Planting hopes in refugee camps in Tanzania

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Mtabila refugee camp in Tanzania
Tanzania/22210/E. Eliah

Mtabila refugee camp in Tanzania
Tanzania/22209/E. Eliah

Mtabila refugee camp in Tanzania
Tanzania/22211/E. Eliah

Mtabila refugee camp in Tanzania
/22212/E. Eliah

A project FAO proposed within the 2000 UN Consolidated Inter-Agency Appeal for Tanzania has helped more than 50 000 refugees improve family nutrition by learning to grow food.

The refugees have been in Tanzania since 1993, when war and civil unrest forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee to safety from Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) operates ten settlement camps in Tanzania for more than 300 000 refugees, and the World Food Programme (WFP) has delivered food aid to prevent widespread famine. But when declining budget forced WFP to reduce its emergency rations severely in the late 1990s, improving access to food within the camps became imperative. Many refugees started gardens to grow food as a survival tactic. However, some of these gardens were poorly managed and unproductive. In 1999, FAO joined the international relief operation by introducing a programme to improve nutrition standards among the most vulnerable households. In collaboration with UNHCR, FAO provided 15 000 families in six of the refugee camps with seeds and hand tools to plant household and community vegetable gardens.

FAO proposed the project within the 2000 UN Consolidated Inter-Agency Appeal for Tanzania and received a US$122 000 contribution from the Government of Sweden. It is an extension of a project funded by Sweden as part of the 1999 Appeal. A recent evaluation found impressive results and suggested the project should be extended further.

Learning for a lifetime
Many of the refugees had fled urban areas and had no farming experience, so training was essential. Women with some experience received training in simple garden management techniques from agricultural experts and then passed on their knowledge to larger groups.

"After dividing the garden into parts we must plant on the lines," explains Beatrice Simbakwira. The thirty-five-year-old refugee and mother of three likes to demonstrate this newly learned agricultural concept, teaching it to the other members of her women's group. Each of the 15 000 targeted families received seeds for cabbage, okra and two types of spinach, and the rows of vegetables growing on the plot tended by Ms Simbakwira's group are perfect.

Spinach and cabbage were familiar to most people, but okra was new to many. Putting skepticism aside, half of them chose to give the new vegetable a try. Leaders in the camp plan to provide cooking demonstrations to show how to prepare the food to maximize nutrition and taste.

The farmers in the project have also been taught the importance of natural fertilizers. "Before transplanting from the seed bed, we put fertilizer around our plots -- compost," explains Ms Simbakwira. "The grasses and the ash from cooking fires, we put in a hole in the ground. After two or three months it is compost and we put it on the soil before planting."

In addition, the farmers have learned the importance of intercropping -- planting two or more different crops together -- to limit destructive insect infestations. They have also been taught how to utilize simple remedies such as water and soap to discourage pests.

Although the project's goal is to provide more food immediately, the skills the beneficiaries have learned can be of great value once they return to their home villages.

"We have to expect that access to food will be a constant concern for many of these families even after they are able to return to their homes," says Guiseppe Debac, an FAO consultant who has provided technical assistance in implementing the project."By teaching them the skills they needed to grow their own vegetables on small plots of land, we have helped them become less vulnerable to hunger over the long term."

50 000 beneficiaries
Tonnes of seeds and thousands of hand handles, watering cans and spouts have been handed out to the garden groups and individual farmers. And posters, leaflets and flip charts have been developed to introduce farming concepts, with help from some of the educated refugees, who have translated the materials into easily understood terms and language.

FAO estimates that more than 50 000 people have benefited directly from the project. Although a complete assessment of the refugees' nutritional status is not completed yet, consultants who visited the camps have reported that symptoms of malnutrition have declined noticeably among families involved in the project.

The greatest production of vegetables came in two camps at Mtabila, which are located in a valley and enjoy the most reliable access to water, a crucial factor in the success of the community gardens. A total of 118 garden groups plus 46 individual farmers were established in Mtabila, totaling 1908 participants, 1210 of whom were women. Production for 83 of the garden groups totaled 2.5 metric tonnes of vegetables on 18 hectares. Families ate most of this produce, but some was sold at local markets.

This is the first time FAO has participated in a refugee-camp project in Africa. Based on the lessons learned during this pilot project, the Organization has prepared a set of guidelines for vegetable production in refugee camps.

27 November 2000

A television crew from the Television Trust for the Environment went to some of the refugee camps in Tanzania to film a short documentary about the FAO/UNHCR project. This was broadcast on TVE's Earth Report's on BBC World in relation to World Food Day 16 October 2000. For an article about the programme, click here.

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