Jessica Miranda Garcia talks to Sudanese refugees about small-scale gardening and economic self-sufficiency in the Sherkole refugee camp.

Jessica Miranda Garcia talks to Sudanese refugees about small-scale gardening and economic self-sufficiency in the Sherkole refugee camp. (Photo: Beth Duff-Brown)

Stanford students urge UN to support small-scale farming at refugee camps

A team of Stanford students investigating food and economic self-sufficiency in Ethiopia's refugee camps begins formulating a plan to help aid workers move beyond traditional food distribution methods.

Jessica Miranda Garcia talks about what surprised her most at the refugee camps in western Ethiopia.

BAMBASI, ETHIOPIA – Jessica Miranda Garcia didn't expect to find an oasis in the desert.

She expected to find thousands of exhausted Sudanese refugees lining up for food and water at U.N. distribution centers in the camps in western Ethiopia. That's the image so many Westerners have of crisis centers in the developing world.

Instead, the Stanford graduate student working on a project to rethink small-scale farming and economic self-sufficiency at UNHCR refugee camps found thriving vegetable gardens in humble family compounds. She found uprooted Sudanese farmers using innovative techniques to supplement child nutrition, help their neighbors and earn some cash.

"It was so great to find a Sudanese farmer who was practicing multistory gardening, which was something my team is looking at," said Miranda, who received her master's degree in international policy studies in June. "I was surprised because his garden looked like an oasis in the middle of the desert."

Miranda was part of a group of students traveling through a partnership between Stanford's Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the agency set up in 1951 to help the millions who were displaced by World War II.

A Law School class, Rethinking Refugee Communities, co-taught by Professor Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar and Leslie Witt of the Palo Alto-based global design firm IDEO, called on two dozen students to come up with innovative ways to help the United Nations protect and support more than 42 million refugees and internally displaced and stateless people worldwide.

Miranda traveled with three other students from the class to western Ethiopia this spring, visiting the UNHCR refugee camps in Sherkole and Bambasi on the border with Sudan. More than 300,000 Sudanese have fled to the Horn of Africa nation seeking refuge since 2011, when Sudan military and rebel conflict erupted and forced civilians to the border.

Economic self-sufficiency

The food and economic self-sufficiency team was charged with looking at ways to help the UNHCR move beyond its traditional food distribution methods: relying on ration cards and handing out bundles of food from the World Food Program.

Miranda was thrilled when she stumbled on backyard gardens bursting with spinach, okra, coriander and coffee.

"What I found very interesting is that Bambasi's refugees had made gentlemen's agreements with the host community to use their land, located next to a river," Miranda said. "When they sell some of the vegetables at the local market, they'll pay the Ethiopian farmers for letting them use their land."

At the Bambasi refugee camp about 75 miles from the border with Sudan, Miranda met Sudanese farmer Sourke Damier, dressed in the same ragged clothes he was wearing when he crossed the border with his wife and three children. He was eager to show her the garden behind his mud-and-bamboo hut. The refugees build huts for themselves after they initially set up their ubiquitous white tents with the blue UNHCR logo.

"He told me that his garden reminds him of life back in Sudan," said Miranda, who flipped through her binder of laminated diagrams of gardening techniques. Damier would nod and smile at some pages, indicating that he was using some of the same methods.

"It was great to see the gardens, to actually observe an application of what we had been studying and realize that we're on the right track," Miranda said. "Perhaps the next step is to encourage the UNHCR to institutionalize and expand such projects."

Damier knows the vitamins and minerals from his garden supplement the World Food Program ration of cereal, vegetable oil, soya-corn blended biscuits, sugar and salt.

His seeds are sprouted in burlap sacks filled with soil and rocks, using a vertical irrigation system that takes little water and allows the blossoms to poke out from holes and embrace the sun. The sprouts are then transplanted to a larger garden in the back of his compound, where he grows spinach, onions, carrots, eggplant and radishes.

Damier, who got his seeds and tools through a Lutheran World Federation pilot project at Bambasi, explained that he shares some of the produce with his neighbors, then sells the remainder at the camp market for a little spending money.

Feeding world's poor

Giorgia Testolin of the World Food Program in Ethiopia said that under government law, refugees are forbidden from working. So food becomes their currency.

"In practice, this is your salary; it's the only source of income," Testolin told the students in a briefing in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, before they headed to the refugee camps.

She said the refugees typically sell 30 to 50 percent of their WFP food basket – which intends to provide each refugee with 2,100 calories a day – at the local market. They buy clothes, notebooks and pens for their kids, perhaps a little spice to remind them of home.

"We don't like it, but we understand," she said, adding that the WFP is launching a pilot project in Ethiopia that would offer small cash vouchers in lieu of some grain. "We want to give them their dignity and the flexibility to buy whatever they need."

Cash vouchers cut down on the cost of transporting and storing food. They also benefit the local economies because the refugees "spend" the vouchers in local shops. But first, she said, the WFP has to gain the trust of the local communities to assure them that they will be paid if they accept the vouchers. "Ideally, we want to create harmony between the camp and the host communities," she said.

Testolin said the Ethiopian operation fed 8 million people last year in 18 refugee camps and in local communities suffering drought along the border of the landlocked nation.

Miranda asked her: What if you run out of food or funding?

"I need $8 million a month to feed all my refugees," Testolin replied. "When we have to cut rations – this is when I cannot sleep at night."


Miranda and her classmates on the food team back on campus – Asfandyar Ali Mir and Lisa Xue – said they believe there must be a better way. Every time the UNHCR wants to implement a farming project, it has to reinvent the wheel because there are no best practices or guidelines in place. Transportation, logistics and dependency on the international donor community hang over every decision about food and shelter.

They worked on a five-step plan they hope to eventually present to the United Nations:

  • Create a farm committee comprised of an agriculture adviser who knows the local terrain as well as members of the refugee camps and host community.
  • Understand the natural resources that surround the camp and then adopt a suitable farming strategy, including many of the gardening techniques already being used.
  • Establish an accessible community farm for training and testing tools.
  • Launch a nutrition program by holding workshops at the community farm, at which time refugees will receive farming kits with seeds and tools.
  • Encourage the UNHCR to scale up these projects and break free of the distribution cycle that is so dependent on food aid, instead putting the focus on farm aid.

"The objective is to support farm workers to achieve their objectives in a systematic way," Miranda said. "We've got to get the United Nations to move away from food handouts and more toward sustainable farming."