Kadiha Abdelfatah Mohamed smiles as she pours goat’s milk into her teacup. Milk has never tasted so sweet. That’s because she’s been feeding her goats fresh food that she’s grown in a once-unimaginable environment: the Sahara desert.
Mohamed, 28, lives in one of five camps for Sahrawi refugees in the Tindouf region of western Algeria. She and other nomadic Sahrawis were forced to settle in this arid, isolated area more than 40 years ago because of ongoing land disputes in the western Sahara. Like many, Mohamed was born and raised here.
About 175,000 people live in these camps and depend on food assistance; the harsh climate makes it nearly impossible to grow anything naturally. There are frequent sandstorms, and temperatures can exceed a blistering 122 degrees. About one-quarter of the camps’ residents face chronic malnutrition, according to the World Food Program.
Oxfam has been working in the camps since 1975, focusing on distributing food and developing agricultural programs. But the increasing number of people arriving in the camps has required a more long-term and sustainable solution.
From seeds to grass
In 2017, Oxfam started a hydroponics project—a technique for cultivating plants that doesn’t require soil—to feed the goats Mohamed and others depend on for milk, meat, and income.
The brainchild of Oxfam engineer Taleb Brahim—himself a Sahrawi refugee—the project uses adobe domes or low-tech shipping containers, which are recycled and modified, to grow green animal fodder. Shelves line the inside of the dome or container, on which sit rectangular trays filled with barley seeds. The seeds are kept damp until shoots break out and roots appear. After this germination process, the barley is carefully placed into tubs and watered via a solar-powered water pump three or four times a day. The results come amazingly fast. “In just one week, the barley will be transformed into a carpet of grass, which can be removed from the containers and fed to the goats,” says Mohamed. Each greenhouse produces about 132 pounds of fodder per day—enough to feed 20 goats.