Business unusual in Kenya’s refugee camp

Distributing food for 400,000 refugees in times of coronavirus

World Food Programme Insight
6 min readApr 20, 2020


Story by Martin Karimi

Hand-washing stations installed at the entrance of a food distribution centre in Kakuma. Photo: WFP

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed ways of working around the world and the refugee camps in Kenya are no different. Fortunately there have been no confirmed cases either in the camps or the surrounding areas, but it was imperative that the World Food Programme changed the way food was distributed to these already vulnerable refugees to reduce any risk of exposure. WFP has just pulled off extraordinary food distributions in Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps, home to over 400,000 people.

“Ensuring WFP is able to maintain the food assistance lifeline for refugees who have limited movement and livelihoods options and are almost entirely dependent on internationally funded and delivered services remains a priority,” says Lara Fossi, Deputy Country Director in charge of field operations.

Food distributions to more than 400,000 refugees living in both camps take place at the beginning of every month. When Kenya announced its first case of Covid-19 on 13 March, WFP had just concluded the round of monthly food distributions.

“We knew that the next food distribution was not going to be business as usual, and would require careful measures to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 transmission at food distribution sites — not just in our refugees operations but across all the food assistance programmes in the country,” says Lara.

Ensuring the safety and health of all

A WFP staff member santises his hands at Dadaab refugee camp. WFP has used the food distributions venues to educate refugees on prevention measures. Photo: WFP

“In the previous distributions, we were always crowded. We would be told line up close to each other, but today, we were told to be a metre apart from each other. Also, we never washed hands when collecting rations before but today we did; our temperature is never taken — today it was tested,” says Suzan Achech, a refugee in Kakuma.

“I found today’s distribution tiresome but it was good as we were shown ways of protecting ourselves from Covid-19.”

In Kakuma where food distributions take an average of six days, the April distributions are taking about eleven days. Similarly, Dadaab has nearly doubled the number of distribution days in order to minimize the numbers of people at the centres at any given time.

A centre that would normally serve 2,600 food collectors (only heads of families go to the distribution centre) is serving half the number.

“Arguably, with all the safety measures we have put in place, the distributions will have to go on for more days than usual,” says Simon Denhere, the Head of WFP in Dadaab.

“But on the flip-side, because we have very few arriving at the distribution sites each day, the waiting time per person is considerably reduced. Remember that the main objective was to eliminate crowding — so we want to attend to people in the shortest time possible.”

“In and out in 10 to 15 minutes.”

Kakuma dubbed the April food distribution a ‘walk-through’, perhaps inspired by the express services offered in drive-through restaurants around the world.

“Our current distribution is a walk-through process,” explains Florence Lanyero, Head of WFP in Kakuma.

“The beneficiary comes from his or her home at their appointed time, washes hands, walks to the verification area where our staff are scanning the ration cards with bar-code readers — from about a metre away. After that, they walk to the food collection area — always maintaining a distance of 1 to 2 metres apart, collect their ration and walk out —

— in and out in 10 to 15 minutes.”

All hands on deck

WFP used a barcode reader instead of the usual bio-metrics to verify the identity of refugees eliminating all physical contact. Photo: WFP

In Dadaab, this cycle of distributions was dubbed ‘GFD Unusual’ (General Food Distribution Unusual) because of the restrictive measures in place.

“What is most impressive is the morale of the WFP staff. We know that Covid-19 is a threat to our own health and safety, but the staff are very motivated and highly committed to serving the beneficiaries,” explains Simon. “We understand that we cannot stop food distribution because food distribution is life-saving, so we have to do it.”

Aden Osman a youth leader in Dagahaley camp, in Dadaab says the community is taking the new measures positively.

“We are very happy with these measures because they are protecting us from the corona virus which has killed very many people in the world. We are getting soap and directions on how to wash hands and on social distancing. We are getting a lot of information from WFP and other agencies on how to protect ourselves from the corona virus and we are grateful,” he says.

“For the past few days, our Dadaab office has been emptied out. All the staff have come out to support the distribution,” says Simon. “It is all hands on deck.”

Debunking the myths

But some refugees are more skeptical than others. And there are still many information gaps to be filled

“Why are you asking us to do all these things,’ wondered a refugee in Dadaab. “This disease is for Nairobi! It has not even reached Garissa let alone to us here in Dadaab!”

In Kakuma, some refugees were heard saying that Covid-19 is only affecting those that travel by air. “This disease is catching those that use airplanes.”

Most refugees waited patiently, listened and followed instructions, with only few cases of disorderliness.

WFP and partners engaged with leaders in educating the refugees prior to the distribution and all stakeholders spent countless hours preparing and simulating the ‘Covid-19-compliant’ distributions.

A united fight against the virus

Social distancing means that food distribution is taking twice as long and involving all the staff in the field offices. Photo: WFP

WFP is working alongside the UN refugee agency, the refugee leaders, the local Government officials, the Refugees Affairs Secretariat, NGO partners, local police and private security companies, to see this extended distribution through.

In the refugee camps, different agencies and NGOs have different mandates, all geared towards giving refugees essential services. Agencies especially those responsible for health and water and sanitation services stepped up big time.

“It is impressive the way all partners came together to make this ‘Covid-19-compliant’ food distribution work,” says Florence.

WFP and UNHCR held a joint distribution of food and the non-food items (sanitation and hygiene material) so that refugees would only once congregate.

“The strong cooperation from the partners is commendable. It has been amazing seeing all the aid agencies come together in such a powerful way,” says Simon.

The new normal?

To further reduce the risk, WFP gave refugees a two-month food ration to avoid having to congregate again in a few weeks. Mothers collected a month’s ration of nutritious porridge flour — normally given out after every two weeks. Refugees can stay put for now.

WFP, partners and the refugees are all on a steep learning curve even as April’s distributions close. The lessons from this new way of delivering assistance will be crucial in shaping future distributions in a highly fluid environment.

Adapting to changing scenarios is not an option. Social distancing for instance, is a new thing that goes against many cultural ingrained practices — but around the world everyone is having to accept a new normal.