows of food waste as there are vast inequalities between the formal city and surrounding informal areas, and the Philippi Horticultural Area (a large piece of land dedicated to urban agriculture) is located in close proximity to some of the poorest parts of the city. The city is also located in a water scarce region, and currently relies heavily on imported fossil fuels to produce and transport its food. Wasting edible food is tantamount to wasting scarce water and energy resources, and is morally questionable in a context of high inequality.

The proposed Urban Living Lab research would adopt a transdisciplinary approach, working with small-scale urban farmers, distributors of edible food waste, community cooks, NGOs and households in the informal settlements surrounding Philippi Horticultural Area to co-produce knowledge about how edible food waste from urban agriculture and from the formal city is
managed. This will bring to light challenges (e.g. food safety) and opportunities to enhance the system (e.g. smart phone applications), thus enabling better governance by formal and informal actors that would help the city to further its economic, social and environmental objectives. Through integrating quantitative and qualitative storytelling and other transdisciplinary research methods, a methodology can be developed for measuring the flows of food waste in informal areas, thus contributing to the broader field of urban metabolism studies. The work builds on previous and ongoing projects on food waste apps, food waste management in a Stellenbosch informal settlement, and the role of the Philippi Horticultural Area in the Cape Town food system.

close index