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The experience of multi-storey gardens in Ethiopian refugee camps

By Mulugeta WTsadik

An example of gardening in a camp setting

Mulugeta WTsadik is food security and nutrition officer with UNHCR Ethiopia since 2004. She has a degree in rural development. Since 1997, she has worked on food security and nutrition programmes with a number of organisations.

UNHCR Ethiopia officer, Administration Refugee-Returnee Affairs (ARRA) and ZOA Refugee Care wish to thank all the people directly or indirectly implementing the multi-storey garden (MSG) and poultry production. We acknowledge the important contributions of the following individuals without whose hard work and support the pilot project could not have materialised: Ms Sabine Wahining (UNHCR Ethiopia), Ms Allison Oman (UNHCR Kenya), Mr Ahmed Fall Baba (UNHCR HQ), Mr Tesfaye Bekel (UNHCR Ethiopia), Dr Dejene Kebede (UNHCR Ethiopia), Mir Ajit Fernando, Ketyibelu and G/Giories (UNHCR Sub-office in Shire), Mir Bekele and Dereje Bogale (UNHCR sub-office in Jijiga) and Mr John Bosco Kinama (JTZ in Dadaab, Kenya) who conducted field training for national staff and refugees..

Ethiopia hosts around 112,201 refugees. Approximately 1,564 reside as urban refugees, while the remainder live in eight different refugee camps. The majority of refugees are of Somali (K/Beyah, Shedr, Awbarre and Boqolmayo), Sudanese (Fugnido and Sherkole) and Eritrean (Mayani, Asayta and Shimelba) nationalities.

UNHCR have regularly conducted nutrition surveys amongst this refugee population. Since 2007, the nutrition surveys have also included measurement of haemoglobin using haemocues. These surveys have found alarming levels of anaemia despite the fact that fortified blended food has been provided since 2007 - when corn soya blend (CSB) was introduced to the general ration by the World Food Programme (WFP). Slight but insubstantial improvements in anaemia rates have been observed since. In 2008 and 2009, data still showed an anaemia prevalence >20%, with up to 42% prevalence among children under five years. Anaemia prevalence amongst women of reproductive age ranged from 6% to 27%. Given this, UNHCR now provides CSB to all children between 6 and 23 months. This complements the WFP ration of wheat, vegetable oil, CSB, pulses, salt and sugar. It is assumed that with such high levels of anaemia, there are probably other micronutrient deficiencies in the camps, e.g. zinc. Zinc levels have not been measured as the required methods are too complicated, given the location of the camps and the logistical infrastructure needed.

Multi storey gardens and poultry projects

In order to address this micronutrient problem and more generally improve food security, UNHCR undertook a pilot programme of introducing multi-storey gardens (MSG) and poultry into three camps (Shimbelba - Eritrean refugees, Awbarre and Kebribeyah - Somali refugees). This initiative was funded through UNHCR regional and HQ funding.

The specific objectives of the projects were to increase availability of vegetables and eggs at household level, thereby improving micronutrient status of vulnerable refugees. It was also expected that the MSG project would improve the infant and young child feeding practices of mothers, thereby improving child nutritional status. MSG is a farming technology adopted in areas with little land space and where there is water scarcity. Space is often at a premium in refugee camps. Furthermore, as the vegetable production takes place at household level, it has the advantage of reducing workload and time requirements associated with more traditional garden systems.

The pilot project began in April 2008 with a two day training of the selected implementing partner (ZOA) on MSG and poultry production, held in Addis Ababa. ARRA (Administration for Refugees and Returnee Affairs) are the government of Ethiopia (GoE) counterpart jointly working with UNHCR on the initiative. Training was conducted by UNHCR HQ staff. A UNHCR consultant with experience working on MSGs in Kenya conducted training at camp level (three days training per camp) and wrote a field manual. WFP provided technical advice as well as providing sacks and empty vegetable oil cans. This phase of the project was completed by November 2008.

Implementation of the project commenced in January 2009 with ZOA providing the initial funding. UNHCR funding commenced in April 2009. One hundred and sixty seven households were selected in each pilot camp with each household encouraged to construct five MSGs. Households were also provided with three poultry (one cock and two females). Target beneficiaries were family members with a case of anaemia or malnutrition, large femaleheaded families and people living with HIV/AIDS. Some model farmers and other 'interested' people were also selected.

Multi-storey gardens (MSG) method

MSGs use 50kg cereal bags and empty oil cans. The cereal bags are used for growing the produce. The oil cans are filled with rocks and placed in the centre of the upstanding cereal bag. Holes are drilled in the sides and bottom of the tins. 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 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. A standard kitchen garden requires much more water than that used in the MSG approach.

Tools needed

Jembe - used to dig the soil that will be mixed with other components for constructing the garden.

Forkjembe - used to dig the soil in hard ground areas.

Spade - used to collect and mix the soil components.

Tinsnip/Knife - used to cut off the top part of the tin.

Tin punch - used to punch holes in the top and bottom of the tin.

Wheelbarrow - used to measure and transport the various soil parts.

Equipment needed

Perforated tins
Gravel clay soil
Sand soil (main part)
Jerry can

Suitable vegetables for MSG

(Common name/Somali name)
Dania - Coriander/Dania
Sukuma wiki - Collards/Sukuma
Capsicum - California wonder/Pilipilihoho
Egg plant - Black beauty/Birganya
Spinach - Fordhok giant/Spinach
Tomatoes - Caj, M82/ Nyanya
Okra - Pusa sawani /Bamia
Amaranthus - Terere/Terere

Evaluation of pilot project

An example of multi-storey gardening

An evaluation of the pilot was conducted in October 2009 by UNHCR/ZOA and ARRA. The evaluation objectives were to identify lessons learned and challenges of the project in relation to implementation capacity and cost effectiveness, and to develop recommendations for current and future programming direction.

The evaluation involved questionnaires that assessed any increases in vegetable consumption, amounts of vegetables sold and any decreases in percentage of monthly rations sold to buy vegetables. There were also questions about water usage to support the MSGs and concerning egg consumption.

The questionnaire was administered to 50 out of 167 households that were randomly selected in each camp. Focus group discussions were also held with 15-20 randomly selected households who were not included in the household survey and with an additional five households who were not one of the 167 beneficiary households. Data from the primary analysis are presented in Table 1.

Table 1: Nutritional status of children 6-23 and 6-59 months of age
Camp K/Beyah Awbarre Shimelba
No. of beneficiaries (households) surveyed 40 45 43
No. (%) who developed MSGs 37 (91%) 39 (93%) 43 (100%)
No. of sacks developed by beneficiary 1 sack (0%)
2 sacks (2%)
3 sacks (5%)
4 sacks (7%)
5 sacks (70%)
6+ sacks (7%)
1 sack (2%)
2 sacks (11%)
3 sacks (28%)
4 sacks (20%)
5 sacks (28%)
6+ sacks (4%)
1 sack (2%)
2 sacks (7%)
3 sacks (5%)
4 sacks (7%)
5 sacks (70%)
6+ sacks (9%)
No. (%) beneficiaries have started to harvest vegetables 30 (75%) 36 (80%) 43 (100%)
No. (%) beneficiaries who have sold vegetables 0 (0%) 2 (4%) 6 (14%)
Average income
31 Birr/month
No. (%) beneficiaries eaten eggs Chickens are still small/too immature to lay eggs and breed Chickens are still small/too immature to lay eggs and breed 15 (35%) Average 7.5 eggs eaten per week
No. (%) beneficiaries who have recycled water 31 (77%)
Average 71.2 litres/week
28 (62%)
Average 79 litres/week
32 (74%) Average 146 litres/week


Other key findings from the evaluation included the following;


Poultry project in action

In spite of the MSG project success, there have been certain challenges. Perhaps the most significant has been water shortages and spillage of water at distribution points in the Somali camps. UNHCR have tried to address this issue but in some cases, problems appeared insurmountable. Although UNHCR provides water for Somali refugees and local populations, there is not enough drinking water during the dry season let alone for MSG use. Refugees have to queue at water taps and there is a great deal of spillage in taking water home. Water is also collected from rain-water birkads but people have to carry water long distances and also pay from between 2-5 Birr per jerry can. Not enough plastic sheets were provided for water harvesting and storage. UNHCR have been trying to encourage refugees to re-cycle water from showers and washing food. Some households do this but only a minority.

There have also been issues around lack of variety of seeds and seedlings, as well as inappropriate seeds, used in the MSG. Furthermore, some beneficiaries were not provided with adequate tools and wheelbarrows and not all beneficiaries have been using the sides of sacks for transplanting. Also, the principle of using a limited number of vegetables per sack is not well understood by beneficiaries, project animators and the agronomist attached to the programme. Another issue has been pest control and vegetable diseases.

The least successful part of the pilot was the poultry programme. There were many challenges here. One issue was whether it is appropriate to combine MSG and poultry interventions in the same refugee household, given that poultry will eat crops. Another problem was that the chickens bought by ZOA in Addis Ababa were too young and as they were distributed during the rainy season, a large number of them died from disease. There was also a problem with feeding the chickens with chicken feed being taken out of the WFP ration so that there was less food available for households. The chicken feed provided by ZOA only lasted a month.

The evaluation also found that follow up from ZOA and UNHCR at camp levels has been limited. Furthermore, monitoring has been weak. Certain activities that were meant to take place according to the project proposal were not implemented. These included establishing a vegetable nursery site for seedling production, construction of water troughs in KebriBeyah and Awbarre near the water distribution point, pest control activities, development of field manuals on MSG in the local language, and egg production and consumption surveillance.

In spite of these problems however, the MSG project is well accepted by refugees and has been requested by households not included in the pilot programme. The project allows refugees to choose what they want to plant and eat and contributes to a sense of dignity, while the presence of green spaces and the sight of food growing also contribute to a sense of well-being. There is also a 'domino effect' as households sell or give away excess produce to their neighbours so that there are small enclaves where people are eating better and enjoying fresh foods. Furthermore, some of these refugees are already trying to duplicate the MSG on their own initiative.

Conclusions and recommendations

An example of multi-storey gardening

The MSG project should continue and be rolled out to other camps while the poultry rearing project should discontinue. The poultry project should be stopped largely due to incompatibility with an MSG project, i.e. the chickens ate the MSG produce. Other reasons included expense and time required for implementation, difficulty of finding an appropriate chicken breed and the need for chicken house construction material.

Problems with water in the MSG project necessitated a number of measures including construction of water traps at water distribution points to use waste water, assessment of water that be can collected through spillage during the dry season, encouraging refugees to maximize water recycling, exploring the potential for roof water harvesting from buildings in the camp and increasing the number of water storage containers in the camps.

There were also recommendations about the techniques used in the MSG. For example, it is important to understand that the life of a sack is around nine months if good watering techniques are used. After this point, beneficiaries will need to replace the sack. The animators and agronomists should also provide advice to the beneficiaries on the appropriate ratio of top soils, manure and sand soil, which is fundamental to optimal growth of vegetables, water conservation and utilisation. The implementing partner should also ensure that all sides of the sack are used, that beneficiaries do not use inappropriate vegetable seeds to grow crops like cabbage, carrot or onion and that refugees are encouraged to establish a nursery garden for seedlings. Furthermore, there is a need for households who succeed to be encouraged to share their experiences with the refugee camp. There is also a need for refresher training for the project officer, agronomist and animators as well as partners like ARRA.

For more information, contact: Mulugeta WTsadik, email:

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Reference this page

Mulugeta WTsadik (). The experience of multi-storey gardens in Ethiopian refugee camps. Field Exchange 40, February 2011. p35.



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