The farms of Dadaab - Daily Nation

Dadaab refugees farm their way into a brighter future

Saturday September 22 2018

Abdi Mohamed, a refugee farmer from Somalia on his okra farm in Dadaab.

Abdi Mohamed, a refugee farmer from Somalia on his okra farm in Dadaab. Farmers in the camp have divided themselves into six sub-groups, each trying out different farming models although most of them grow tomatoes. PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA | NMG 

By NG'ANG'A MBUGUA
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When the heavens open in Garissa County, it does not just rain, it pours. And when this happens, large volumes of water collect at the lowest point near the Dadaab Refugee Camp, forming a large pool.

Once the rains are gone and the sun returns with a vengeance, the water in the pool begins to recede. But because the soil retains some of the moisture, farmers from the camp start planting on the moist soil.

'This practice is called flood recession agriculture,' said Aurthur Mutambikwa, the Livelihoods Officer in the Dadaab sub-office of the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

Ms Fatuma Ibrahim is one of the refugees who has been practising flood recession agriculture on a small-scale. When she was an urban dweller in Mogadishu, she knew little or nothing about farming.

Now, however, she is a member of a small and informal farming community calling itself the Shamba Group. This group brings together both refugees and members from the host community in the area surrounding the camp.

Together, they grow tomatoes, okra, water melons and pumpkins. 'We get the tomato seeds from Somalia,' said Suleiman Farah Abdi, a Kenyan, who is also the leader of the group. He also grows watermelons on a separate patch.

The farmers have divided themselves into six sub-groups, each trying out something different although most of them grow tomatoes.

Others, like Abdi Mohammed have started experimenting with pawpaws and lemons, but this experiment is still in its early stages.

For tomatoes, it is easier for them to source for the seeds from Somalia since there is regular traffic between Dadaab and the Liboi border point, about 82 kilometres away.

The alternative would be Garissa town, which is a two-hour drive from Dadaab. Another farmer, Hawa Aden partners with her two colleagues, Nathifa Khalif and Jowaher Korane, to jointly grow tomatoes and pumpkins.

Originally from Mareri in Lower Juba, Ms Aden, who became a refugee at 53, has also been experimenting with growing pumpkins.

"Our main challenge is water," Ms Aden told Seeds of Gold.

IMPROVE LIVELIHOODS

'If you prepare the pumpkin in camel oil, you cannot share with your child even if he cries for it,' said Abdi, praising the crop grown by his refugee counterpart.

When UNHCR learnt that water was the biggest challenge for the farmers, it sunk a borehole not too far from where the farmers grow their crops.

Officials in Dadaab and a security officer inspect crops in a field where the inhabitants of the vast camp grow their crops.

Officials in Dadaab and a security officer inspect crops in a field where the inhabitants of the vast camp grow their crops. Now, more families both inside and outside the refugee camp are buying food crops from the local farmers. PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA | NMG

This water is pumped to two tanks at the site and the farmers use it to irrigate their crops. However, this remains a short-term solution because borehole water is both saline and expensive because the system has to be maintained.

'The long-term solution is to harvest water,' said Mutambikwa. 'If we solve the water problem for the farmers, they can increase production.' Ms Ibrahim agrees with this assessment.

'With water we can do more,' she said.Although the refugees have been engaging in small-scale agriculture for a long time, it was not until August that the UNHCR started supporting them. The agency identified farmers who already had their own implements.

The aim was simple: To help them expand opportunities to improve their livelihoods through training in agriculture and business.

'UNHCR also links farmers with government departments which offer extension services,' said Mutambikwa. Although the farmers do not grow enough tomatoes to meet the demand of the local community, the amounts that Dadaab traders used to order from Garissa has decreased over time.

Now, more families both inside and outside the refugee camp are buying from the local farmers. If the county government were to allow the groups to till larger spaces than they are currently, productivity is likely to increase further.

Besides water, pests remain one of the other major challenges for the nascent group. When the Seeds of Gold team visited one of their farms, measuring about two to three acres, they found the farmers had widely spaced the tomato plants in the hope that this would reduce the spread of pests from one plant to the next.

The plants which were free of pests and disease were thriving, some carrying a sizeable number of the small but succulent fruit.

REDUCING CONFLICTS

According to Mutambikwa, better inputs and seeds with higher yields and which are better suited for the area hold the key to improving productivity.

For the farmers, however, there is more to farming than getting high yields. First, there is little to do in the camps and for them, farming is a way to engage their time productively.

Habiba Farham waters vegetables at a demonstration farm within a health centre at Hagadera Refugee Camp.

Habiba Farham waters vegetables at a demonstration farm within a health centre at Hagadera Refugee Camp. Mothers here learn how to grow vegetables. PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA | NMG

It is also a way to diversify their diets since all of them rely on relief food.

This is true for Fatuma Ibrahim, who has lived as a refugee since 1992. She has been growing beans and onions purposely to supplement the diet for her family and rarely has a surplus.

Mutambikwa said the project has also improved co-existence by reducing conflict between the refugees and the host community.

He expects that in coming months, more members from both sides will join the informal farming groups, and this will further boost household incomes.

'Farming is also a legitimate business,' said Abdi, who also acknowledged that besides learning crop husbandry from the refugees, they have also learnt about entrepreneurship.

Traditionally, the people of Garissa are pastoralists. It is common to find hundreds of goats grazing by the roadside.

In turn, the hosts have taught the refugees to keep goats. Every morning a herder moves from one homestead to the other picking the goats and taking them to the grazing fields.

For payment, he gets a ration of the relief food that each family gets from donor agencies. Every market day, the goat owners congregate at the Hagadera market where they sell their livestock.

Some also sell camels, with medium-sized ones going for Sh50,000 and bigger ones costing as much as Sh80,000.

According to Mr Mutambikwa, more support from donors is needed to increase agricultural production and livelihood opportunities for both refugees and the host community.