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Algeria: How can we bring fresh food to Sahrawi refugees in the heart of the desert?

Photo credit: ECHO/Zaidi Rafik

Providing fresh and nutritious food to the Sahwari refugee community, in the heart of the Sahara desert, is a great logistical challenge. Our humanitarian partners at Oxfam describe the creative solution they found for ensuring the Sahrawi's are not only well-fed, but also take ownership and responsibility of their situation. 

Baptiste Chapuis, advocacy and communications officer, Oxfam

In the southwest of Algeria, nearly 2000km from the capital Algiers, the Sahara desert is home to the Sahrawi refugees. Mark a tragic 40th anniversary, the Sahrwai are victims of one the world's oldest and most forgotten crises.

Of course this is frustrating to continue providing humanitarian aid after almost 40 years,” says Soazic Dupuy, Oxfam’s associate director based in Algiers. “People tell me how they yearn to take control over their lives; they want to take care of their families.” Yet, as long as there is no long-term solution, people will remain highly dependent on international aid. The refugee camps are situated in a very harsh and isolated desert environment. Opportunities for self-reliance are very limited.

Soazic emphasises however that in the context of a protracted humanitarian crisis, donors must consider creative ways to maximise refugees’ involvement and ownership of initiatives. This includes local and international aid organisations as well as the relevant authorities. “The construction of a 900 square meter warehouse with 8 cooling rooms in the middle of the Sahara desert is an example of what is possible if we jointly set our minds to it,” she adds.

Until recently, fresh products for the refugees travelled almost 2 000 kilometres by road every month, from northern Algeria to the refugee camps in the south of the country. The 125 000 food rations needed to be distributed upon their arrival in the camps. “This was a very challenging and frustrating task; a race against time and the rising temperatures as the day moved on,” Soazic explains. Subsequently the families had to store everything themselves. Few families have a refrigerator, and in the summer temperatures can rise to more than 50º centigrade.  In such conditions, the fresh vegetables lost a lot of their nutritional value.

To cope with these challenges, it seemed wiserto provide families with less fresh products per distribution, but to organise more distributions per months. To make this happen, food supply centre or warehouse had to be built. We engaged in long discussions with donors, the representatives of the refugees and beneficiaries on how we could make this happen,” says Soazic.

The construction of the Food Supply Centre eventually started early 2013. It is a joint venture between Oxfam and the Sahrawi Red Crescent, financed by the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO).

The food can be stored here better under optimal conditions and several distributions a month can be organised,” explains Djawad Boukheddami, Oxfam’s project manager. “The quality of the products distributed has improved, the range of foods provided extended.  Beneficiaries welcomed the inclusion of seasonal products and we were able to maximise the nutritional value of all the fresh vegetables.”

Some 25 people currently work in the food supply centre, which should not be underestimated in the context of a protracted refugee crisis. This is how Hassina from the Sahrawi Red Crescent put it: "Beyond the quality of the products, what we find important is the ownership and the responsibility that is given to the Sahrawi's.The staff is gaining new competences. Through our work, we have learned much about the fresh products and we can share this knowledge with the beneficiaries. We are thus distributing more than just the products."

It was a challenge to get different actors united around this project, and to get it running smoothly. The construction, maintenance and the actual distribution from the food supply centre required an enormous amount of effort, from a range of stakeholders. But it will mean huge progress for the refugees in terms of ownership and access to fresh products,” Soazic concludes.  

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