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A food-based strategy to improve nutrition in emergencies

Improvement of Household Food Security through Home Gardening and Nutrition Education in Southern Somalia

By Alison MacColl

Alison MacColl is working as Liaison Officer in the FAO Somalia programme. Alison worked as a nutritionist with UNICEF Sudan Country Office on nutrition and household food security projects prior to moving to the Somali programme. The input of Mr. D. Gustafson, FAO Representative, Mr. Renato Marai, FAO Emergency Co-ordinator, Ms. Emily Mwadime, nutrition consultant and the Nutrition Programmes Service of FAO Headquarters to the preparation of this article is acknowledged.

Since February 2000 the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) has been implementing a project to improve household food security through home gardening and nutrition education in southern Somalia. The FAO funded project supports women from vulnerable households living in the Juba and Shabelle riverine areas of Somalia, through the establishment of small scale vegetable gardens and the provision of food and nutrition education, to decrease micronutrient deficiency, increase income, and improve agricultural and nutritional practices. Vegetable seeds kits and tools have been distributed to 20,000 women coupled with training in agricultural and nutritional practices.


A large part of the Somali rural population is nomadic with limited or no experience in permanent agriculture. Their diet is based on meat and milk, supplemented with purchased cereals. During the last fifty years, many have moved and settled in Mogadishu and in the major centres of the Lower Shabelle and Juba valleys, and consequently many are now urban settlers or rural farmers. In the rainfed areas, the most important crop is sorghum, often inter-cropped with cowpea or groundnut. Some vegetables are cultivated with the little water available, although in the irrigated areas vegetables are grown extensively for the markets in Mogadishu and other main markets.

The inter-riverine areas of the Juba and Shabelle valleys provide fertile land for agriculture. However conflict over the past decade as well as fluctuating environmental conditions, has led to an increase in underlying vulnerability and the erosion of sustainable livelihoods. Malnutrition rates among children in certain areas of Somalia remain unacceptably high, with poverty a main feature of the vulnerable population.

Assessment of need

The group targeted for this intervention was the Bantu farming communities. These communities have traditionally been agropastoralists or riverine farmers and have been at increased risk due to the continued influx of pastoral groups. As pastoralists have settled and become rural farmers the demand for land has increased and the Bantu communities have been further marginalised. The minority Bantu farming communities who live along the rivers have become particularly vulnerable to food insecurity and malnutrition due to a combination of decreasing access to land and livestock and periodic severe floods.

A large proportion of their diet is composed of cereals; sorghum, maize and rice which they produce themselves or in times of scarcity purchase from the market. Vegetables are not considered a basic food. However, household gardening does play a role in the traditional family life and this activity is usually reserved for women. The produce is consumed by the family and sold in markets.

Amongst these communities, inadequate food supply, poor feeding practices and limited knowledge of the importance of vegetables and fruits were identified as the major underlying causes of malnutrition. Prior to initiating the project, a baseline survey was conducted in the targeted communities in order to build understanding of attitudes towards the proposed project aims and activities, overall food availability and consumption, child feeding practices, health and nutrition problems. In each participating community the elders, contact persons and women showed great interest in the proposed project. Local feeding habits, especially child feeding practices were generally poor and diets were unbalanced. Vitamin-rich foods such as vegetables were uncommon in their diets and green vegetables, in particular, were not readily available in the market. The insufficient number of meals per day for children and low intake of vegetables indicated the likely existence of micronutrient deficiencies e.g. Vitamin A deficiency and anaemia.

FAO's role in an emergency situation

FAO is often active in emergencies through its Special Relief Operations Service (TCOR1) which provides emergency assistance in the agriculture, livestock and fisheries sectors for the improvement of food and nutritional security. FAO also assists developing countries in the establishment of preparedness and post emergency measures, formulating and implementing short-term rehabilitation programmes as well as in the traditional responses to nutrition emergencies including rehabilitation of the malnourished. In addition, household food security and nutrition considerations often receive attention as a means to improve the impact of emergency agricultural interventions at the household level. Although this project for improving household food security through home gardening and nutrition education is complementary to such interventions, it goes further by aiming for sustainable nutrition improvement through building the capacity of fieldworkers and communities to improve their household food security and to make the best of the foods that are produced.

Project description

The brochure used in the project

The project was carried out in partnership with the international NGO, InterSOS. The main component of the project was training women in nutrition and agriculture coupled with the distribution of vegetable seeds (carrot, pumpkin, onion, spinach, tomato, and watermelon) and the provision of hand tools. InterSOS selected and employed appropriately qualified field workers, i.e. those with a background in agriculture or nutrition/health, from the local communities.

Workshops were organised to train the field workers and the participatory methodology employed allowed exchange of information and team building among the participants as well as adaptation of the content to the local situation. The training addressed improved methods for vegetable production, the control of pests and disease with an emphasis on biological control, vegetable processing, utilisation and preservation, the importance of vegetables in the diets, basic health practices and group mobilisation techniques. Seven teams of one health worker and one agriculture extension worker were trained, who then trained and distributed seeds and tools to the beneficiaries - a total of 20,000 women.

Prior to conducting the training of the beneficiaries, discussions were held with the community elders to identify the households most in need of assistance, and to assess the main constraints so that the training could make best use of the limited time that was available. A variety of training techniques was used including classroom teaching and demonstration, practical field activities as well as vegetable preparation and cooking demonstrations.

Vegetable seed kit and tool distributions took place as an integral part of the training programme. The seeds were selected to provide a combination of vegetables to combat micronutrient deficiency (carrot, pumpkin, spinach, and tomato) and those cash crops that could provide an income return (onion, watermelon). As some vegetables were new to the beneficiaries, it was necessary to explain the importance of these vegetables in the diet as well as providing information on production.

Carrots, one of the vegetables selected

Somali family with their crop

Farmer preparing land

Training session in southern Somalia

Spinach, one of the vegetables chosen to combat micronutritent deficiencies

Training and educational materials

In addition to the training of the beneficiaries, about 20,000 well illustrated brochures were distributed to equip the target women with basic knowledge on vegetable gardening, vegetable preparation and cooking, growth monitoring, breastfeeding, better weaning practices, hygienic eating habits and boiling/storage of drinking water. The brochures used simple diagrams with short statements in Somali and English to make them understandable to a wide variety of people. Two separate booklets were produced, one, in Somali, to give information on simple steps in the preparation of vegetables and the second one, in Somali and English, to inform field workers about the nutritional role of vegetables and simple vegetable preparation methods. The field workers' training manual also contained information on nutritive value of foods, feeding practices, nutritional disorders, hygienic food related practices and community organisation focused on improving community nutrition. The training materials were developed by the project in close collaboration with the Nutrition Working Group of the Somalia Aid Coordinating Body (SACB).

Experience gained during project implementation identified the need to increase the nutritional awareness among school children. Forty-six teachers of primary schools from the Lower Shabelle region were trained and a classroom nutrition guide for teachers of upper primary school children was developed. This guide is being incorporated into a Somali science textbook as part of a UNESCO programme to provide textbooks for schools.

The response of community elders and targeted beneficiaries has been very positive. Vegetable nurseries observed in some villages in the lower Juba region are a positive indication of the project's success in encouraging vegetable production and consumption. Furthermore, vegetables from the target farms are being sold in the nearby markets. Most women interviewed in the target community now acknowledge the importance of including vegetables in the diets of their children. However, it has not been possible to determine how much of this 'new' knowledge has actually been translated into action.

Lessons learnt

There are a number of lessons that can be learned for future interventions of a similar nature.


Show footnotes

1TCOR is the Special Relief Operations Service, a service of the Technical Co-operation Department, FAO

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Reference this page

Alison MacColl (). A food-based strategy to improve nutrition in emergencies. Field Exchange 13, August 2001. p23.



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