A story by Jacques David
All photos by Leonora Baumann
“I almost feel like I am in a market in my village!”
It’s six in the morning and the first traders are arriving at this market in one of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s refugee camps.
This one, Lusenda, is located in South Kivu, close to the Burundian border. But this market is unlike others — for a start, it’s called a food fair.
It operates like any other market except the shoppers are carrying colorful pieces of paper that they can exchange for food. Yellow is for corn flour, red is for beans, blue is for salt, orange is for rice and white is for cassava flour.
The pieces of paper are vouchers provided by the UN World Food Programme (WFP) to support Burundian refugees who live in the camp.
A year ago, WFP was providing food assistance for 9,500 people, but because of continued instability and violence in Burundi, that number has almost doubled to 16,000 people.
Instead of WFP directly providing food to the refugee families each month, local traders are invited to participate in this food fair and the refugees are given the vouchers to exchange for food.
It allows refugees to choose the food according to their preference, rather than receiving the same food each month. It also boosts the local economy and cuts WFP’s food transport and storage costs.
The traders, who’ve come from the surrounding area, have finished setting up their stalls.
One man has tied a scale from the roof of the tin shed to weigh bags of food, while another has lined up large bottles of cooking oil on a wooden table.
“From the beginning, the traders showed an outstanding enthusiasm and they very quickly organized the sheds and the shelves of foodstuffs for the fair within the camp,” explains Marc Zihalirwa, WFP Programme Officer in Bukavu. “The community members like to be able to choose their own foodstuffs. It is a different scheme than the classic assistance where we would provide the same food in a monthly distribution”.
By lunchtime the place is buzzing as people exchange their vouchers with the traders and haul away large sacks of beans and flour for their families.
“I almost feel like I am in a market in my village!” Aristide, a refugee from Burundi, says smiling with both hands holding a big sack of flour balanced on his head.
“I can go from one shopkeeper to another, check the quality of the produce and see if there is space for negotiation.”
“The community’s satisfaction with the food fair is tangible,” says WFP’s Magdalena Lesjak, who works as a Cash and Vouchers Officer in DRC.
“The local economy is stimulated because we work with the merchants and shopkeepers from the region. And it reduces WFP’s costs for food storage and transportation”.
Nevertheless, it’s still possible to make improvements. For the future, WFP plans to roll out SCOPE, a new data processing system that will help in the identification and registration of community members. “Thanks to this new technology, we’ll be able to manage information much faster and easier, instead of using spreadsheets that we fill in by hand,” Magdalena says.
The food fairs are organized by WFP with its partners African Initiatives for Relief and Development and the United Nations’ refugee agency UNHCR.
The fairs are only possible thanks to funds coming from (in alphabetical order): Canada, the European Commission‘s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO), Japan and Switzerland.