What makes emergency vegetable seed and garden programs succeed or fail?

In a new guest blogging series, Peter Marks of Seed Programs International discusses his organization’s experience working through partnership to support small-scale vegetable seed projects in emergency response, development, and education. This week’s blog focuses on thorny issues surrounding the provision of seed in a protracted crisis.

See Peter’s wider reflections on 20 years of programming here.

Here at Seed Programs International (SPI), we’re working with GrowEastAfrica (GEA), to support a refugee population in Burji district within the SNNPR region of Southern Ethiopia. Over the last two years the Horn of Africa experienced a prolonged drought that has interrupted livelihoods and exhausted already-strained resources. Conflict often breaks out over lack of access to water, land for farming versus grazing, and shifting political power. During Kenya’s 2013-14 elections, changes in political power resulted in internal displacement of 2,000 Burji families. Similarly, a 2017 land conflict between Burji and the larger Gujji tribe has forced 800 Burji families to flee from the Gujji-controlled areas and take shelter in the Burji District of Ethiopia.

“We hope and pray for a peace settlement so these families will return back to their homes and livelihood,” explains GEA founder Yohannes Chonde. “Meanwhile, we will try to do all we can to make their daily life manageable.”

Vegetable-growing is an especially appropriate recovery activity for displaced Burji: the roughly 150,000 Burji speakers are highly regarded as arid agriculture experts in their highland region.

Garden-based recovery efforts include:

  • Provision of vegetable and other seeds and related training (soil improvement, crop-specific practices, water conservation);
  • Provision of marketing and bookkeeping training, which included providing bookkeeping logs, pens, and calculators;
  • Supporting a women’s group savings plan (“chama”);
  • Working with village elders to ensure peaceful integration of refugees into the community and to secure a land lease for their use for productive activities;
  • Providing goats as a source of protein and soil fertility, along with gardening programs;
  • Supporting effective water storage and conservation when it does rain, via purchase of 10,000-liter water cisterns and drip irrigation.
  • Working with displaced women to plan activities between planting and harvesting seasons to generate more income.

GEA has led the introduction of some unfamiliar crops via this project, including quinoa! While it has some previous testing as an arid lands crop in Ethiopia, quinoa was unknown to the displaced Burji families. It is proving to be an effective and interesting garden crop.

I hope this small case study raises some interesting questions:

  • Is it appropriate to introduce unfamiliar crops (vegetable or other) during crisis recovery?
  • Has your program had to address land access issues while trying to establish gardens as part of emergency response? What did you learn?
  • In the absence of land access, what is your experience with alternative garden methods such as suspended or standing dirt-filled bags? What are the drawbacks or limitations?
  • This program includes several training aspects. Tell us about what types of training your programs have included with emergency garden seed distribution? Is this depth of training more feasible during the timeline of a protracted crisis, as opposed to an acute crisis?

Please share your thoughts in the comments below, I’m excited to join you in conversation!

Families displaced by a complex, protracted crisis meet in Soyama, Ethiopia to discuss their options.

Families displaced by a complex, protracted crisis meet in Soyama, Ethiopia to discuss their options (Credit: SPI).