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Djibouti: Farming the barren wasteland

The last time Djibouti received normal rainfall was six years ago. Today, a light shower causes jubilation. School children dash out of classes, people flock in the streets; just to feel the cooling effect of rain drops falling on their faces.

On a good day, Djibouti’s weather is harsh. Temperatures average at around 35 degrees Celsius climbing up to 50 degrees in the ‘hot’ months. Successive droughts and failed rains have seen the number of livestock dwindle. Many nomadic herders who traverse the desert have since lost most of their animals resorting to sedentary life near urban centres. New settlements are cropping up around towns and along the trunk road to Ethiopia.

Already, about 80 per cent of the country’s population lives in the capital, Djibouti city. Yet more and more people continue to enter the city in search of a living. The city offers little economic opportunities. Unemployment is high and the vast majority of the population is poor.

Alternative sources of income

Prior to the civil war in the early 1990s, numerous gardens dotted the outskirts of the capital. Most farming associations collapsed because of the war, and as the city grew, the space for gardens was instead used for buildings.

Despite the end of most city gardens, outside the city, and in the desert, some gardens are thriving. In Dikhil village, 120 kilometres southwest of Djibouti city, Djama Guedi is one of many farmers who produce crops for a living. His lush garden teeming with workers is in huge contrast to the surrounding rocky hills.

“I grow onions, dates, watermelon, and fodder for goats which I rear for milk,” says Djama. “I sell my produce to grocery shops in the city.” Djama admits that the climate and the rocky terrains in Djibouti limit large-scale agriculture, but is adamant that farming is possible. “All we need is the skill and technology to enable us to dig and pump water.”

What it takes

In Abaitou, 10 kilometres  southwest of Dikhil, Ali Mohamed Guelleh spent 13 years clearing rocks off his piece of land which is on a steep slope. “I transformed this hill one stone at a time; I levelled the ground, then dug a well and fitted it with a water pump,” he says.

Every garden in Djibouti has to have access to a hand-dug well. There is no other source of water. Depending on the amount of rock in the way, a well that is 15 to 25 metres deep can take 20 people, three to four months to dig – a costly affair.

External assistance

According to the Ministry of Agriculture, there are 1,600 small gardens in Djibouti each measuring about half a hectare. Each year, these gardens produce an average of 6,000 tonnes of fruits and vegetable, most of it is consumed in the capital. About 90 per cent of food eaten in Djibouti is imported.

The European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO) is funding these types of projects. For example, ECHO cooperates with the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) which provides seeds, tools, training and water pumps for irrigating the crops in support of 800 gardens across the country. 

“The main goal is not to facilitate production for export but to help families in the rural areas become self sufficient and food secure,” says Dany Lanoe, FAO’s Emergency Operations Coordinator in Djibouti.

In order to better manage the scarce water, the European Commission together with the FAO is in the process of introducing drip kits, a more efficient method of irrigation.

Learning Lessons

Djibouti’s gardens are just one of the many community-based solutions aimed at ending food insecurity in the Horn of Africa. The European Commission is spearheading a Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) programme in the Horn of Africa which prepares people to better cope with effects of external shocks such as droughts.

“The logic of DRR is to showcase good practices that can be replicated in order to build the resilience of people at risk. In Djibouti, community gardening is one of the good practices that should be imitated and factored into the agriculture policy,” says Sylvie Montembault, the coordinator of the DRR programme.

The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) is now coordinating a ‘resilience platform’ aimed at ending vulnerability to droughts in the Horn of Africa, following the 2011 crisis.
“We tend to decide on things without gathering the necessary evidence and then we apply based on personal opinions. For this , the intention is to base on scientific evidence and lessons learned,” says Abdi Jama, Technical Advisor to IGAD.

The investments of development aid in recent years did not cushion the poorest people in the Horn of Africa from the effects of the 2011 drought. To prevent people falling into crisis again in the future, the resilience platform must learn and apply working solutions such as farming the desert.

By Martin Karimi,
Regional Information Assistant in Nairobi, Kenya

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