Growth in the time of COVID: How a hydroponics project is keeping refugees in Chad fed during the pandemic

By Vida Gabe

When the first case of COVID-19 was reported in Chad in March 2020, a lockdown was swiftly implemented with physical distancing creating pressure on communities already struggling. World Food Programme (WFP) innovative thinking leveraged hydroponics to support refugee communities’ food security through the pandemic.

Chad is part of the Sahel region, areas which are home to refugees who have fled the conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region and in the Sahelian belt. The region regularly experiences harsh weather, unpredictable rainfall and prolonged droughts. This often means no reliable source of income or food and high malnutrition rates. So when COVID-19 hit the country, the need to maintain milk and agricultural production became even more crucial.

Women feeding a goat with hydroponic fodder
For the H2Grow project team, strengthening local capacity to implement the project is the best way to make the project sustainable. Photo: WFP/Ousmane Issa Abakar.

Hydroponics is a climate-smart cultivation technique, using up to 90 percent less water, 75 percent less space and no soil. H2Grow, WFP’s hydroponics initiative, helps people grow food in impossible places. It was started in Peru in 2016; was one of the first projects supported by the WFP Innovation Accelerator, is now implemented in nine countries worldwide and directly impacts more than 20,000 people.

“In the context of COVID-19, getting involved in hydroponics is a good alternative,” explains Lucrecia Bellido Pérez, H2Grow’s Global Field Operations Officer, “Because learning the technique is easy and people can do it from home.”

H2Grow reinforces WFP’s existing food assistance activities. Local innovators are trained in hydroponics to grow fresh fodder for livestock, such as goats. Using local, affordable materials, the technique improves the nutritional value of livestock feed, and in turn the nutritional value of milk and meat products derived from the animals for human consumption

The entry of COVID-19 into Chad also brought new challenges in management and data collection for the H2Grow project. The team adapted by training community leaders in monitoring to maintain production, and distributing masks and sanitizers to field teams.

An unexpected effect of COVID-19 was the increase in the time people spent on hydroponics. With many social gatherings suspended, communities found themselves with more time to devote to hydroponic activities.

Reaping the fruits of their labour

Since H2Grow’s introduction, communities have seen a notable improvement in fodder production and are reaping the benefits.

On average, one hydroponic system can feed 10 goats and has the potential to provide families with an additional income source after just three months. Hydroponics systems can turn 1 kg of seed into 10 kg of fodder in seven days, compared to the 1.5 to 2 months it would normally take using other agricultural methods.

Arafa, a Sudanese refugee who has been living in a camp for 17 years, is an early adopter of H2Grow. Since the project started, she has shifted from losing her cattle, to feeding them well and selling the surplus fodder she grows to her neighbors. This provides her with both enough to feed her family, and a source of income.

Arafa
Arafa
“I have shifted from losing my cattle to feeding them well and selling my surplus fodder to my neighbours.” Arafa. Photo: WFP/Teresa Nascimento.

In Mongo, households report that animals fed with hydroponic fodder not only look healthier, they are also producing more milk. Similarly, a small-scale WFP/Oxfam qualitative study showed that goats fed with hydroponics fodder in Algeria produced 250 percent more milk.

Growing animal feed mainly using H2Grow decreases the time farmers spend taking animals out to pasture, reduces vulnerability to crime, and leaves them with more time to attend to other agricultural activities.

The production benefits of H2Grow have resulted in health and income gains too. One woman reported that after implementing hydroponics for only two months, her child now weighed more, thanks to the milk produced by her goat fed with hydroponic fodder. Another local farmer supported by H2Grow added that she sold one animal at a much higher price than the original purchasing price after feeding it with hydroponic fodder. The profit allowed her to feed her family and buy more seeds for hydroponics.

For the H2Grow project team, strengthening local capacity to implement the project is the best way to make the project sustainable. Photo: WFP.

Planning for the future

H2Grow has made a positive impact in the communities in Chad, and the H2Grow team has big plans for the project, including the women of Chad, who comprise the majority of the trainees. Despite COVID-19, 234 hydroponics units were newly deployed and an estimated 2,770 people have benefited from producing around 340 tons of hydroponically grown animal feed in 2020. With continued support, potentially up to 5,000 more women leaders could be trained over the next two years as key ambassadors within their communities. “If we want to make the project sustainable and leave it in the hands of local actors, we need to strengthen local capacity,” says Lucrecia.

The WFP Innovation Accelerator sources, supports and scales high-potential solutions to end hunger worldwide. We provide WFP staff, entrepreneurs, start-ups, companies and non-governmental organizations with access to funding, mentorship, hands-on support and WFP operations.

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