A+ Food Crisis

Zimbabwe scales up farming for refugees amidst global food crisis  

6 Mins read

One African country is serving as a model to the world by giving its refugees the means to nurture their own livelihoods and develop food security.  

By Stephen Pech Gai (Gawaar)

Known as Africa’s “Tree of Life”, the indigenous Baobab tree dominates the landscape on the eastern side of the Tongogara Refugee Camp.

Situated in Chipinge District, south-eastern Zimbabwe, this 150-hectare plot is providing a new lease of life for the camp’s displaced residents.   

In collaboration with the Zimbabwean government, the United Nations Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and World Vision, the Agricultural Livelihood Project will see that this land made available to refugees for agricultural food production.

This development is part of the government’s effort to promote food and nutrition security among refugees by giving them the opportunity to make self-reliant livelihoods 11 enhance their resilience.   

The Tongogara Refugee Camp hosts more than1 15,000 refugees and asylum seekers, most of whom are from countries in the Great Lakes region and the Horn of Africa such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, South Sudan, Somalia, and Ethiopia.

The problems experienced by the camp’s residents are two-fold: there are limited opportunities to make an income, and there is a lack of affordable, nutritious food.  

So this collaborative initiative, which will benefit as many as 1,305 households, seeks to raise economic and protection standards for refugees. The Tongogara Refugee Camp administrator, Joanne Mhlanga, reiterates the Zimbabwe government’s commitment to uplift refugees from the effects of poverty

“It is important to note that Zimbabwe committed to seven pledges at the 2019 Global Refugee Forum in furtherance of the objectives of the [UNHCR] Global Compact on Refugees. One of the commitments made by Zimbabwe is to promote the self-reliance of refugees, asylum seekers, and host community members. Therefore, as a government, Zimbabwe is creating a foundation for the transformation of the refugees’ lives.”  

A man on an irrigation canal
Stephen Pech, team leader of the Refugee Coalition for Climate Action, on an irrigation canal [Hassan Saidi Laurent]

Mhlanga believes that this significant livelihood asset will not only boost the beneficiaries’ household income, but the increase in crop production will also stabilise local food prices as the farmers will be able to sell their surplus to their refugee and host community.

“The thrust of the government is to turn around the fortunes of refugees by infusing a humanitarian-development nexus whose aim and objective is to promote income generation, food, and nutrition security, asset accumulation, entrepreneurial skills acquisition as well as reducing negative coping mechanisms.”  

With climate change taking a toll on rain-fed agricultural farming and the camp’s population increasing in the face of nationwide and global food scarcity, Mhlanga stresses some critical measures being put in place to mitigate the effects of climate change such as turning the project into Climate Smart Agriculture (CSA).

“As a government, we are cognisant of the challenges climate change brings. We have therefore adopted a number of measures such as climate-proof smart agriculture like irrigation/conservation agriculture as well as training of farmers on ways to bust shortage of water.”  

A woman carries her son on her back while collecting firewood.
Nomatter, carrying firewood [Hassan Saidi Laurent]

The agriculture opportunities have increased the grit and determination of several camp residents. Nomatter Jacob, a mother of two from Mozambique, collects firewood while carrying her second-born son on her back. Following the submission of her family’s names for upcoming plot distribution, she hopes to get a piece of land to grow crops.

“I can grow beans for sale and maize for food at home. What my sale generates can be used to buy clothes, and other basic needs at home,” she says.  

Mama Leonie, the camp’s former leader of single mothers explains how her displacement turned her from an environmental activist in her home country, the Democratic Republic of Congo, to a small-scale gardener in her host country, Zimbabwe,

“If I have no garden to grow maize and beans, life can be very difficult for me as a single mother. In tough situations, a balance is created when children are raised by both parents, but since I lost my husband, the plot I have is my right hand.”  

Leonie also stresses how important farming is for her family’s food security and nutrition: “This year, I have harvested 150kg of maize which is enough to (feed) my family for six months. I won’t have to buy maize flour. I am glad that the yield I had last year for beans will take my family through the year, beyond just the June bean harvesting season. The additional income will enable my family to change our diet as we can buy rice, vegetables, oil, meat or fish, and see to other needs like clothes and shoes for the children.”  

Even the older refugees from the camp seek sustenance through farming opportunites. Baruti Edmond, a 69-year-old leader of elderly people from the Democratic Republic of Congo in the camp, always beams with lively energy and a smile. He speaks of how happy he is to be living a new life in Zimbabwe using his traditional means of livelihood from Congo.

This elderly father was a farmer and owned a hectare of land in his home country where he planted rice and maize and practiced poultry farming. Today, in his host country, he continues farming and leads a healthy life for which he credits the food he produces.

“The small garden that I was given here in the camp sustains my family. It may not be big but considering my age, it is what an old man can cultivate for farming. I had good fortune this year when I had a harvest of 160kg of maize and a few sacks of beans. If we had enough water and fertilisers, I would have harvested more.”  

Another man, Leader wa Wazee – Swahili for “elder”- has a small thorn-hedged separate garden next to a water point where he grows vegetables like onions, tomatoes, and sombe – a traditional Congolese vegetable.

“See my homestead,” he says with pride. “When I arrived at the camp, I had nothing. You can imagine how devastating that is for an old person who had lived a good life but has to face such turbulence in old age. When I first arrived here, the food was not enough, the heat was too much and dust poured into my eyes. I decided to use my environmental expertise from home, so I planted fruits and shade trees. Now I can grow crops, and vegetables and I own some goats and poultry birds. This little property gives me some choices about what to eat and I feel very fine when I eat healthy food.”   

Burundian parents of eleven children, Mama Sonyia and her husband praise the government of Zimbabwe, UNHCR, and World Vision for giving refugees the support they need, “We have spent 20 years in the camp. The camp is the community my children know, and it is through farming that we managed to raise our children.”  

Mama Sonyia feels that it is better when refugees can reconnect with their traditional livelihood in their host country and easily make a living using skills they cultivated back home.

“Once we had the garden and our crops grew as if we were in our country of origin, it was a relief to live a normal life at a new normal home. Unlike in Burundi where we could farm as much as we had the stamina to, our garden here in the camp is small, but we grow food that can last us for months, sometimes half a year,” she says.  

A woman preparing charcoal.
Rhoda Phillips preparing charcoal on the land [Hassan Saidi Laurent]

Even outside of the planting season, the community can make use of the large, stretched field. Rhoda Phillips, a single mother of four from Mozambique, is part of the group of refugee and host community members who use the field to make charcoal.

“We, Mozambican community, have been assigned a piece of land where one can only grow vegetables for household consumption. I tried to plant beans and maize, but even if I had the vigor for farming, the land is too small for many of us to crowd over it and the produce would never last a month,” she says.

“[So,] I resort to making charcoal but my work has been eased on this vast land in preparation for farming. I simply collect the already scattered wood and bury it under the loosened soil to produce the charcoal.”  

While people all over the world are suffering in the face of food shortages, the aid-dependent people of forced displacement are the most hard-hit. But in spirit and letter, the government of Zimbabwe is taking itself to task by fulfilling the pledges it made for the Global Compact on Refugees to improve refugees’ lives.  

By giving them the means to be self-reliant and nurture their own livelihoods, Zimbabwe has taken a big step towards ensuring food security amongst their refugee population and can serve as a model for other countries.

The determination of the camp residents to make the best of what is given to them and be successful using homegrown skills shows how effective this endeavour of the Zimbabwean government is and will continue to be. 

Featured image by Hassan Saidi Laurent.

Stephen Pech Gai (Gawaar) is an environmental activist in Zimbabwe who is the co-founder and team leader of the Refugee Coalition for Climate Action. He is a participant on the UNHCR’s Journalist Mentorship Programme.

Additional research by Sara Belkadi who is a student on BA (Hons) Journalism at London College of Communication.

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