Zero Hunger

Living Edition
| Editors: Walter Leal Filho, Anabela Marisa Azul, Luciana Brandli, Pinar Gökcin Özuyar, Tony Wall

Rural Infrastructure and Food Security

  • Junaid Alam Memon
  • Hamid El BilaliEmail author
Living reference work entry



Infrastructure: “The basic physical and organizational structures and facilities (e.g., buildings, roads, power supplies) needed for the operation of a society or enterprise” (Oxford University Press 2018).

Based on the above definition, the term rural infrastructure can be defined as: The basic physical and organizational structures and facilities (e.g., buildings, roads, power supplies, irrigation network, extension services, warehouses, storage facilities) needed for the operation of a rural society.


The Target 2.a of the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 2 “Zero Hunger” links increase of investment in rural infrastructure, among others, with the enhancement of agricultural productive capacity in developing countries. This target aims to “Increase investment, including through enhanced international cooperation, in rural infrastructure, agricultural research and extension services, technology development, and plant and livestock gene banks in order to enhance agricultural productive capacity in developing countries, in particular least developed countries” (United Nations 2015, p. 15).

Improving agricultural performance will be central to addressing both food insecurity and poverty, as nearly two-thirds of the world’s poor work in agriculture and more than three-quarters of poor people still live in rural areas (World Bank 2016a). Rural infrastructure is crucial ingredient for agriculture and agro-industry development and overall economic development of rural areas, besides providing basic amenities that improve the quality of life in rural areas. Adequate infrastructure raises productivity and lowers production costs (Satish 2007) and thereby improves rural livelihoods and state of human development in rural areas.

Infrastructure is an umbrella term that refers to different structures and facilities. Arthur Lewis (1955) included public utilities, ports, water supply, and electricity as infrastructure. The World Bank (1994) defined infrastructure as public utilities (power, piped water supply, sanitation and sewerage, telecommunications, solid waste collection and disposal, and piped gas); public works (roads, major dams, and canal works for irrigation and drainage); and other transport sectors (railways, urban transport, ports and waterways, and airports).

Other authors use terms “agricultural infrastructure” and “rural infrastructure” interchangeably. For instance, Fosu et al. (1995) distinguish up to 11 components of agricultural infrastructure: irrigation and public access to water; transportation means; storage services; processing infrastructure; commercial infrastructure; public services; communication and information services; agricultural research and extension services; land conservation services; health and education services; and credit and financial institutions.

Rural infrastructure refers to infrastructure and facilities necessary to provide services such as transport, energy/electricity, drinking water and sanitation, housing, ICT, health, education, etc. in rural areas. More broadly, rural infrastructure can be considered as physical capital (Box 1).

Box 1 Physical Capital in the Sustainable Livelihoods Framework

The sustainable livelihoods framework (SLF) identifies five types of capitals or assets upon which livelihoods are built, viz., natural capital, human capital, social capital, physical capital, and financial capital.

Physical capital comprises the basic infrastructure and producer goods needed to support livelihoods:
  • Infrastructure consists of changes to the physical environment that help people meet their basic needs and be more productive.

  • Producer goods are the tools and equipment that people use to function more productively.

The following components of infrastructure are usually essential for sustainable livelihoods: affordable transport; secure shelter and buildings; adequate water supply and sanitation; clean, affordable energy; and access to information (communications).

Infrastructure is commonly a public good that is used without direct payment. Exceptions include shelter, which is often privately owned, and some other infrastructure that is accessed for a fee related to usage (e.g., toll roads and energy supplies). Infrastructure – such as roads, rails, and telecommunications – is key to the integration of the remote areas where many of the poor live.

Source: Department for International Development-UK (1999).

Status of Rural Infrastructure: Rural-Urban Gap in Infrastructure

Despite the well-understood backward and forward linkages of rural infrastructure in agricultural and economic growth, rural development, and poverty alleviation (e.g., IFPRI 2017), there are still significant deficiencies of rural infrastructure, especially in developing countries and a significant urban-rural gap in most countries. In fact, infrastructure gap is one of the defining characteristics of rural and urban dichotomy. While the status of rural infrastructure varies widely within and among countries, in general, infrastructure stocks and services status in most developing countries are far from sufficient and are poorer than that in their developed counterparts.


Rural roads have become a critical headline indicator of rural development. Improvement of rural roads has positive and multifaceted social multiplier effects in terms of access to quality basic services such as schooling and healthcare (Plessis-Fraissard 2011). Juma (2011) argues that investments in infrastructure (e.g., transportation, energy, communication) can provide an opportunity for Africa to meet demand for food and also can offer African smallholder farmers a chance to make a decent livelihood. In fact, poor infrastructure hampers the ability of the continent to ensure sustained economic growth and meet sustainable development objectives. According to Plessis-Fraissard (2011), “Rural roads are the wealth of nations, a tool for social inclusion, economic development and environmental sustainability.”

Therefore, there was a reasonable development of rural road network in the last few decades with a notable increase in road density (km/km2). However, surfaced and paved road coverage in rural areas is still scanty (e.g., only 33% of total rural road network in India was paved in 2011). Road connectivity varies according to degree of urbanization, population density, and level of economic development. The economic importance of an area, being it urban or rural, significantly affects roads density (Harding and Wantchekon 2012). The Rural Access Index [RAI measures the proportion of people that lives within 2 km, a reasonable walking distance, of an all-season road (one that is drivable at all times of the year and within, at most, 6 h after rain by the prevailing means of transport] shows that about half the rural population in Nepal lacks road access and around 15 million rural residents in Mozambique lack good road access. Initial estimates based on RAI indicate that approximately 30% of rural population (or about one billion) is disconnected from a good quality road network, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa (World Bank 2016b).

In general, rural roads networks tend to be better in Asia than in Africa (Pinstrup-Andersen and Shimokawa 2006). Nevertheless, low-quality rural roads account for about 70% of the road length in China (Fan et al. 2018). Access to road also determines the rural populations’ access to services such as schools and hospitals. Poor condition of rural road network is a challenge not particular to the developing countries. In fact, one-fifth of the rural bridges in the USA are either functionally obsolete or structurally deficient (i.e., need repair, rehabilitation, or replacement), and 14% of rural roads have pavements in poor condition (TRIP 2017).

Drinking Water and Sanitation

Access to clean water and safely managed sanitation services can have multiplier effects on many other socioeconomic indicators like health (e.g., diseases such as cholera) and poverty. However, there are significant urban-rural disparities, and rural populations still have a disproportionately lower access to these basic services (United Nations 2018). In fact, there is an urban bias in access to improved water supply and sanitation facilities (Pinstrup-Andersen and Shimokawa 2006). Nevertheless, migrants’ influx from rural areas also overburdens the urban water and sanitation facilities. In fact, many migrants from rural areas end up in slums that are characterized by inadequate access to safe water, sanitation, and infrastructure. In general, life in slums is characterized by lack of water, sanitation, and sewage infrastructure, air pollution (both indoor and outdoor), and dusty roads, which exposes residents of slums to a plethora of health risks.

In 2015, over 90% (6.6 billion people) used improved drinking water sources, but only over two-thirds the world’s population (4.9 billion people) used improved sanitation facilities. People without access to safe drinking water and improved sanitation live predominantly in rural areas, especially in different parts of Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa (United Nations 2017). Access to safe drinking water is one of the basic human needs. However, many rural areas and villages still lack coverage with tapped water supply so they depend on other means like bore well, hand pumps, and fetching water from nearby canals and rivers, etc. (almost half of people drinking water from unprotected sources live in Sub-Saharan Africa; eight in ten live in rural areas). The poor sanitation facilities in the rural areas are an equally critical issue (in 2010, only 31% of rural households had access to sanitation facilities in Africa). A large share of rural households still resorts to open defecation (69.3% according to the 2011 Census in rural India). Even some rural facilities such as primary schools lack toilets. Therefore, provisioning of safe drinking water and adequate sanitation facilities in rural areas need to be a top priority of the rural development policies. In many developing countries, investments are needed in both infrastructure and cultural change.

Health Facilities

Health infrastructure in rural areas is still largely inadequate. In general, there are less healthcare facilities and fewer medical practitioners in rural areas than in their urban counterparts (Strasser 2003). For instance, healthcare accessibility and the use of available healthcare facilities continue to be poor in rural areas of India (Panagariya 2014). Absence of connectivity to the villages and inadequate number of health centers (and/or skilled health workers) still endangers the life of rural population. Many villages do not have any health center nearby (Kanuganti et al. 2015). Added to this, many health centers are also run without doctors, and in some cases, treatment is done by unskilled healthcare workers. Access to adequate healthcare and health facilities must be available and easily accessible to rural residents. In other words, access to healthcare is also affected by the availability and quality of other rural infrastructure assets such as roads.

Power and Electricity

Access to electricity has become a necessity for every household even in the rural areas. Therefore, many countries have been trying to push various reforms in power sector to provide affordable and reliable electricity to rural populations. In particular, programs of hybrid and renewable electricity provisioning (off-grid connectivity and power supply from cogeneration, solar and micro-hydro) and distributed generation have been implemented to electrify remote rural areas (Memon and Hussain 2018). For instance, there was a dramatic increase in electrification of rural areas in China, and, consequently, electricity consumption that was almost nil in 1950 rose to about 198 million kilowatts by 1997 (Fan et al. 2018). However, many rural villages across different countries are yet to get electrified. Moreover, annual per capita electricity consumption (in kwh) is low in rural areas compared to their urban counterparts. Once again the worst situation is found in Sub-Saharan Africa, e.g., only 12% of Ugandan rural villages were electrified (and a meager 2.1% of rural households enjoy electricity) in 2000, while the share of electrified villages reached 89% by 1995 in India (Pinstrup-Andersen and Shimokawa 2006).

Education Facilities

Education enhances human capital and is one of the key drivers of rural transformation (IFAD 2016). Nevertheless, it is still a challenge in rural areas, especially in remote villages. Not all villages have primary schools. The situation is even worse when considering secondary or high schools (World Bank 2017). Even in villages where there is a primary school, the average teacher availability is quite low (e.g., 2.2 teachers per school in rural India in 2011). The school infrastructure in rural areas needs a lot more improvement even in terms of the number of classrooms, quality of furniture (e.g., in some rural schools, pupils are even made to sit on the floor due to unavailability of furniture, while others lack doors and/or windows), availability of safe drinking water and toilet facilities, etc. (Sreekanthachari and Nagaraja 2013). Likewise, there is a huge deficit of education infrastructure in rural areas of Sub-Saharan Africa; for instance, most of rural schools in Nigeria are poorly built and are characterized with damaged roofs and walls and educational facilities (tables, chairs) (Olawale 2016).

Irrigation Infrastructure

Throughout the human history, possibility to irrigate had been the primary motivation for human settlements along rivers. Even today, the irrigated agriculture is the economic mainstay of many societies such as in Asia – a region that accounts for more than 70% of the global irrigated farmlands. Though the irrigated agriculture makes less than one-third of the global harvested land, its contribution to food production is more than two-fifths (Ringler 2017). Irrigation infrastructure that supports rural development and livelihoods may be classified along various lines. On the one hand, these may be differenced as surface and groundwater system, while on the other hand, these can be grouped into large gravity-driven system, built through national governments and international donor support (such as Indus River system) (Memon and Thapa 2011), community-built and operated small irrigation systems (Memon et al. 2017b), and private tube wells installed by millions of farmers in parts of South Asia, Africa, and elsewhere (Jacoby 2017).

Though irrigation has always remained a hot issue in the post-WWII rural development and food security debate and a key ingredient of the so-called ‘green revolution’, the conception of and interest in irrigation have fundamentally changed over the past few decades (Turral et al. 2010; Ward 2010). During the 1950s–1980s, the emphasis was on developing large-scale irrigation infrastructure due to the looming food shortages and famines (Koohafkan et al. 2012). During this period, countries like Pakistan could develop substantial part of their irrigation infrastructure – a system large enough to irrigate about 18 million hectares or 80% of its farmlands (Ward 2010; Memon and Thapa 2011). However, many such investments around the developing world are currently facing problems like aging, inadequate operation and maintenance (O&M), poor cost recovery from water users, corruption culture in hydraulic bureaucracies responsible for their O&M, and environmental degradation when evaluated from watershed perspective. Likewise, public investment in irrigation infrastructure was a priority in China soon after 1949. Thanks to the prioritized investment and the commune work system, which allowed the mobilization of a large number of rural laborers, more than ten million ha of land became irrigated in the country (Fan et al. 2018).

From the 1980s and onward, there has been a major shift in conception of irrigation that goes beyond physical infrastructure building toward a holistic approach. Its contemporary conceptualization has embraced concepts like governance; irrigation use efficiency and modernization at all levels of irrigation operations; technical, institutional, and financial viability of irrigation investments; cross-sectoral linkages and competitive uses of available freshwater resources; farm productivity and poverty reduction potential; market mechanism; property right regimes; and so on. This approach by no means undermines the importance of investment in rehabilitating aging and building new irrigation infrastructure. Ringler (2017) argues in favor of the need for investment in irrigation infrastructure, technology, policies, and institutions to ensure food security at regional and global scale. This implies that investments are needed not only for making irrigation available but also efficient along the ideals of “crop per drop of water” (Memon et al. 2017a).

Relation Between Rural Infrastructure and Food Security

Food security has four dimensions: food availability, food access, food utilization, and stability in food availability, access, and utilization. Food access refers to having sufficient resources to obtain appropriate food for a nutritious diet. Accessibility relates to economic access (i.e., food purchasing power), physical access (i.e., transport, infrastructure), as well as sociocultural access and preferences. Food utilization refers to the appropriate use of food based on nutritional value, food safety, and social value (United Nations System High Level Task Force on Global Food Security 2011).

There is a strong linkage between infrastructure and food security. In the suite of food security indicators (FAO et al. 2014), infrastructure is related to both access and utilization dimensions of food security. In fact, three parameters (i.e., percentage of paved roads over total roads, road density, rail lines density) affect food access, while two variables (cf. access to improved water sources, access to improved sanitation facilities) are linked to the proper food utilization (Table 1).
Table 1

Indicators relating to infrastructure in the food security suite of indicators

Food security dimension



Food accessa

Percentage of paved roads over total roads

This indicator measures the share (%) of paved roads over total road network, where paved roads are those surfaced with crushed stone (macadam) and hydrocarbon binder or bituminized agents, with concrete, or with cobblestones, as a percentage of all the country’s roads, measured in length. This indicator provides information on the possibility of physical access to markets

Road density

The indicator measures the km of road per 100 km2 of land area, where total road network includes motorways, highways, and main or national roads, secondary or regional roads, and all other roads in a country. This indicator provides information on the possibility of physical access to markets

Food utilization

Access to improved water sourcesb

This indicator measures the share (%) of the total population with access to improved drinking water sources. Access to an improved water source refers to the percentage of the population with reasonable access to an adequate amount of water from an improved source, such as a household connection, public standpipe, borehole, protected well or spring, and rainwater collection. Unimproved sources include vendors, tanker trucks, and unprotected wells and springs. Reasonable access is defined as the availability of at least 20 l a person a day from a source within 1 km of the dwelling

Access to improved sanitation facilitiesc

This indicator measures the share (%) of the total population with access to sanitation facilities. Access to improved sanitation facilities refers to the percentage of the population with at least adequate access to excreta disposal facilities that can effectively prevent human, animal, and insect contact with excreta. Improved facilities range from simple but protected pit latrines to flush toilets with a sewerage connection. To be effective, facilities must be correctly constructed and properly maintained

Source: Land Portal (2018)

aNo information is provided in the indicated source about the indicator “Rail lines density”

bSee SDG 6 “Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all”; Target 6.1, By 2030, achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all; and Indicator 6.1.1, Proportion of population using safely managed drinking water services

cSee SDG 6 (Clean water and sanitation); Target 6.2, By 2030, achieve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all and end open defecation, paying special attention to the needs of women and girls and those in vulnerable situations; and Indicator 6.2.1, Proportion of population using safely managed sanitation services, including a hand-washing facility with soap and water

Rural Infrastructure and Food Production

Since the 1960s, there is an increasing recognition of the vital role that infrastructure plays in generating agricultural growth (de Vries 1960; Ishikawa 1967). The spread of technology in agriculture depends critically on both physical and institutional infrastructures (Satish 2007). As a recognition of the role of rural infrastructure in fostering agricultural growth, the second pillar of the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program (CAADP) is “Improving rural infrastructure and trade-related capacities for market access.” The CAADP is Africa’s policy framework for agricultural development, food security and nutrition, and rural development. The first declaration on CAADP as an integral part of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) was made in 2003 on the occasion of the African Union’s Summit in Maputo (Mozambique).

Studies in Africa show that the lack of quality roads is one of the main constraints to agricultural development in the continent (deGrassi 2005). Construction of rural roads generally leads to increases in agricultural production and productivity (IFAD 1995; Rosegrant 2003; Pinstrup-Andersen and Shimokawa 2006; World Bank 2016b; Fan et al. 2018), among others, by bringing in new land into cultivation or by intensifying the existing land use (IFAD 1995). Farmers’ profit margin directly depends on the transportation cost to take their agricultural produce to appropriate marketplace, which in turn depends on quality of road infrastructure. Transport companies are reluctant to utilize rural roads or charge extra fee because rural roads are often impassable.

Access to market has seasonal connotation as during rainy season rural roads are usually flooded and have potholes that can damage trucks (IFAD 2003). Developing rural infrastructure – roads in particular – improves the mobility of production inputs and outputs to and from farms, thus decreasing the input prices and increasing income from agricultural produce (Setboonsarng 2008). Infrastructure also plays a crucial role in boosting backward and forward linkages between rural and urban areas and other sectors of the economy. This makes crucial the investments in road and allied infrastructure (e.g., storage and warehousing) (IFAD 2016).

Rural Infrastructure and Food Losses

About a third of the global food production is lost or wasted with severe impacts on the global hunger, economy, and environment. Food losses and waste occur along the whole supply chain (harvesting, transport, storage, packaging, processing, wholesale and retail trade) and where food is consumed. Losses in the first part of the food chain are more important in developing countries (FAO 2011; HLPE 2014) largely because of poor roads and inappropriate storage facilities (World Bank 1997); this is particularly the case for perishable food commodities such as meat, milk, fruits, vegetables and fish. In fact, the High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition of the Committee on World Food Security (HLPE 2014) identifies the lack of infrastructure (especially transport, processing, energy, and market facilities) for well-functioning food chains as one of the main causes of food losses and waste (FLW); recommendations to reduce FLW include that states “Invest in infrastructure and public goods to reduce FLW and to ensure sustainable food systems such as storage and processing facilities, reliable energy supply, transport, appropriate technologies, improved access and connection of food producers and consumers to markets” (p. 17). Likewise, in its Global Food Policy Report, IFPRI (2017) puts that “Poor transportation infrastructure can make it too costly for smallholders to sell their produce downstream to urban consumers and can contribute to greater food losses and waste” (p. 18). Investments in transport and marketing infrastructure (roads, market facilities, cold storage, etc.) may induce a significant reduction in postharvest agricultural losses (Sheahan and Barrett 2017). Food losses adversely influence the income of farmers and affect their access to nutritious food. In fact, food losses translate into lost income for farmers and into higher food prices paid by food consumers (HLPE 2014; FAO 2017).

Rural Infrastructure and Food Access

According to Mellor (1976), infrastructure plays a strategic role in producing large multiplier effects in the economy with agricultural growth. This, in turn, contributes to the development of rural economies with increase of income and consequent improvement of quality of life in rural areas. In fact, the growth of farm productivity and nonfarm rural employment is linked closely to infrastructure provision (Pinstrup-Andersen and Shimokawa 2006; World Bank 2007). This is particularly relevant taking into consideration that most of the poor live in rural areas (World Bank 1994, 2007). Fan et al. (1998) show that rural infrastructure is an important driver for total factor productivity growth (Comin 2006) and directly contributes to reduction in rural poverty. Access to public infrastructure affects household labor assignments, transforms gender roles, and can favor the diversification of their livelihoods and income-generating activities. Therefore, the majority of studies show that infrastructure investment has a positive impact on rural incomes and especially on that of the smallholders (Satish 2007).

Deficiencies in infrastructure (e.g., transportation/roads, telecommunication, energy) translate into poorly functioning markets (Pinstrup-Andersen and Shimokawa 2006), thus affecting food supplies and, consequently, food security of the population. It is widely admitted that investments in roads have major impacts on food supplies and that the quality and density of roads network impact food accessibility. In fact, transportation costs explain most of food prices variation, and limited transport infrastructure increases food prices, thus reducing food accessibility for consumers (Harding and Wantchekon 2012). Since the poor spend most of their incomes on food items, they are the worst victims of escalated transportation cost due to poor infrastructure resulting in their lower levels of well-being, food insecurity, and livelihood vulnerability (IFAD 2003). The cost of marketing farm produce can be prohibitive for poor farmers when rural infrastructure has deteriorated or is nonexistent. Therefore, rural infrastructure plays a key role in reaching the large mass of rural poor and in favoring their access to market (Satish 2007).


Rural economy still plays a significant role in the overall economic structure of many developing countries, and it has a high potential in terms of their labor market. However, inadequate infrastructure, among other factors, has been driving the rural population into poverty and low levels of well-being. Rural infrastructure is the catalyst, having multiplier impacts on rural communities’ efforts to stimulate economic growth. Rural areas face unique challenges in addressing infrastructure needs such as lack of financial resources as well as low staff capacity and expertise. Provisioning of basic infrastructure would help in tapping the vast resources in the rural areas for the development not only of agriculture but also of other sectors (e.g., rural tourism). Therefore, rural infrastructure gap needs to be addressed urgently so as to alleviate poverty and achieve inclusive growth.

From the latter point of view, provision of rural infrastructure has not only an economic but also an ethical justification. This implies increasing investment in rural infrastructure of developing countries, through any possible means including domestic resources and international cooperation, to foster agricultural development and eradicate rural poverty. Investments are required to expand rural infrastructure base in the form of roads, bridges, schools, water supply and sanitation, irrigation, energy and telecommunications, and warehousing and storage facilities. Likewise, investments (public, private, and public-private) are needed for the maintenance and operation of existing rural infrastructure. Moreover, the increasing frequency of extreme weather events, due to climate change, will require substantial investment in rural infrastructure to cope with this changing environment. Failure of accelerating investments in rural infrastructure may jeopardize efforts to achieve many Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and limit opportunities of developing countries to benefit from market globalization and trade liberalization.

Nevertheless, the provision of physical infrastructure should be coupled with a kind of institutional infrastructure that is flexible to adjust according to the contemporary needs of rural societies as they develop along the desired development path. The investments that lack strong institutional support for their smooth operation may start decaying and teeter to death until saved through frequent subsidies – a situation that lacks economic justification and, certainly, not in line with the principles of sustainable development.



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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Public Policy, Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE)IslamabadPakistan
  2. 2.Centre for Development Research (CDR)University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences (BOKU)ViennaAustria

Section editors and affiliations

  • Mohammad Sadegh Allahyari
    • 1
  1. 1.Dept. of Agricultural ManagementRasht Branch, Islamic Azad University, RashtRashtIran