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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Isino and Habibo Find a New Family

CAROLYN_MILES_HEAD_SHOT_062001 Carolyn Miles, President & CEO-elect

Dadaab, Kenya

August 16, 2011

 

In Carolyn’s last blog we met Ibrahim, a man living in Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya. Ibrahim and his wife help care for many of the children in the camp, including six of their own. 

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Ibrahim leads us into a tiny mud and stick room, swept clean and bare.  On a thin mattress covered with a simple cloth sits a small teenager holding a beautiful baby.  Her name is Isnino and she is 16.  Her baby Habibo is small but alert and looks healthy.  

Carolyn Miles isino and habibo

Carolyn sits with Isnino Adan and her two-month old baby girl, Habibo.

I sit on a stool with our one of our staff to interpret and ask her how she came to be here in Ibrahim’s house.  At first, she looks away shyly as she tells me about how her family in Somalia was split apart, how she was married off by her father when she was 12 and how she left to look for her mother when the hunger became too bad.  As she tells me the next part of her story, she finally looks at me and you can see the sadness in her eyes. 

I lived in the bush for several weeks with nothing but this cloth to cover me,” she says as she points to the cloth now covering her bed. “I knew I had to get somewhere where there was food but did not know how to get there.  I knew my unborn baby also needed me to eat”.  

She describes how she then managed to find a truck going to Kenya and how she used her last bit of money to pay for a ride.  The truck was packed full of people and Isnino was wedged under many others for the two day journey.  

On the second day of the journey, Isnino gave birth to her daughter inside the truck, surrounded by other refugees.  She was too exhausted and scared to feel much happiness but hoped where she was going would be a better place for her daughter.

When she arrived at the reception center, Isnino and her newborn baby were lucky to be moved quickly through the long line where thousands of refugees were waiting to be registered.  Because she had just given birth, she was taken quickly to the hospital and Save the Children, the agency in charge of child protection, was contacted.  

Save the Children staff knew Ibrahim was willing to take in more children as a foster parent but would he and his wife accept this young girl and her fragile, newborn baby? Miraculously, he immediately agreed and Isnino and Habibo came to stay in the small mud room where I find her now, a few months after her horrible journey.

After telling me her courageous story, I ask Isnino if she thinks she may be able to find any of her family here.  She tells me she doesn’t know where her mother might be but her father has been in contact. 

“I hope he can come to visit me so I can find out how my brothers and sisters are doing.  I am worried for them because there was no food when I left.  I am safe here and my baby and I have what I need but they had nothing”.

Carolyn ibrahim and family

Carolyn stands with Ibrahim Adan, 48, (holding child) and his wife, Aisha (center), who have been foster parents in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya for Save the Children since 2007. 

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Ibrahim’s Kindness

CAROLYN_MILES_HEAD_SHOT_062001 Carolyn Miles, President & CEO-elect

Dadaab, Kenya

August 15, 2011

 

As I meet with children and families here in the sprawling refugee camps of northeastern Kenya, I hear amazing and harrowing stories.

Yesterday we visited the original refugee camp called IFO – a part of the camps that has been here since 1992. We drove up a dusty red sandy road to a thick fence made from gnarled tree branches. Inside the fence was a family of 10, living simply in two tiny mud and stick structures with few possessions. But this was no ordinary family.

It was led by Ibrahim, a thoroughly generous and engaging man with much hardship in his life. He came from Somalia in 1991 during horrible fighting in his country.

Ibrahim

He settled in the original camp with his wife and young son after a tough journey of hundreds of miles. Ibrahim later lost his wife and four of his children to disease. He remarried though and had 6 more  children. He and his wife also care for many more children in his area of the camp.

As we talk, his children come to sit on his lap, next to him on an old can or peek out from behind his back. You can tell how much they love him. He tells me, “God gives back to those who do something for others, especially children.”

But what makes Ibrahim such a special man is that he and his wife, despite being very poor, have taken in yet another two childrenA 13-year-old mother and her newborn baby girl who arrived two months ago from Somalia after their own grueling journey. Ibrahim and his wife agreed to be a foster family for the teen mom and baby as part of Save the Children’s child protection program.

Despite having so little, they share what they do have with others.

More to come tomorrow…

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Learn more about our response to the food crisis in the Horn of Africa.

Help Us Respond to the Food Crisis in the Horn of Africa. Please Donate Now.