Somalia | Food Aid Becomes Food Trade

The soup goes to the cattle, the rice to the traders

By Muno Gedi
It may be bad for the economy, but it helps to pay the doctor’s bill, feed the cows and rebuild the farm in the village: selling food parcels, donated as aid to refugees, is a blooming business in Somalia. “I can’t vegetate here as a beggar. I need to invest in my farm. So I sell this packet of rice.”

Sumaya Abdi Axmed (24) and her two children are standing outside the food centre in Mogadishu’s Hamar Jajab district with a 10 kg rice parcel.  Axmed is busy selling it to one of the many traders that frequent the place, looking for cheap merchandise. Axmed has no hesitation selling the rice, as long as she gets money for this week’s vegetables and sugar, and for sending the remainder home to the farm. “We left because of the drought that hit us in 2011, but we can’t stay here forever. We have to start again.”

Mother of four Halimo Mahmud Ahmed (28), concurs. “What is worse, if we don’t sell the food parcels that we get here at the food centre, they might get stolen on the way to our shelters or even inside the camp. We are regularly attacked by robbers. They dress in Somali military or police uniforms, assault us on the road, or come to our camps and take our stuff. We have no guards to protect us.” And family father Nurani Hassan Shiiqow (60), also here selling the food that was given to him, says he needs money to pay the camp staff. “The bosses in our camp demand money from us as soon as they see that we have received food aid. If we don’t pay them, they make our life unbearable. “

Dealing with the traders

All three are at pains to explain that, to have a life at all, one needs money, not just feeding. Shiiqow: “I have eight children. When one gets sick, I can’t pay the doctor with rice.  I cover all my family’s needs with money I get in exchange for the food aid.” Halimo Ahmed describes how she and her fellow camp inhabitants make deals with traders. “It is easy, because they follow us around. They are here at the food centres, but also inside the camps. We give them the food we receive, and in turn they will be there when we need money for something. When we receive new food parcels, we repay the debt.”

The small traders who buy the food aid from the people who live in the camps are more than happy with the arrangement. Ahmed Sheikh Mohamed has made a ‘nice profit’ from buying food aid, and selling it on at local markets, for years now. “The refugees don’t work, so they need money,” he says. “So they enter the secured food centres with their special cards of ‘Internally Displaced People’, get the parcels and sell them to us. There is no other way for them, because even if they would not want to sell them, how are they going to transport the parcels back to their camps? They don’t have money for a vehicle.”

His face lights up when asked how good the business is. “Very, very good! I could do business here at the food centre every day! It is a pity that they only get the food aid twice or three times a week,” he says, adding that he doesn’t see any negative side to the practice. “We buy this food cheap, and therefore we sell it cheap at the market, which benefits the customer. It benefits the food aid recipient, and it benefits me as a trader. Triple benefit!”

Selling at Bakara market

But whilst trader Mohamed, in his words, is ‘delighted’ with the way business is booming for the food aid traders, other, more formal, trading companies are not that happy. At Mogadishu’s Bakara market, with its many stalls now flooded with cheap food from the camps, Abdulaho Hogsade complains from within his Dayah Company grocery outlet. “This is unfair competition. It is bringing down Somali business. We as established food merchants import food that is safe to eat and not expired or rotten. We pay for that quality. So we can’t sell as cheaply to the customer as these people who just get the parcels from the camps. This leftover food from the camps is also a health risk, but people buy it because it is so cheap.”

The irony of this competition between food aid traders and formal food importers is that both benefit from the devastation of Somalia. Most internally displaced people in the camps are themselves farmers, who used to grow and sell their own food before civil war and droughts hit. The vast majority’s only wish is to go back to their farms and grow crops, for them to sell at Bakara market. In the meantime, many have developed cordial relations with the pastoralists who farm cattle on the outskirts of Mogadishu and who are willing customers for the cooked food that is dished out to the refugees.

“When we cook food, it often goes to the cattle,” says Salad Mohamed Gerre, a staff member of a cooked food centre in Mogadishu’s Howlwadaag district. “I think in ninety percent of cases this happens. The idea behind giving people cooked food to eat is that then the food cannot be sold –people have to eat it here. But they find a way to sell it anyway. It is good food for cattle.” Gerre means that last bit literally, in the sense that, he explains, it is often not fit to eat for humans. “The centre staff or the aid organisations don’t care how this food is cooked. It is slop, it’s not cleaned well, with hard bits in it. The people in charge can see that nobody wants to eat it, but they don’t care.” Gerre would love to help cook proper food for people. “Rice with meat, pasta with vegetables, that would be much better.”

Stealing and lashing

But even with good food, the need for refugees to actually obtain money remains. Particularly when other non-food items in the camp, such as toilets, disappear as soon as they are installed.  At Qoryoley camp in the Waberi district of Mogadishu, refugees who don’t want to be named point at broken toilet fixtures and explain that camp leaders took them away as soon as they were installed. “To sell at the black market and to start pleas with aid donors for new toilets.” A lack of monitoring systems means that anything that is donated to those in charge of refugee affairs gets creamed off by them, first, before the 10 kg rice parcel or the ‘unclean’ stew reaches the intended beneficiaries.

“Life at the camps is very hard. I feel sorry for those people,” says Sa’id Abdi Mohamed, who lives close to one of the food centres in town. “They live in small, hot tents with their families. They face many health problems and are often beaten by the guards if they carry out any activity at all. They are only allowed to queue. Anybody interrupts the queue, they get lashed.”

Sumaya Axmed and Halimo Ahmed may be labelled ‘corrupt’ because they sell the food they get instead of cooking it for themselves, as is the rule. But the only other option is to ‘vegetate as beggars’ which is, most Somali’s concur, not a life at all.  Even food aid expert Abdi Jama’ Omar Hussein, who is a monitoring official for Action Contre la Faim in Mogadishu, believes that only a financial stipend could get the internally displaced people to build up their own lives again. “In order to live, one needs to pay for one’s housing, school for the children, medical needs, transport, and other bills. Refugees may live in tents but otherwise have the same needs.” Hussein believes that if people have some money to start out with, they can eventually settle and farm or work again. “We give a stipend of USD$ 120 to every family once a month. We see that they start to get on their feet, doing business, investing in their farms. In this way, the number of people who need help will decrease.”

Though Sumaya Axmed and Halimo Ahmed were little girls when civil war first broke out in Somalia in 1991, they remember going to school, living on a flourishing farm and knowing active business people in their villages. Axmed: “I want to go back to my place, Baydhabo in Bay region, and produce crops and be content. I cannot do that now because there is still violence in that area.  There is an extra risk affecting those who return from outside. I have not been there for two years. In order to prepare for my return, I will need to save up money. So that is what I do.”

No comment from the UNHCR

ZAM Chronicle attempted to obtain a statement on this issue from the United Nations High Commissariat for Refugees (UNHCR). Over a period of one week, two emails were sent to the UNHCR UNHCR head office in Switzerland and one to the UNHCR office in Somalia. Three phone calls to the UNHCR’s media division in Geneva, Switzerland went unanswered and voice messages left were not returned.  An approach was then made to former UNHCR High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers, who refused to comment.

A few days after going online, ZAM Chronicle was contacted by UNHCR representatives who responded that, -although the UNHCR handbook for activities concerning refugees contains numerous rules regarding the well-being and health of displaced people in camps-, the UNHCR 'does not have a mandate regarding food.'

Muno Mohamed Gedi (19) is Star FM’s producer in Mogadishu, Somalia and a member of the ZAM Newsroom Collective.