Thomas has lived in the Kalobeyei refugee camp in Turkana for six years. The last two were among the toughest due to prolonged drought.
“I come from Burundi where I was farming,” he says, “so when the farm here opened up, it was natural for me to join the project.”
Thomas is one of the pioneer farmers in Kalobeyei. First displaced by conflict in Tanzania, he later moved to Kenya with his wife and four children, determined to rebuild his life. As there were still many land disputes, returning to Burundi was not an option.
The Kalobeyei settlement – home to around 44,000 refugees – was established in 2016 with self-reliance and socio-economic integration between refugees and the host community at the heart of its design. Agriculture and trade are key to bringing refugees and local communities together.
With support from the European Union Emergency Trust Fund for Africa (EUTF), the World Food Program (WFP) and its partners have set up rainwater harvesting ponds, built structures similar to greenhouses and modern markets to accommodate farmers and traders from the settlement and the surrounding community. .
This infrastructure thrilled the Thomas farmer. But life is full of curveballs.
“The rains disappeared for almost two years,” he says. “The water basins dried up and we couldn’t cultivate anymore. We were reduced to relying on bamba chakula (WFP cash transfer) only. I have a family of four – so I get 6,000 shillings (about $50) a month.
Before the drought hit, Thomas and other farmers had had a successful harvest season.
“Life was changing for the better,” he says. “With enough water, I was going to start selling the surplus produce – but only God knows why the rains stopped.”
Kalobeyei and the water catchment areas north of the settlement received rains in May 2022, allowing the water basins to recharge, even partially. Agriculture has resumed and new growth has greened farms.
Thomas has planted cowpea on his 10×10 meter plot. He says the harvest will ease the burden of providing food for the family.
“I mainly plant cowpea on my plot. We cook the leaves like fresh vegetables,” he explains. “I would like to plant sukuma wiki (kale) but it requires a lot more water – and water is scarce here.
He adds: “If the harvest is abundant, I will sell some and buy other foodstuffs.
Nasri Faiz, a refugee from Sudan, grows okra and cowpea. Okra is its cash crop. In 2019, before the drought, he was selling 5 pieces of okra for 50 shillings. He has replanted his plot and hopes his business will pick up where it left off almost two years ago.
“I am alone in Kakuma. I lost most of my family in Khartoum,” he says. “I rely on agriculture for my upkeep. Look at me, the clothes I’m wearing were bought with the profits from this farm.
Drought is not the only problem facing the refugees. Nasri says the prices of staple foods like rice, cooking oil and maize have doubled, making an already bad situation worse. He hopes for more rains because the extra income is his only way out. When he is not farming, he does odd jobs to earn some money.
Kalobeyei’s water pans are designed to collect surface runoff whenever it rains. Water is pumped to an overhead reservoir using solar power and from there it flows to drip irrigation pipes to feed the crops which are protected from the sun by shade nets .
WFP dug five irrigation water ponds with a combined capacity of 265,000 cubic meters, or the equivalent of 265 million litres. When full to the brim, they can support agricultural production for at least four months by irrigating 21 hectares of land. Most of the varieties grown here mature in two to three months. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, in partnership with the Turkana County Government, is training farmers in good agricultural practices.
The EUTF has also supported the digging of three livestock watering dams with a capacity of 130,000 m3 (130 million litres) which quench the thirst of around 40,000 animals from the surrounding villages. This livelihood-based infrastructure is a lifeline for people like Thomas and Nasri.
“I can’t go home because it’s still not safe for me,” Nasri says. “I have to make my life here.”