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Kenya: A food revolution in the world’s largest refugee camp

The produce section at Ahmed’s shop is nothing short of impressive. Red onions as bright as Christmas tree ornaments shine in the sun. Knobs of garlic the size of cats’ heads gaze up at customers.

But this is no fancy gourmet shop in London. It’s a shed in the Dadaab – the world’s largest refugee camp in Kenya.

And it’s thanks to an innovative Save the Children voucher project, that such impressive wares are available in such an unlikely place.

Food revolution

With financing from the French government, we started a programme in which vouchers are given to parents with children between 6 and 12 months old to buy fresh food and vegetables from selected vendors.

Parents receive vouchers worth about $10 a month that they can redeem at 45 vendors throughout the camp.

The idea? Don’t wait for children to become malnourished and then try to save them. Feed them the right foods during the critical months of their life.

Camel again

The project has led to healthier children, and parents are saving money. But maybe most surprising, it brought about an evolution of the Somali palette.

The food choices here are unlike the ones they had in Somalia. Most Somalis grew up with only two options: camel meat and camel milk.

In a country where, in some places, camels outnumber people, dinner for many means fried camel meat washed down with sussa, camel milk that is left in the shade to ferment. Some children drink nothing but camel milk for the first few years of their life.


The food selection in Dadaab for many years wasn’t much better – a meagre array of shrivelled produce and canned goods.

Most people relied on processed food from aid agencies. While it was welcome, it wasn’t satisfying all the nutritional needs of children.

That led to frightening rates of malnutrition.

But Save the Children’s fresh food voucher project is changing that, and creating new opportunities for business people to better serve their community.

One shopkeeper’s story

Take Noor, a quiet father of nine children who came to Dadaab in 1993. For years he lived on the food he received in the camp but wished for something else. “We never liked it, but the circumstances forced us to eat it,” he says.

In 2005, he opened a shop in the Ifo section of Dadaab camp. Most of his time was spent snoozing the day away, waiting for customers.

He only sold dry goods like salt, powdered milk and rice – the same things most everyone else sold. On an average day, he’d make $1 to $2 profit.

Flourishing business

Now, with the arrival of our voucher project, there’s a steady stream of shoppers squatting next to his vegetable bins, rifling through tomatoes, oranges and onions. He goes through, for example, 50kg of potatoes and 20kg of onions every week.

He now makes $10 a day and is using that money to send his son to private school. He’s also constructed a house in Dadaab and he’s expanded his shop.

What if the voucher program was to stop? Noor shook his head. He says they’d have “absolutely no business at all.”

Vaccines and cooking lessons

The project goes beyond nutrition. For parents to qualify for vouchers, they must show proof that their children were immunised and had their growth monitored at a clinic.

This simple strategy has meant more than 50,000 children have been vaccinated and their health is carefully monitored.

Save the Children follows up with parents in the programme to make sure they understand nutrition messages and what foods provide what nutrients. But many parents have never seen pineapples or parsley, and are baffled about how to prepare them. 

So Save the Children provides cooking demonstrations to mums whose children have qualified for the programme.

No more porridge

The fresh food revolution in Dadaab has meant big changes for people like Fatuma Abdi Yussuf, who’s grateful the days of bland porridge are over. 

“The moment I bring this into the house,” she says, pointing to her bag of fruits and vegetables, “(the children) fight over it.”

Arfon Yussuf Abdi, a grandmother who frequents Ahmed’s shop, said she was worried because she knew her grandchildren weren’t getting the proper vitamins and minerals.

But now that she has access to fresh kale – a vegetable with so many micronutrients it seems like there’s a health food store in every leaf – her grandkids are much healthier.

“If there was no voucher project,” she says, perusing some potatoes, “I wouldn’t be able to buy this.”

Donate now to our East Africa appeal 

This blog was written by Lane Hartill, Save the Children US.

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