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Multi-storey gardens to support food security

By Mary Corbett

Mary Corbett is an independent food security and nutrition consultant working on short contracts with NGO's, UN agencies and donors. Her work has been mainly in Africa and Asia, involving assessments, programme reviews and evaluations, on the job technical support and training and some formal training.

An example of the larger growing bags in Kakuma Camp

The information shared in this article was recorded during a consultancy for UNHCR/WFP. Mary would like to acknowledge the work and support of UNHCR and WFP HQ, their field staff, the local workers and GTZ. Also thanks to Allison Oman for her input and photos. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author only.

Addressing food insecurity in resource poor settings is difficult in any context. However, in protracted refugee camp situations, where people are almost entirely dependant on humanitarian assistance, the challenges are even greater. The development and adaptation of multi-storey gardens (MSG) is an innovative and exciting way to address food insecurity, particularly in areas where land and water are scarce. This has been tried in refugee camps in Kenya with impressive success. The refugee camps of Dadaab and Kakuma have been in existence for almost 15 years and both acute and chronic malnutrition have remained high in the camps, in spite of numerous efforts to tackle the problem. A key factor is long-term dependence on food assistance involving a monotonous diet of cereal, pulse and oil, and sometimes a corn soya blend (CSB). Refugees do not readily have access to fresh fruit and vegetables or fresh meat.

The Dadaab camps are situated in Western Kenya, a semi arid region with limited rainfall. The refugees have not been given access to land to cultivate, apart from land close to their houses. The MSG approach combines aspects of dietary diversification, nutritional education, women's empowerment, income generation, community promotion and selfreliance.

With financial support from the Canadian Initiative through GTZ (German Development Cooperation) and technical support by GTZ, uptake of the MSG approach in Dadaab was particularly high - a total of over 5,000 households (HH). In Kakuma camp the uptake initially was lower, although the interest is now substantial and over 2,500 HH have now taken up MSG here.

Setting up the Multi-Storey Gardens

The World Food Programme (WFP) have supported the project through provision of empty 50kg cereal bags and empty oil cans. The cereal bags were used for growing the produce. The tin cans were filled with rocks and placed in the centre of the upstanding cereal bag. There were holes drilled in the sides and bottom of the tins. Holes are not drilled in the bottom of tins placed at the bottom of the bag. A soil blend is placed in the bag between the bag and the tins. Seeds are then planted in the soil on the top of the bag. When it is time to 'thin out' the seedlings, some of the small plants are removed from the top and, after holes are made in the sides of the bags, the seedlings are planted along the sides of the bags. This means the top and sides of the bags are utilised for growing.

In areas where water is in short supply this is a very economic way to utilise extremely limited resources. Each bag only needs to be watered twice daily with 5 litres of water. The water is poured into the tin at the centre of the bag and drains through the stones down through to the end of the bag of soil irrigating all the plants throughout the depth of the bag. It is recommended to use the household waste water after rinsing out clothes or bathing, and also waste water from around water points. However, it is important to incorporate and integrate waste management into the programme so as not to further limit water resources necessary for other activities. It appears that the standard kitchen gardens require much more water than that used in the MSG approach.


In Kenya the produce grown in the MSGs include a number of leafy green vegetables, tomatoes, okra and eggplant. Normally when the green leafy vegetables are ready for harvest they can be harvested 2-3 times weekly. Where a diet is extremely bland this can make a huge difference to the nutrition content of the diet, increasing appetite for food and improving general well being. It can be particularly beneficial to support the diet of young children. It has been recommended that each HH needs a minimum of five MSG bags so as to have enough produce to make a significant impact on dietary diversity within the household and also assist in income generation. The approach has proven to be a labour efficient means of increasing food security in the household.


GTZ set up nurseries to plant seeds and grow seedlings. These nurseries are also used as demonstration areas for training refugee incentive workers hired by GTZ. The role of the refugee incentive workers is to help to roll out the programme and sensitise the refugee population. They run the seedling nursery, assist in the trainings, do community outreach, follow up on beneficiaries and answer their questions, and construct many of the MSGs. During training, refugees are instructed on how to mix soils, prepare the MSG bags and plant seeds and seedlings. They also are given training on irrigation and use of household waste water. Some training material was developed.

Reasons for poorer uptake in Kakuma

Although the uptake of the approach in Kakuma camp was initially lower, this did improve and they also 'made it their own' by adapting the technique. Instead of just growing the produce in one 50kg cereal bag, the refugees sewed a number of bags together to make a larger growing area with the same overall concept of placing tins with stones for assisting in watering and irrigation (see picture).


MSGs are an inexpensive intervention as it is a low input programme. The initial costs included setting up of the programme, hiring of staff, training of incentive workers, and developing training material on MSG techniques and nutrition issues. Other costs included tools and seeds for the programme. Aone year budget of 300,000 USD supported the development of 5,155 MSG's in Dadaab and 2,500 MSG's in Kakuma camp. With anaemia levels for pregnant and non-pregnant women and children under 5 years at over 70% and malaria endemic around the camps, it is hoped that the introduction of fresh vegetables through the programme, in particular green leafy vegetables, will assist in reducing the extremely high levels of anaemia.

Benefits of the multi-storey gardens approach

Along with benefits already mentioned (dietary diversification, inexpensive, income generation), the approach encourages selfreliance and empowers women. Produce can be grown all year round and the production of varied produce can be used in practical nutrition education. If the WFP resources used here are not available, other materials can be adapted. The concept of micro agriculture using a small amount of space and water remains the central element. This is a low input garden activity that could be targeted at households where labour is constrained, e.g. households with people living with HIV/AIDS or orphans, and should be considered in areas where HIV/ AIDS prevalence is particularly high.

For further information, contact: Mary Corbett, email:

Case Study

Halima Mohamed Aliyow, MSG female gardener, Dadaab Camp

Some beneficiaries of the MSGs in Dadaab camps, Kenya

I have a family size of fifteen, including two children under five years and three nieces and nephews under five. I also have an older disabled son and my blind father living with me. I was very concerned as we never had quite enough to eat and the old man in particular was always tired of having the same food each day. I began with five sacks for use in MSG, but I enjoyed it so much I asked GTZ for an additional five sacks which they gave me. I am now growing okra, spinach, tomatoes, coriander, and Kenyan spinach. I grow enough for everyone in the household to eat, plus I can give a little away to my neighbours.

I feel that my family is healthier, we are happier and I do not worry about feeling hungry. In the past I used to sell quite a lot of the food ration to buy things like tomatoes and spinach, but now it is not necessary to do that.

I would like to become a Model Gardener for my block and then I could teach people about growing and cooking vegetables. If I could double the number of plants I am growing I could sell the excess to neighbours. Already people come to see the garden and want to buy my produce. I use run-off water from the tap stand to water the plants and they just grow and grow and grow.

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Mary Corbett (). Multi-storey gardens to support food security. Field Exchange 29, December 2006. p38.



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