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Growing food in the desert

For Sahrawi refugees living in western Algeria’s harsh climate, barley seeds and sun are a life-giving combination.

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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.

My daily production now covers the feeding needs of my livestock and even allows me to give fodder to others.

Yamila Mohamed
Fodder project participant

Mohamed’s interest in the project, whose partners include the World Food Program, Algeria’s Ministry of Economic Development, and the Union of Sahrawi Women, was sparked when she attended a workshop Oxfam organized in the subdivision of the camp she lives in. Intrigued, she decided to sign up, and after an interview, she and her family were selected to participate.

Previously, goats and other livestock ate the plastic and trash that litters the ground around the camps, which affected not only the animals’ health but also the quality of their milk.

“Before benefiting from this project,” says Yamila Mohamed, another participant, “I had a lot of difficulties finding food for my animals, and I was constantly asking my neighbors if they had any leftovers.” Now, she says, the hydroponic food has improved the animals’ health and increased the levels of protein and fat in their milk.

More and better quality milk and meat—staples of the Sahrawi diet—will hopefully lead to better food security. Participants are also able to generate additional income by selling surplus fodder at their local markets.

“My family has... learned a lot. Working on this project has become one of our priorities,” Yamila Mohamed says. “It enables us to feed our goats with healthy, low-cost food, meaning that they produce milk every day with excellent yields. My daily production now covers the feeding needs of my livestock and even allows me to give fodder to others.”

Yamila Mohamed and other participants are also learning additional gardening techniques, such as using leftover water from the barley containers to irrigate their vegetable gardens.

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing. Kadiha Abdelfatah Mohamed says project participants didn’t have enough water when they began the project because of an inadequate pumping system and dried-up water sources, but over time they learned how to adapt.

So far, at least 175 households have benefited from this low-cost project that can be easily scaled up and replicated, making it an ideal candidate for implementation in other arid countries. Because it uses 80 percent less water than traditional agricultural practices, it’s well-suited for the desert climate.

"As refugees, we have a lot of worries due to the shortage of food and resources in the camps, and to the very difficult climatic conditions we are living in,” says Yamila Mohamed. “This project is very important for me. I worked hard to produce fodder for my goats."

Support Oxfam programs like the hydroponics program.

Support Oxfam programs like the hydroponics program.

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