Co-production is a strategy increasingly adopted in urban planning which, due to its mandate to empower primary stakeholders to address their own priorities, has potential for protecting and expanding urban food security. Africa’s urban poor consistently rank food security high on their list of immediate priorities. Co-production goes beyond participation, with more substantive collaboration in policy design, implementation and monitoring, thus shifting some of the power associated with planning decisions and actions to primary stakeholders. Co-production is desirable for empowerment outcomes, but also on grounds of greater efficiency, cost savings, government accountability and more locally informed planning.

Present in 13 African nations, Slum/Shack Dwellers International (SDI) is a lead actor in co-production. SDI facilitates co-productive planning relationships among African states, federations of slum dwellers, community-based organizations and other partners, for example, faculty and students from local universities. They facilitate slum upgrading via targeted infrastructural improvements in informal settlements. Drawing on the case of Uganda, this research explores how co-production is engaging slum dwellers and governance actors in the secondary cities of Jinja and Mbale, through Transforming Settlements for the Urban Poor in Uganda (TSUPU), a programme supported by donors (the World Bank and the Gates Foundation) and government. This chapter looks to assess how urban food security is supported by current SDI co-productive programming, given the limitations posed by Uganda’s political environment. Empirical evidence to support this research is drawn from interviews with urban planning stakeholders in Kampala, Jinja and Mbale.


Co-production is “the process through which inputs used to produce a good or service are contributed by individuals who are not ‘in’ the same organization”, from sectors not traditionally considered part of government, for example, citizens, the private sector and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) (Ostrom, 1996, p. 1073). The defining shift from conventional public service delivery is the role citizens play: they have active input shaping, or co-producing, services (Brandsen & Honigh, 2016, p. 428).

Co-production is valued for efficiency reasons, with arguments that cooperation with directly impacted stakeholders provides more accurate knowledge about priorities, which more removed planners do not have access to, as well as potential cost savings, depending on how non-traditional groups provide inputs into the governance process. For example, in addition to targeting priority areas for investment, primary stakeholders may contribute voluntary labour for community infrastructure, ideally fostering community ownership and incentives for upkeep as well as cost savings for governments. Co-production also has the potential for expanding accountability, as government actors are less able to operate in a closed forum and resource transfers are mandated. Further, community empowerment is a goal, as co-production offers opportunities for marginalized groups to shape development processes and voice their priorities (Mitlin, 2008).

Efficiency, accountability and empowerment may not all be fully realized, or even equally valued as goals, in every co-productive practice. Incentives to adopt co-production vary among participants, in ways that politically impact potential for successfully achieving desired outcomes. Thus, agreeing to and formally institutionalizing co-productive urban planning is likely to encounter a variety of political and bureaucratic bottlenecks and barriers.

The potential of co-production to achieve empowerment outcomes for primary stakeholders is debated. Concerns overlap with those directed at other programming that seeks to combine the interests and mindsets of international financial institutions with those of marginalized populations. For example, Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs) replaced Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) with goals to insert a pro-poor agenda in parallel with the austerity and liberalization conditions that had worsened poverty in the 1980s. The added provisions of popular participation, country ownership and pro-poverty ringfencing in budgets, represent movement from the rigid ideological top-down conditionality of SAPs. However, given the continued priority-setting dominance and values of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, they do not result in meaningful change to the neoliberal planning agenda (Cammack, 2004; Fraser, 2005; Soederberg, 2005). Arne Ruckert (2010) suggests, “The main goal of civil society participation might not lie in the incorporation of alternative ideas into the PRSP, but rather in the co-optation of NGO [non-governmental organization] voices, with the ultimate goal of disarming criticism and creating a stronger consensus around the content of the PRSP” (p. 119).

Similarly, co-production has been criticized as “coopting popular action” (Havassy & Yanay, 1990, p. 215). Jakub Galuszka (2019) notes that the term is frequently blurred with mainstream participatory approaches, and thus open to the same criticisms of co-optation, but when practices are deliberately structured to engage grassroots and the government on more equal footing, urban solutions that incorporate possibilities for meaningful power sharing are possible. For citizens to genuinely share in the process of urban governance—and this is more often the exception than the rule—specific conditions must be in place throughout the entire process of co-productive urban planning and implementation. These include willingness and capacity to collaborate from both government and community participants, and an institutionalized transfer of resources, including decision-making power, to non-traditional governance actors. Further, the intended outputs of co-production also matter: in the case of TSUPU’s agenda, do infrastructural improvements that result from slum upgrading facilitate empowerment, or is this dependent on the rights-based community association aspects that emerge in tandem? Can a fairly limited agenda of slum improvement and upgrading impact urban hunger, a cross-cutting priority that is not the central target of urban planning for the government or NGO actors, despite its high priority for the primary stakeholders?

Urbanization, Planning and Food Security in Uganda’s Secondary Cities

In 20 years’ time, Africa will be predominantly urban, resulting in enormous pressures on urban infrastructure, but also marked by limited employment opportunities and rising levels of urban poverty and hunger. In Uganda, this transformation lags behind most of the continent: the nation is only 25.6% urbanized today. However, it is changing rapidly, increasing each year by more than five percent, making its urbanization rate among the highest in the world (CIA, 2021). Rising proportions of urban dwellers are living in crowded informal settlements.

Sixty-nine percent of Uganda’s urban population currently live in secondary cities, with populations of 500,000 or less (World Bank, 2015). Uganda has responded to rising urbanization proactively in select secondary cities with the TSUPU and seeks to develop mechanisms and institutions to facilitate greater participation and agenda-setting by poor urban residents in cooperation with municipal governments in five urbanizing towns (Jinja and Mbale are two of these), ultimately to be scaled up nation-wide. SDI facilitates this process, by way of a co-productive urban planning strategy.

Jinja and Mbale have strong potential for planning success, given they are Uganda’s only two secondary cities that benefited from an early colonial physical development strategy (Kiggundu, 2014). Although growing rapidly, informal settlements are not as established as in Kampala, so there is also scope for meaningful upgrading. Smaller populations further allow for easier facilitation of community cooperation. Limitations are posed by weak capacity in local councils, and more transient migratory patterns than in Kampala, with less established community organization and leadership.

Jinja and Mbale have similar population sizes, at 89,700 and 96,189, respectively. They are both growing steadily, fuelled by migration from rural areas and high birth rates. Rural poverty in Uganda is high, and increased land allocations for large-scale production is constraining space available for subsistence crops and sustainable land cultivation for small producers.

The land around Jinja is dominated by sugar cane production, both on large plantations and with locally owned land rented out to large sugar producers. The sugar cane industry is controlled by a handful of land owners. Most remaining locally owned land has been converted to growing sugar cane, with negative food security impacts. Eighty-seven percent of households in sugar cane-growing areas of Uganda report inadequate food to meet family needs and 21 in 25 households report sugar cane growing as the main source of food insecurity in the area (Anguyo, 2013). Jinja, in Eastern Uganda, banks on Lake Victoria, and was initially a fishing village, but today the city is more a market for fish than a centre of the fishing industry. Relocating to Jinja town from neighbouring rural areas is in part motivated by availability of services and employment, but there is poor access to both. Rural migrants settle in informal settlements, which face deficits in access to sanitation, clean water, education and employment opportunities, and safe, secure and affordable housing. Informal fishing remains central to the livelihoods of many in Jinja, but government pressures to formalize fishing, as well as market retail, make this increasingly difficult (Lince, 2011).

Around Mbale, 120 kms northeast of Jinja, production is much more diversified, but with significant concentrated land holdings devoted to rice production and coffee. Wetland areas near the city were used until recently for urban agriculture by the urban poor, growing rice, but this practice has now been prohibited, although it is unclear how this land will be used in the future. In surrounding rural and peri-urban areas of Mbale, subsistence agriculture still dominates, but population pressures and negative effects of climate change have reduced plot sizes and output, contributing to rural poverty, food insecurity and steady migration to Mbale town. Mbale is more ethnically diverse than Jinja and has long served as a transit point for migrants from Kenya as well as from more remote areas of Uganda en route to Kampala. Mbale also has a higher crime rate than other Ugandan towns and has a reputation for criminal gang activity and as a destination for those escaping the law.

Roughly 40% of the populations in Jinja and Mbale live in informal settlements. These settlements are not new, but these areas in both towns have doubled in size over the past 15 years, with economic inequality in both towns rising sharply. Slum residents rely heavily on the informal food sector to purchase and sell prepared food and foodstuffs for cooking at home. Every informal settlement has several informal business areas where food is sold, some specializing in items that attract consumers from across the city. One settlement in Mbale, for example, sells pork products unavailable elsewhere in town, and is a destination for locals of all economic status from across the city. Slum residents also sell and purchase items in the informal sector in town where informal markets—both stationary and mobile—exist near formal retail centres. Informal retail is the main source of income for poor households in Uganda, women in particular, and in turn the source for provisioning food and household goods. Locations for this retail have emerged in response to where people live and work and their daily travel routes.

Food security in urban Uganda is poorly recognized and addressed. Existing governance attention to the issue remains firmly grounded in narrow assumptions related to safeguarding and increasing food production, without attention to access or nutrition concerns of the urban poor. For example, only the capital, Kampala, has a government-supported policy on urban agriculture; both the community-driven and government-supported food security focus remains on increasing agricultural output in rural areas of the nation. Longstanding practices of urban agriculture in Mbale, such as fishing in Jinja, have been restricted to facilitate urban development in line with the municipal government’s vision of modern town life. The myriad ways food security is attained in urban settings, related to stable access to nutritional food in a cash economy, are not considered. Smaller populations and less advocacy from local and international NGOs leave secondary cities further behind in addressing urban hunger than even the limited progress being made in centres such as Kampala.

Urban hunger is poorly addressed in part because the necessary responses are tied to a range of urban deficits limiting access to nutritious, culturally appropriate food, including income-generation opportunities, adequate access to water and sanitation, environmental hazards, transportation, stigmatization and marginalization of populations, and the protection of and access to informal food markets, all of which may be governed under different authorities who do not hold food security as their central priority. In contrast, food is the central priority of the urban poor, accounting for the largest portion of their spending. “For the urban poor in low and middle-income countries, food affordability and utilisation are shaped by the income and non-income dimensions of poverty that include the urban space” (Tacoli, 2017, p. 1554).

Municipal councils are the main intermediaries and most important actors in secondary city urban development planning in Uganda. It is widely recognized that municipal government capacity is low and that corruption is an immense problem. Only 60% of town positions are currently filled and funding from the national government is based on decades-old census data (Kiggundu, 2014). Also important is that town councils see their role as limited to enforcing and regulating urban development in accordance with planning processes and institutional rules that reflect prevailing visions of urban ideals. The dominant culture in local councils and among planners in Uganda is a central constraint on innovative urban development. While there is considerable attention to the need for local entrepreneurs to innovate, there is weak attention to how municipal functions could extend beyond infrastructural planning and enforcing regulations. When expanded understandings have been put forward, for example UN-Habitat’s Right to the City initiatives arguing for public use of public space, these have received only short-term support from municipal governments and national ministries not interested in changes that undermine their authority. Planning culture in local government remains rigid and technocratic, and embracing the collaboration necessary for co-production will take time and a dramatic change in assumptions for actors who see one another as opponents more often than sharing mutually held goals.

Local governments in Uganda have long faced problems with planning, related to limited financial capacity, low education levels among councillors and corruption. Insufficient financial resources are available for local councils to carry out improved service delivery. Although there is authority for some tax collection, with financial transfers from the central government via a range of national ministries, this is inadequate and a considerable portion of centrally transferred resources come with detailed spending conditions that effectively leave authority centralized (Muriisa, 2008, p. 89). Local tax collection was undermined in 2005 when the central government abolished graduated personal tax, making councils even more dependent on transfers from the centre. National ministries have been unwilling to relinquish resources or decision-making to lower levels of government, in particular when a case can be made that national strategies with priority overlap with areas of local policy implementation. This became especially relevant when PRSPs were introduced.

Local governments also struggle with capacity, in the form of educated and experienced local officials. Inadequate skills in accounting, administration, planning and engineering, combined with a shortage of qualified personnel to support better health and education services, have stymied effective municipal planning. Elected local councillors have lower levels of education than central government civil services, contributing to the reluctance for ministries to truly devolve authority (Steiner, 2006, p. 14). This is an important point, highlighting that a perceived or real deficit in skills at lower levels can result in the failure of administrators with experience and formal education ceding control over planning and service delivery, and associated resources.

More serious structural problems also limit the success of local planning. Over the 30-plus years of President Yoweri Museveni’s rule as leader of the National Resistance Movement, there has been a steady increase in concentrated power and authoritarianism. In practice, decentralization was utilized as a means for central authority to secure loyalty throughout the nation, by co-opting members of local government. Rather than a stakeholder model of decentralized public administration “grounded in democratic participation, accountability and empowerment” (Wenene et al., 2016, p. 170), competition among ministries for scarce state resources, alongside practices of rent-seeking, draws local councils into patron-client networks, where their limited authority and resource command are compromised by the need to be “loyal” to nation-state patrons. More devolves to district-level appointees rather than elected local councils (Green, 2015, p. 496). Corruption at local as well as national levels of government is endemic, even as enough professionalism and capacity, combined with ongoing international support, has facilitated overall economic growth. Corruption is at highest levels in local councils (Deininger & Mpuga, 2005, p. 178; Green, 2015, p. 501; Lambright, 2011, p. 1).

Co-production in Jinja and Mbale

In Uganda’s co-productive urban planning, community participation is channelled through SDI, the local NGO AcTogether (which was established by SDI) and Federation of the Urban Poor (also initiated by SDI). SDI has replicated this institutional model from other Global South settings where it has been working since 1996; it is currently operating in 33 nations. In Uganda, TUSPSU launched in 2010, with detailed enumerations of slums in the initial five towns. Residents, members of the federation, provided the volunteer labour for these enumerations. SDI organized communities to identify priorities around potential upgrading of infrastructure, such as toilets, showers, water, better roads and drainage. Further, SDI and AcTogether support savings and micro-credit groups for women, which are central in community building in the federations and ensure women have key roles. Urban forums were organized, members signed up and meetings include municipal leaders and representatives from slums. Frequent networking opportunities exist to allow AcTogether leadership to share insights. Through these strategies, SDI strives to empower settlement residents so they can advocate for their rights, in particular those related to housing tenure and security. Students from Makerere University have also been brought into the process at different times—for example, to help design toilet blocks—and faculty from Makerere University participate in some planning meetings, although not in Jinja or Mbale, adding additional voices to both counter and inform municipal planning thinking and decision-making.

In Jinja and Mbale, immediate impacts of recent investments in urban sectors are evident: there is heavy construction, primarily roadwork, underway, with almost all roads in the town centres dug up, and hundreds of workers involved. In addition, both towns have had central open-air markets recently replaced by large new multi-billion dollar buildings, with new rental requirements and fees for vendors. Also visible are new toilet blocks and water pipes in slum communities, a direct result of priorities identified during the TSUPU slum upgrading co-productive process.

Cooperative planning between informal settlements and municipal authorities is challenging. Contestations between informal settlement residents and municipal authorities are frequent. Municipal police continue to remove informal vendors from the town centres and even from some of the informal settlements. Funding for new urban planning initiatives is partly supported by transfers from the national government, but also by increasing tax revenues from licensed shops and the new markets, adding pressure to the existing bias of formal over informal retail activities and spaces. Having clean, modern cities, with tidy, open sidewalks and no garbage areis the goal of urban development as expressed by municipal leaders. This narrative is particularly strong in Mbale, where the town long held a reputation of being clean and orderly, before urban growth and urban poverty rose, bringing with it the disorder and garbage of unregulated trading areas. TSUPU’s slum upgrading initiatives operate alongside a larger urban planning agenda, with overlapping resources released by government authorities. Co-productive planning should, in theory, allow for more power and control of planning resources to be in the hands of community groups; given limited resources and competing understandings of upgrading and other urban development needs, however, this is not a straightforward process.

Evaluating Impacts of TSUPU

Food security is explicitly recognized by both SDI and residents of informal settlements as a central concern, but is not a direct part of the agenda of slum upgrading underway. From the SDI perspective, food security is a consequence of poverty and precarious income, itself compounded by the deficits of slum existence. The central undertakings of TSUPU involve infrastructural improvements to slums, through a process that allows targeted and cost-effective improvements in line with the sectors that residents see as most urgent. Enumerations further provide for accurate planning data on population density and size, and access and demand for housing, roads, drainage, water, toilets and retail areas.

There are several ways that food security is being addressed through TSUPU’s programming, but these are indirect, and thus their impact is difficult to assess. Based on communities’ own prioritizations, improvements have been made in informal settlements in Jinja and Mbale to water access and sanitation, which have both demonstrated links to food safety and nutrition. One settlement in Mbale successfully lobbied for a new school to be built in their area, since greater levels of formal education correlate with improved food security, due to lunch programmes, as well as better employment opportunities in the future. Drainage ditches have been dug to protect against flooding and the health risks of standing water. As with improvements to sanitation, better environmental conditions can have indirect benefits for nutritional security, for children in particular. These are all examples of how upgrading infrastructure has been planned and put in place with community participation and some community labour, achieving the co-productive goals of efficient and cost-saving urban planning. Early problems were identified, with some new infrastructure experiencing breakdowns and the fees for toilet access resulting in limited use, but overall AcTogether reports satisfaction with the pace and outcomes of upgrading.

While urban food security relies on safe water, healthy environments and access to services such as education, by far the most immediately impactful upgrades for food security are those connected with supporting spatial and income accessibility to food. In terms of increased income generation, support for women’s savings groups and access to micro-credit are foundational to SDI’s community organization, to allow for women’s participation in co-production and to improve their financial autonomy and income-generating opportunities. This is one of the areas where SDI credits co-production with empowerment outcomes. Informal markets are critical to food access in urban settings. In this area, TSUPU has had mixed success with protecting and improving venues for informal trade and food access. AcTogether has helped communities advocate for water and sanitation access near informal markets, and women have been granted micro-loans in order to start or expand informal businesses. However, evidence that micro-credit is not an effective tool for improving incomes or promoting women’s empowerment is mounting (Banerjee et al., 2015; Mahmud, 2003; Rankin, 2010). Some studies indicate that only a narrow band of women with established businesses benefit from micro-credit, while most women encounter unsustainable debt burdens.

Micro-credit in TSUPU’s programming has also highlighted the disconnect between municipal and NGO goals. Micro-credit has been provided to women’s groups in order to improve their income-generating activities, most of which involve informal sector businesses. Women are disproportionately represented in lower income informal activities, the informal food retail sector in particular. Improving women’s business opportunities and income generation directly boosts food access for women and their families. However, municipal police in both Jinja and Mbale continue to harass street vendors, fining them for operating without a licence and confiscating their wares. When credit recipients in both cities reported back to AcTogether regarding these losses, they were advised to operate their businesses in the evenings, when they would be less likely to be targeted by authorities. Views on the necessity and legality of unlicensed vendors remain at odds with the larger urban planning agenda of city planners, despite co-productive arrangements to support women’s informal business enterprises. A parallel example occurred in Mbale, where a toilet block constructed by TSUPU near an informal market area was destroyed by municipal police as part of a crackdown on illegal vendors in the central business area of town.

Uganda’s National Urban Plan seeks to formalize food retail by developing new marketplaces in cities across the nation. New market areas have been constructed in both Jinja and Mbale. Improvements to existing central marketplaces are needed, to allow for more space, protection from the elements and safer access to clean water for vendors, but having the means to purchase licences to operate in formal markets remains out of reach for many of the urban poor, a reality largely disregarded by planning authorities.

Another mechanism SDI uses to increase community power is organizing communities more broadly into federations of the urban poor to enable them to assert their rights, in particular rights related to housing tenure. In India, SDI programming has been quite effective in this regard and the organization remains outspoken in its defence of housing rights for slum dwellers across the Global South. The goal is to have urban federations become part of a global movement, with federations able to draw support and learn from one another in their defence of rights. This has been less successful in Africa, perhaps because populations there have less established urban mobilization, but over time, as SDI expands its presence and affiliate federations continue to network, opportunities may grow. The primary obstacle to empowerment is that many African states, including Uganda’s, are not on board with protecting rights to shelter or informal markets.

While urban food security is not identified as a direct planning priority by urban planners or integrated into TSUPU’s approach, from a food security lens there are encouraging signs that this co-productive planning approach will respond to some urban food security needs. Improvements in communities’ infrastructure, including access to clean water, sanitation, electricity and transportation, and developing safer, cleaner, more secure environments, all contribute to the broader requirements for supporting nutritional security. That communities are able to identify which upgrading needs are most pressing allows this to happen in a more efficient and accountable manner. SDI’s enumerations in Asia have begun to incorporate a food security lens, in response to consistent community prioritization of hunger (Boonyabancha et al., 2019); given the extensive affiliate networking, this may inform future co-productive planning in Uganda’s secondary cities.

SDI’s explicit agenda to empower communities is also important. Centring women at the forefront of community organizing and leadership, by mobilizing them into savings groups, ensures those with primary community care have a strong voice in setting priorities for upgrading. Women are central to protecting food access in their homes and communities, with primary roles in food retail, preparation and responsibility. Facilitating regional networking with SDI affiliates has potential to add scope to TSUPU’s agenda, as well as adapt tactics in response to a wider pool of experience and local needs. The knowledge sharing from these networks is geared towards developing a rights-based global movement, and SDI does not shy away from speaking out against governments it works with, in particular around defending tenancy rights, but more generally as well. This will take time, and at present only a small number of urban residents in Jinja and Mbale are actively involved in the forum’s activities, or even aware of TSUPU or the source of new upgrades in their communities. Further, when AcTogether was formed, existing community-based organizations were not involved in the process and there was a missed opportunity to collaborate with existing community groups with overlapping concerns. These groups have longstanding relationships with communities, and their work with important marginalized populations (children, women, those with HIV/AIDS) could contribute to informing SDI’s empowerment agenda if connections are fostered in the future.


Attention on urban food security remains weak in Uganda, with a continued bias from government actors to see food security through a productivist rural lens. Further, all levels of government continue to see long-term formalization of informal housing and employment sectors as urban planning goals. However, willingness to upgrade informal settlements indicates that governments, national and municipal, have shifted from seeing informal settlements as only urban blights to a greater recognition of the pressing needs of rising numbers of urban poor residents. Infrastructural improvements only impact food security tangentially at present, but opening space for urban poor voices through co-production may permit the central importance of urban hunger to be heard in future. TSUPU’s upgrading in Jinja and Mbale has been successful in achieving some efficiency and cost-saving goals, institutionalizing a transfer of resources and limited decision-making power to local communities. The main barriers to transferring more power to communities stem from limited resources, weak municipal governance capacity, competing and uncoordinated planning priorities and a continued planning culture that values formal urban planning over the needs of rising populations of urban poor.