Insufficient Food Supply Leads to Trade and Bartering
Volume 1, Issue 4-5 / March-April 2009
With food supplies already meager, refugees must exchange food items for staples such as charcoal, leaving them hungry.
In Kakuma Refugee Camp, food rations are distributed every 15 days according to the number of people living in a household. But refugees report that the rations actually last between 10 to 12 days at most, depending on how different families manage them. For two to five days at the end of each cycle, those who are dependent on rations go without food. For an estimated 40% of families staying in Kakuma Camp who are totally dependent on food aid, these are called “black days.”
The insufficiency of food rations is compounded by the need for exchange: refugees must sell a portion of their rations in order to exchange for other necessary needs not provided by humanitarian aid. Major needs are charcoal, batteries for a torch and kerosene, and soap.
How to get cooking?
The vast majority of refugees in Kakuma use charcoal for food preparation, as food received at the centres is distributed in raw form and not ready to eat. Thus, they are forced to find some means of cooking.
Several years ago, there was a much-vaunted program to bring “solar cookers” to Kakuma Refugee Camp. However, these have all but disappeared and only a few can be found in various states of disrepair around the camp. Community members report that the solar cookers were very slow to heat, so that boiling water could take up to two to three hours, and sometimes never even reached a boiling state.
According to one GTZ (German Development Cooperation) staff who assisted in the introduction of the solar cookers to Kakuma, “We faced a hard time during demonstrations as we could wait hours for some food to be cooked, or it failed.”
The firewood distributed by GTZ provides 10kg per person for a time period of 40 to 60 days. The intervals of distribution are variable. “Frequencies [of distribution] depend on the year,” says James Toto, the GTZ Energy Monitor. “Like last year, we had 10 cycles and we were not strict.”
When asked why GTZ is not strict on the cycles projected, Mr. Toto says that last year GTZ had only planned five cycles, but went ahead to explain to donors who agreed to fund more cycles. This year, GTZ has only planned six cycles and has already conducted two.
Although firewood is distributed only six times per year, the 10kg personal package can only be expected to last about 4-6 days. “Surely, 10kg of firewood are not enough for one week, leave alone two months,” admits Mr. Toto. A young woman working at the firewood distribution added, “Actually, 10kg of firewood can only go up to five days.”
Food for charcoal
Chandy works as a refugee incentive worker and is the breadwinner for her size-five family. She says that the firewood received at the distribution centre never lasts for more than eight days and the cycle is not regular; the last cycle was during the last week of March, while the one preceding it was within the second week of January.
“In one month, I use money to buy charcoals and kerosene to secure the first cycle of food, but for the second cycle, my mom uses maize meal or wheat flour depending on what is at distribution centres to buy at least two to three basins.”
According to local agreement, only local Turkanas are authorized to burn and produce charcoal as a means of livelihood. Refugees must purchase the commodity from locals according to a barter system. Local sellers move through the camp balancing large bundles of charcoal and hawking their products.
The exchange of food for charcoals is not standardized, but depends on agreement between individual refugees and sellers. Once agreed, exchange takes place at a refugee’s tent or hut. Bakuli (a standard bowl equivalent to one and a half kilograms) is used in measuring maize or wheat flour, then exchanged for a basin of charcoal.
Typically, the price of exchange ranges between two to eight Bakuli for one basin of charcoal, depending on the season. One basin might last between four to 15 days, depending on family size.
In the refugee camp, refugees depend on non-governmental organizations (NGOs) for their basic human needs. Refugees who would otherwise seek informal work find themselves in Kakuma where the local Turkanas have no work to offer.
“In the other camp where I was, I worked for locals farming for them, and I was able to buy charcoal, kerosene, vegetables and fruits, apart from growing some in my own compound; but here, there’s no farming and still it is mandatory to have charcoals for cooking at least two basins per food distribution cycle, and a litre of kerosene to provide light in case a scorpion appears,” says Pascasie, a 49-year old women with a size five family residing in Kakuma.