Aid Projects

Permaculture systems at Dadaab Refugee Camp

The Danish Refugee Council (DRC) has been operating in Dadaab Refugee Camp since 2010, providing humanitarian aid and assistance protection, livelihoods, peace building and economic recovery. Refugees in Dadaab are mainly from Somalia, but also from countries such as Congo, South Sudan, Uganda and Burundi.

I work as the Regional Resilience and Livelihoods coordinator for DRC East Africa and Great Lakes region and bring systems-based and restorative design to various sectors throughout my agency. I have just spent three weeks here in Dadaab helping our technical livelihoods staff to learn about permaculture, passive water harvesting, soil building and indigenous biodiversity as we are kicking off a multi-year, multi-million dollar program funded by the European Union. The program includes development of markets systems and value chains for poultry, fodder, chia seeds, honey and market crops as well as fresh food for self-reliance. Due to security restrictions and the high-risk context where we are operating, I’m only able to spend 20 minutes at a time on each of our Food Forest farm sites and at the households inside the camps. This has presented the opportunity to use our office compound within the UN complex as a training ground for technical instruction and demonstration for our teams who will be tasked with rolling out these drylands approaches. We will have 6 large food forest farms across three camps within Dadaab, and establish small space food systems in 150 households as a pilot including smaller versions of the chicken compost system. There are abundant resources in terms of organic material in the camps and marketplaces as well as large volumes of waste water. I calculated that we have minimum one million litres every day of water from ablution for prayers since we are working in a Muslim community. That is 30M litres per month which means there is ample supply of resources to have massive food forestry established that will provide abundant organic food, energy, soil and water security to refugees and the host community, but can be designed in a way that also buffers people from extreme climate and weather events.

In this short 7 minute video I give a brief tour of just one corner of the compound where I have designed a Permagarden with double dug beds and swales that buffer our offices from flood and extreme temperatures. This systems includes a Chicken Tractor on Steroids, in-situ compost and liquid bio-fertilisers made from wood vinegar and biochar to hydrolysates we are making from fresh goat hide as well as cow and goat manure. The chicken compost system has been welded by our team and will be the basis of a vocational re-skilling activity for welding and metalworks students. A larger version will be taken to six farm sites and 150 households will receive the smaller all-in-one welded unit which will be a deep bedding system for fewer than 10 chickens. This system allows us to have a healthier, cleaner compound by making productive use of compound waste, and will improve nutrition and food diversity for our staff..

There are many more interventions through the compound not shown here including directing of AC drip waste in to banana/papaya circles, establishment of a “passion avenue”, using nothing but binding wire across the walkway at the staff housing foe planting passion, grapes and pumpkins to create shade. We have also made a big mulch basin for sugar cane to absorb the daily laundry water which has completely curbed the daunting mosquito issue staff were having in the compound.

Here is a longer 30 minute video of the current compound:


Natalie Topa was working as an urban and regional planner, based in Washington, DC, primarily focused in Transit Oriented Development (TOD), sustainable urban revitalisation and post-disaster recovery planning when she moved to South Sudan to work on post-war town planning and reconstruction in 2005. She then became Sudan Country Director and then East Africa Regional Representative for a large agency. Natalie quickly began to recognise patterns that were common in many of the contexts throughout Africa, especially in drought- and flood-prone dry-land and arid contexts. All countries in the region seemed to suffer from increasingly extreme cycles of weather and climate events. Each year people faced food, water and energy insecurity despite decades of investment. Year after year, donors and NGOs didn’t seem to address root causes of issues that caused the greatest vulnerability that can also lead to instability and conflict. Ms. Topa was seeing strong links between extreme weather events and ecological degradation, including biodiversity loss and soil erosion which undermined livelihoods and community wellbeing. This came with the realisation that extreme events were spurred from ecological degradation as much if not more than climate change at large. Since then, Ms. Topa embarked on a learning journey to build her technical skills to address the challenges she witnessed in the region. Among the courses, Natalie did her first PDC at the Greening the Desert site in Jordan with Tom Kendall, followed by a PDC with Warren Brush at Quail Springs in California, Water Harvesting Earthworks courses with Brad Lancaster and Warren Brush in Arizona, with Geoff Lawton and Glenn Armstrong at Zaytuna farm as well as with David Spicer in Portugal. Natalie has traveled to India three times for courses with Dr. Vandana Shiva and is personally moved by the atrocities of ushering people in to seed slavery. Natalie has since dedicated her life to supporting efforts to heal and restore community agro-ecosystems as a basis of circular bio-economy at the bioregional level. Ms. Topa believes that building systems-based resilience for households, communities and regions can happen by applying design and regenerative thinking to all contexts, including the natural, built, social and economic environments, particularly in this transformative COVID-19 era. The video and article represent Natalie’s efforts to bring restorative thinking and practices to her agency’s work with displacement affected populations.


  1. I really enjoyed the video. I discovered permaculture a few years ago and I consider myself an amateur practitioner on my own very small property in a very different climate (northern Virginia). However, I started my career in a very similar UN compound in 1991-2, so this was very interesting. Making the most of every drop of water is going to be increasingly critical, regardless of location, and I think we should treat solar energy in the same fashion.

  2. I live in an area near Sedona, AZ where there is serious fire damaged hills and mountains that cause runoff created floods. I have viewed videos so we can make swells in eroded areas to contain the water. Seems that there must be more specific approaches done to deal with widespread fire damaged terrain situations. Like to add specific trees and plants that shore up the swells too. I consider how to make use of implements and manual labor in difficult terrain. Also wonder how to deal with water that flows half way across Arizona that make floods exceed like none seen ever before that come from burned out areas. Almost appears an overwhelming task for anything beyond a few acres.

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