Can you really rear fish sustainably in the desert?

This young group of refugees in Kenya certainly believe so and aims to solve malnutrition by farming fish.

Tilapia fish reared and harvested by an innovative group of refugees known as Vijana Twaweza. Photo: WFP/Yannick Ruhimbasa

— “youth we can”. A very appropriate name for a small group of determined young people in Kakuma refugee camp, northern Kenya, who are focused on combatting malnutrition and fighting hunger by rearing fish using an agricultural ecosystem intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient.

The group currently has thirty-nine members from different countries — South Sudan, DR Congo and Burundi. Luundo Lukambo, 26, is the group’s founder and originates from DR Congo. He has been living as a refugee, with his mother and siblings, since 2016.

“When I arrived at the camp with my family, we were eight in number, we found that people were just receiving food from the World Food Programme at the end of the month and the diet hardly changed,” said Luundo. “The (women selling vegetables) would go outside the camp and would cover a lot of miles to get fish. Most times, the fish would reach the camp in bad condition, with some already having decayed on the way.”

Luundo decided that the answer to this problem was to start rearing fish in the camp. Not an easy task given the harsh heat and lack of space, but he was undeterred. His first pond was only 2m by 1m with eight tilapia fish, and as the project grew, he moved it to a communal space and established a youth group to get others involved.

Some of the 39 members of the Vijana Twaweza group pose for a picture (L) and Luundo and his brother Glory harvest fish from the pond (R). Photo: WFP/Yannick Ruhimbasa

Having overcome the challenge of space to breed the fish, the group had to figure out how to get enough food to feed the fish properly. Luundo approached a local religious aid group for support as he had heard they were providing crickets to chicken farmers.

“They also offered us a business opportunity where they give us crickets, and we sell the cricket eggs back to them. This became a source of income and we directed those funds to the building of the fishpond structures. The training I received also emphasized the nutritional benefits of consuming crickets,” said Luundo.

Luundo (Far L) and his brother Glory check on the progress of their crickets and their eggs and a mature cricket (R). Photo; WFP/Yannick Ruhimbasa

Eating crickets directly is not for the faint-hearted, but they have a high nutritional value and can be an incredible source of protein, calcium and iron. To encourage people to consume them, the group recognized they needed to incorporate the crickets into a more common food item.

“We have a baker in the camp who makes fresh bread, so we decided to supply crickets to him. He now makes cricket powder which he then incorporates into the bread,” said Luundo. “We are trying to promote the consumption of cricket incorporated in snacks such as (a type of doughnut,” he added.

The silver bullet — Permaculture

The Vijana Twaweza group have implemented an agricultural ecosystem that sustains itself without negative effects on the environment. Photo: WFP/Yannick Ruhimbasa

Continued learning and improvement of their system has been the group’s main mission. Having recognized the need to be more sustainable, they implemented a permaculture system — an agricultural ecosystem that sustains itself and does not have any negative effects on the environment or consumers.

“We feed the crickets to the fish and then we use the fish water from the ponds as a good liquid manure to water crops (kales). Some of these crops are then fed to the crickets. Eventually, all the three are processed for human consumption,” explained Luundo proudly as he continues to explain how this new system allowed them to use a small space to produce more and maximise the limited water available in the camp.

A helping hand to expand and grow

In April 2021, applied tothe first NextGen East African Innovators Programme, launched by the World Food Programme (WFP) in partnership with the Technical University of Denmark’s DTU Skylab FoodLab, the Hult Prize Foundation and the Ministry of Danish Affairs.

Despite tough competition from over 150 other groups, was one of four student teams from across East Africa who won the competition seeking innovative solutions to address food-related challenges.

“We are extremely grateful to WFP and DTU. Through the NextGen Innovators Programme, we got the opportunity to polish our business model. We studied the needs of the refugees living in Kakuma Refugee Camp which helped us figure out better ways to address them. With the knowledge acquired, we look forward to producing more food — especially fish — in the arid Kakuma Refugee Camp and other places,” explained Lukambo after the win.

WFP recognizes the importance of empowering local innovation ecosystems with the tools to develop grassroots solutions. Of particular focus is nurturing ideas from the youth, who just like the members of have proved, often have the solutions to tackle hunger on the continent but just need support to refine and expand them. WFP’s Innovation Hub for Eastern Africa, launched in 2020, works with partners to support innovations for transformational change in East African food systems.

As they prepare for experts from DTU to visit them in a few month’s time, the team from have already started to expand their programme by teaching young girls about home gardening and permaculture principles, so that they can practice it in their own homes.