Refugee garden project in Kenya

The Desert Blooms

Refugees turn Kenya’s arid and dry land into lush farms

© Eunice Murathe

By Eunice Murathe

You will notice three things when you get to Kakuma. First, Kakuma is dry as dust. The sky is bright blue. The sand is hot and hard, with no grass or moisture. The wind starts in the morning and rises until it becomes a sandstorm. 

Second is the silhouettes of distant mountains hazy in the dust. On a clear day, the mountains seem so close that you can touch them. Naively, you might even suggest that you walk to the mountains, but you are told they are miles away. The sun sets there.

Then there is Kakuma’s de facto welcome sign, a cartoon depiction of a toddler pooping on the ground, and words warning, “This is a no open defecation area.” More signs show messages about HIV awareness and preventing gender-based violence.

Here in the desert of northwest Kenya, with an average of 327 days of intense sun and where daytime temperatures often reach 38 °C, is the Kakuma Refugee camp which hosts more than 156,000 refugees.

And that’s where Mary Keji, a refugee who fled her home in Sudan in 2017, grows the spinach, amaranthus, and kales her family needs.

Refugee garden project in Kenya
Mary Keji from Sudan

Keji is keen on farming despite the climatic hardships in Kakuma. The garden, she says, is a start to fresh food and healthy nutrition, and an end to a monotonous diet and fear of sickness.

With an admiring smile, she leads me to an enclosed grow house measuring about 6m by 4m, where leafy greens are shielded from the excess heat and light by shade nets.

”Gardening has improved our nutrition. We have extra food and we are not eating the same kind of food every day as before,” says Keji; a situation that – according to her – is vital for her seven children.

But more remarkable is that the garden opens up new possibilities for Keji and her family.

”My priority is family consumption. I will sell the surplus to earn some extra shillings to supplement the rations. I am also happy because my neighbours come to get vegetables from my garden. It feels good that I can also support the people around me with the little that I have,” she says.   

A farmer can make about 3,000 KES (30 USD) a month by selling the surplus from one shade house.

With funding from The Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA), DanChurchAid (DCA) is helping refugee farmers stretch their scant water and land resources using shade nets agriculture.

Keji, along with more than 400 refugees and members of the host community, received vegetable seeds, shade nets, and training about the importance of growing such vegetables, how to grow them and how to maintain them.

”The shade nets keep soil temperature down, protect plants from the punishing sun – including the extreme ultraviolet rays we get in the high desert, offer wind protection, aid in water retention, and are also a natural pest repellent”, explains James Ekapolon, DCA’s Food Security & Livelihoods Project Assistant.

Refugee garden project in Kenya
Mary Keji from Sudan and James Ekapolon

The current shade houses use a relatively small piece of land; allowing refugees to maximize the small pieces of land provided to them to grow high-value and nutrient-dense vegetables.

”We want the farmers to realize the benefit of using simple technology to improve their output,” says Ekapolon.

The cost of constructing a 6m by 4m shade house is about KES 12,000; equivalent to 105 USD. The shade net used in the construction of the house is durable and can last for at least five years.

DCA initiated shade house technology for vegetable production in Kakuma in September 2017, to help a group of unaccompanied minors in the camp who were severely malnourished.

The children and youth, supported by DCA field facilitators, produced vegetables enough for their dietary as well as nutritional needs and the surplus was sold. 

”By the end of the first quarter of 2018, there were no cases of scurvy reported  among the minors, which was a huge success. DCA decided to upscale the use of the technology,” says Ekapolon.

Refugee garden project in Kenya
Charity from South Sudan

More than 30 kinds of vegetables can be planted in the shade houses, including tomato, pepper, cucumber, potato, leaf lettuce, amaranthus, kale and spinach.

The project is not only a great solution for improving the nutritional status of refugee populations and decreasing the burden of anaemia and other micronutrient deficiencies, but also a solution with great social and economic benefits.

Late in the afternoon, just as the sweltering sun is losing some of its potency, we sit in little plastic chairs in front of Lilian Kujang’s compound.

Lilian – a soft and reticent speaker but engrossing once one has momentum with her – is Keji’s next-door neighbour.

She lives with her four children. The children’s father ran away from her and their children in 2018. She worries about the children, who are desperately missing their father.

Fleeing conflict from her home country, South Sudan, was one of the saddest things she ever had to do and as a farmer she was at a loss when she arrived in the camp, which was hardly ideal for farming, given its arid nature.

“I used to farm in Juba but when we first came here in 2016, I did not find the dry land welcoming. I didn’t know how I could farm here. I cultivated a small patch of land next to my house but the vegetables dried up because of the sun and wind,” she says

Waving a bunch of leafy kales, she says, ” Thanks to shade nets, these are good looking and great tasting. Besides, if they weren’t delicious, no one would care how good they look.’

Refugee garden project in Kenya
Mary Keji from Sudan tends to her vegetable garden

Water is scarce in Kakuma, so the farmers are careful only to water the plants early before the sun comes up and late after the sunsets. ”This way we limit the evaporation rates and our plants don’t dry,” she said, adding, “this is how we fight the desert climate”

Paradoxically the other obstacle the gardening initiatives face is rain. In the rainy seasons – two weeks or so, twice a year – the dry river beds, known as lagas, which run through the camp swell, overflow, and flood the camp. Sometimes the rain falls far away in the hills, unseen, and the water comes rushing into the camp unexpectedly, wreaking havoc.

“The water then becomes our biggest enemy,” Lilian, tells us.  

She adds the garden has another crucial effect that people in the project are proud of and speak of as important: that they decide themselves what they will eat.  

Earlier, before she would farm, she sold her food rations right away to get cash to buy vegetables and foods she preferred. Now she does not sell the food she is given every month. ”The garden has given me a choice. To be a refugee is to lose choice. You flee your home because you have to. Where you are hosted and what you eat are already planned. I make sure my family eats first, but I am also able to sell some of my produce to other families and buy whatever foods my family prefers. I am so happy,” she says.

Kakuma Fact Box

Established in 1992

Hosts more than 156,000 refugees

61 % of population are 18 and below

56% of the refugee households are headed by women

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