UNHCR scheme helps refugees in Burundi rediscover the joy of shopping

News Stories, 6 June 2013

© UNHCR/I.Wittorski
Congolese refugee Domitilla hands over vouchers to pay for beans. She'll cook them at home for her seven children.

GASORWE REFUGEE CAMP, Burundi, June 6 (UNHCR) Domitilla walks through the crowded market with a spring in her step, casting a practised eye over stalls offering a selection of beans, rice, flour and other foodstuff. The smell of palm oil wafts through the air.

She stops before one seller and compares some of the produce. "These beans are of a better quality and easier to digest," she says, digging her hand into a bag full of the edible seeds before firing off a few questions. But Domitilla decides not to buy and continues on her rounds amid the cries of traders touting their wares.

It's a typical scene from markets across Africa, but the difference here is that Domitilla and her fellow shoppers are all Congolese refugees and they have not been able to go shopping in years. Most fled conflict in neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo's South Kivu province. The vendors are local.

Instead of relying on standard food packs from the World Food Programme (WFP), the Congolese women living in northern Burundi's Gasorwe Refugee Camp now have the freedom to shop for themselves thanks to a voucher system introduced by WFP and UNHCR.

The programme not only helps empower the refugees, but it also introduces variety into their daily diet and at the same time helps stimulate the local economy. "We can now choose what we want to eat, like in the past [before we became refugees], and buy the best quality items available to local merchants," explained Domitilla, who has spent the past nine years in the camp.

She now has to feed her husband and seven children, two of whom were born in Gasorwe. But family size is taken into account under the voucher system.

The vouchers have various values and they can be used at a monthly market organized by UNHCR and its partners in Gasorwe, a camp hosting 10,000 refugees. Prices are fixed in advance and posted on camp noticeboards.

When Domitilla headed off to the market, she was accompanied by her eldest son, Aristide, who was in charge of the shopping list. This had been drafted a few days earlier and included items such as 50 kilogrammes of rice, 50 kilos of cornflour, 20 kilos of beans. "Last time we ran out of oil, so mum decided to reduce the quantity of flour," the 24-year-old explained.

Domitilla seems pretty confident about what she needs, but others in the camp welcome the help of staff from Caritas Burundi, who give advice on what to buy to ensure a better and more balanced diet. The World Food Programme will continue to distribute Corn Soya Blend, a vital nutritive element.

The women in Gasorwe have reacted very positively to the voucher system and say they feel empowered. They also welcome the opportunity to decide what they want to eat, rather than having to make do with the ingredients in the food packs.

"I got fed up with having to prepare ugali [a kind of porridge made from cassava flour] every day and the children didn't like it. But I had no choice," said another refugee, Faida. "Now, I can cook rice for them. They like it and they seem healthier," she added with a big smile.

Catherine Huck, UNHCR's representative in Burundi, said the voucher system was helping to ensure that the various communities in the camp could cook their traditional dishes. "Being able to choose between palm and cotton oil or corn and cassava flour is essential for these women, who want to bring some pleasure to their families amid the harsh conditions of refugee life."

The local economy is also benefitting. Thirteen merchants ply their trade at the Gasorwe monthly market under contracts signed with the World Food Programme (WFP). They welcome the extra business.

"On the refugee market, you are sure to sell your goods and to sell a lot," said Pancrace, who has signed a six-month contract with WFP and hopes it will be extended. He said he faced a lot of competition locally, so this was a welcome opportunity for him. "Yes, life is getting better," enthused the father of 10.

The extra business is also helping local suppliers and even those further away. To meet the demand from the housewives of Gasorwe, Pancrace has had to go to Rwanda to buy beans. Even local bicycle owners benefit. "Refugees pay me with food and I can earn up to 10 kilos of flour in a day," says Mathias, who helps the refugees by taking their purchases home.

The voucher project is being piloted in Gasorwe and two other camps in Burundi, which are hosting around 27,000 refugees, mostly from Democratic Republic of the Congo. If deemed a success, it could be introduced in refugee camps across the Great Lakes region.

By Isaline Wittorski in Gasorwe Refugee Camp, Burundi