Kenya: A Food Revolution in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp

Lane HartillLane Hartill, Director of Media and Communications

Dadaab, Kenya

October 19, 2011


The produce section at Ahmed’s shop is nothing short of impressive. 

Onions as big and red Christmas tree ornaments shine in the sun. Next to them, garlic the size of cats’ heads gaze up at customers. In the next bin, heaps of mangoes doze in the shade, waiting for their turn in a juice machine. On hot days, the juicer is a hit with people ready for smoothies ranging for guava to avocado.

But this is no swank gourmet store in Los Angeles.

It’s a shed in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya. The aisles are sand alleys where shoppers weave between dozing donkeys and smoking garbage. 

Dadaab has been here for 20 years and has worn, lived-in feel to it. To cater to the 440,00 refugees living here, markets have sprung up where you can buy everything from slick cell phones to knock-off European perfumes. 

But most shoppers make a beeline for the basics: onions, potatoes, and eggs. It’s a selection many never had in Somalia, a country that’s been on a slow downward slide for years. Food choices, especially in the countryside, have become limited. Most Somalis grew up with only two options: camel meat and camel milk. In a country where, in some places, camels out number people, dinner for many means fried camel meat washed down with sussa, camel milk that is left in the shade to ferment. Some children drink nothing but camel milk for the first few years of their life.  

The food selection in Dadaab for many years wasn’t much better, a meager array of shriveled produce and canned goods. Most people relied on processed food from aid agencies. While it was welcome, it wasn’t satisfying all the nutritional needs of children. That led to frightening rates of malnutrition.

But now, thanks to Save the Children, there’s a food revolution happening in this unlikely place. With financing from the French Government, Save the Children started a program in which vouchers are given to parents with children between 6 and 12 months old to buy fresh food and vegetables from select vendors. Parents receive vouchers worth about $10 a month that they can redeem at 45 vendors throughout the camp. 

The idea? Don’t wait for children to become malnourished and then try to save them. Feed them the right foods during the critical months of their life.  

The project has led to healthier children, and parents are saving money. But maybe most surprising: It brought about an evolution of the Somali palette. And that has led to an increase in profits for businessmen.   

Just ask Noor, the quiet father of nine came to Dadaab in 1993. For years he lived on the food he received in the camp but wished for something else.

“We never liked it, but the circumstances forced us to eat it,” he says. 

In 2005, he opened a shop in the Ifo section of Dadaab camp. Most of his time was spent snoozing the day away, waiting  for customers. He only sold dry goods like salt, powdered milk and rice – the same things most everyone else sold. On an average day, he’d make $1 to $2 profit. 

Now, with the arrival of Save the Children’s fresh food voucher project, there’s a steady stream of shoppers squatting next to his vegetable bins, rifling through tomatoes, oranges and onions.

He goes through, for example, 110 pounds of potatoes and 45 pounds of onions every week. He now makes $10 a day and is using that money to send his son to private school. He’s also constructed a house in Dadaab and he’s expanded his shop. 

What if the voucher program was to stop? Noor shook his head. We would have “absolutely no business at all,” he said. 

The project goes beyond nutrition. For parents to qualify for vouchers, they must show proof that their children were immunized and had their growth monitored at a clinic. This simple strategy has meant more than 50,000 children have been vaccinated and their health is carefully monitored.

Save the Children follows up with parents in the program to make sure they understand nutrition messages. And what foods provide what nutrients. But many parents have never seen pineapples or parsley, and are baffled about how to prepare them. So Save the Children provides cooking demonstrations to moms whose children have qualified for the program. Think Emril Live or Rachel Ray, Dadaab style. 

The fresh food revolution in Dadaab has meant big changes for people like Ahmed Kalif. The former school teacher who speaks solid English has henna-orange hair and gentle demeanor. He points to the giant sacks of potatoes in the back of his shop. He’s become so successful, he says, that he now sells wholesale to other shop keepers in the market.  

“I have 200 customers a day who buy with vouchers,” he says, adding that they buy 150 pounds of potatoes a week and hundreds of eggs. 

One of them is Fatuma Abdi Yussuf, a customer who regularly visits Ahmed. She says the days of bland porridge are over. 

“The moment I bring this into the house,” she says, pointing to her bag of fruits and vegetables, “(the children) fight over it.”

Arfon Yussuf Abdi, a grandmother who frequents Ahmed’s shop, said she was worried because she knew her grandchildren weren’t getting the proper vitamins and minerals. 

But now that she has access to fresh kale—a vegetable with so many micronutrients, it seems like there’s a health food store in every leaf—her grandkids are much healthier. 

“If there was no voucher project,” she says, perusing some potatoes, “I wouldn’t be able to buy this.” 

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