The scorching sun beats down on the already hot sand, as refugees line up for food at a food distribution centre in Dadaab. This is the largest refugee in the world, located in the hot, dry North-Eastern part of Kenya.
Being refugees and dependent on government and aid agencies for food aid and all other kinds of support, these populations are often without any source of alternative nutrition or livelihood. There is only so much they can do; starting businesses would require capital, but most of them only work as incentive workers in the camp offices get casual jobs in the markets and restaurants.
In the midst of this, CARE started a pilot project that has quickly taken root, providing an enabling environment for the refugees to increase their food and income resources and therefore regain a hold on their livelihoods. In 2010 CARE initiated greenhouses in the three camps, which are now providing a contrast to the semi-arid environments of the North-East as they have allowed for crop production and yield of high quality produce in such a dry area.
Each camp has two greenhouses placed adjacent to each other, irrigated through the use of water tanks also provided by CARE. Each of them provides an opportunity for participation of the minority Somali Bantu groups, who are the group that mostly works there. A large proportion of the beneficiaries are women, but they also get support from men in their community.
The greenhouses grow hot peppers, green chillies, tomatoes and spinach quite successfully. From having to rely mostly on the provision of food rations, all the beneficiaries , 71 individuals and by extension their 71 families, are able to have more nutritious meals and also have some income to sustain them and provide for their basic needs. Not only do the crops grown ensure that these families have more food to add to their diet and thus improve their nutrition, it has also become a source of income when sold, for these people who have for so many years relied solely on food aid, shelter, education and other assistance from the various agencies.
'All the greenhouses are doing so well, judging from their growth and the rate at which we have harvested the first yield, we estimate that the beneficiaries will be able to recover the start up costs in about six months,' said Moffat Kamau, a CARE livelihood officer in Dadaab.
The participating groups work diligently, sharing responsibility between themselves to tend to the crops on a rotational basis. Most groups use goat manure as fertilizer, which helps retain water, thus improving crop yields. The beneficiaries are quite happy with the progress they are making. In all the camps, one voice resonates, they had all been uncertain of the outcome of this project, but are quite pleased with the results.
Amina Mohamed Musa from Hagadera camp tells us, 'We were very skeptical. After all, nobody believed that anything would actually grow in this soil, which often takes lives, and does not give life to anything'.
The farmers have already had an opportunity to sell their produce at the market and in wholesale to individual buyers, thus generating income. In the three camps, the farmers have decided to save the money generated for future investment in greenhouse expansion.
In Dagahaley, the groups have also decided to create a group savings and loans (GS&L) scheme so that they can provide medical and financial assistance to members who are most in need. Evidently, with the right resources and determination, this pilot could be replicated in all of Dadaab for the benefit of the larger refugee population.
The refugees have for a long time felt like they had little to contribute to their well being, as their status in Kenya has meant that they cannot find work, and they have no means to proper income. Despite their abilities, most have felt as if they were disabled by their refugee status, having to rely on assistance in every sphere of life.
'I came here as a refugee in 1991. It has been 20 years, and every day I felt like a prisoner who was bound by the need for assistance in every part of my life. I could not be a breadwinner for my family. Today, I see the success in the greenhouse, and for the first time in 20 years, I feel free! I can finally stand up as a man again and provide for my family out of my own efforts!'says a very emotional Bashir Bihii, chairman of the Mubarak greenhouse group from Dagahaley.
Apart from the greenhouses, CARE has assisted with other interventions that aim at increasing food resources in refugee households. Individuals such as Congolese refugee Seraphin can grow crops in their own little plots, using water wisely. Seraphim fled Congo in August 2010, taking his pregnant wife and little girl along. With CARE's assistance, he has been able to plant high quality pumpkins, eggplant, carrots, peppers and other crops on his plot, which he harvests to provide food for subsistence as well as for sale in the market.
Seraphin has also extended the new-found knowledge to his neighbours ; a Somali, a Ugandan and a Sudanese, all recent entrants to Dadaab. Together they assist each other with farming and crop sales. A visit to the camp block where Seraphin lives is enough to show how unity amongst different peoples and cultures can bring about a difference through interaction in the harshest of conditions. Residents of that very block are assured that their families will have better nutrition in the future, and more financial resources to improve their lives.
CARE is key in providing quality water and sanitation facilities to the refugees. Additionally, innovations have been made with refugee groups who have been able to start small-scale farms around water taps in the camps. At these taps, the water run-off would dry up without much use. Now, one can see spinach, carrots and other vegetables being grown around the tap stands. The soil is well watered by the run-off and therefore makes an ideal location for farming. What started out as an experiment is working quite well, as the refugee gatekeepers take ownership of the crops. Not only has this been able to provide food and income for their families, it has also allowed for the water to be reused and recycled, thus saving water resources and lending a hand to the preservation of natural resources that are becoming harder to access.
CARE also aims to enhance multi-storey gardening in refugee homes. This is whereby a sack is filled with sand and fertilizer and becomes an ideal (and small) garden. Vegetables such as spinach, peppers, and other light varieties are viable for this, thus providing the refugee families with more food and better nutrition at the very least.
CARE's greenhouse pilot project has shown that in dry seasons, there can be provision of more food sources as well as income even amongst the already vulnerable populations. All the groups participating in this project are quite pleased with the results, and are already looking to expand their ventures, despite their initial reservations.
The greenhouses have also been able to provide shade from the sweltering heat of Dadaab, and it is hoped that the continued efforts of expansion by the refugees will aid in cushioning them against the effects of unpredictable weather patterns in the region, providing more greenery and a new lease on life to the arid environment and exposed population.