Exploring sustainable livelihoods and farming practices in Malawi refugee camps

Camp resident performing water quality testing in Dzaleka refugee camp

Ongoing crises and conflict have led to 18 million people - around 26% of the world’s refugee population- to live in refugee camps across Sub-Saharan Africa. These areas have become new urban ecologies with significant political, economic, and environmental vulnerabilities. The largest refugee camp in Malawi is Dzaleka with over 42,000 residents.

A team of researchers from the University of Glasgow led by Dr Lazaros Karaliotas has collaborated with researchers from the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR), Malawi and the non-governmental organisation, CARD (Church Aid and Relief Development) to analyse the farming practices and the modes of organising everyday life within Dzaleka and work with residents of the camp to support sustainable everyday livelihoods.

Co-designing solutions

In Dzaleka, camp residents, with the support of humanitarian place making interventions, have developed small-scale farming and gardening practices to cover some of their everyday needs. A £74K SFC Global Challenges Research Fund grant enabled the research team to investigate the economic, social, and ecological challenges faced by displaced people within the camp and how communities can build sustainable livelihoods in vulnerable conditions.

The funding enabled Dr Karaliotas and his colleagues to work with CARD, local university staff and resident gardeners, farmers and market traders as well as community leaders to map out past, present environmental challenges and future sustainable living spaces.

Dr Karaliotas explains, “We encouraged a ‘citizen science’ approach to the research and worked closely with CARD to train ten camp residents to collect and analyse environmental data such as soil, air and water quality throughout the camp to understand and analyse how these factors impact on farming and everyday activities such as washing and cooking in refugee communities. The residents had a key role in shaping the project.”

The project’s methodology was co-designed with CARD and piloted in Malawi in November 2019. The residents of the camp were also involved with co-designing the research sites and questions.

The research team conducted walking interviews and focus groups to explore how camp residents’ experiences and farming strategies can create a sense of belonging to the land they live on. The residents were able to raise concerns around living conditions in the camp and three research videos were co-produced with camp residents to highlight such issues.

Working together

The research team are building a collaborative and responsive consortium to promote the welfare of camp residents and the sustainability of the environments which they inhabit, bringing together expertise to address and respond to problems identified by local communities.

The team planned, with Lilongwe University, a regional symposium on ‘Humanitarian Place Making in Refugee Camps’ to bring together key stakeholders of the refugee camps including refugee representatives, government officials and camp managers to discuss humanitarian place making interventions, which is the approach to planning, designing and managing public spaces, capitalising on a local community’s assets. The Symposium was due to take place in May 2020 but was cancelled due to the pandemic.

However, a smaller, focused local symposium was arranged during the research team’s visit to Malawi, which has facilitated research capacity building through the creation of strong links with refugee representatives, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees staff and non-governmental organisations practitioners. The camp residents who took part in the initial research presented their findings and the concerns about soil and water quality to make plans to improve living conditions in the camp. Three posters summarizing key findings, response strategies and ‘Guidelines for best practice’ will be disseminated in the camp through CARD to raise awareness in the camp communities.

Future Steps

The project’s participatory design has placed refugee communities at the heart of research as co-producers of knowledge. It has created a strong network of collaborators who are keen to continue to work together to support the residents of the fast-growing Dzaleka refugee camp.

The research team have a successful follow-on SFC Global Challenge Research Fund bid (Understanding Refugee Re-location in Malawi in the context of Covid-19) in collaboration with Malawi partners to identify refugee concerns. This new research project will lead to a large-scale GCRF funding bid on humanitarian place making with the network of collaborators.

In the long-term, the research team will continue to seek to upscale and diversify the research through interdisciplinary partnerships.

Key Facts:

  • 42,000 people live in the Dzaleka refugee camp in Malawi
  • A £74K SFC Global Challenges Research Fund grant enabled Dr Karaliotas and his research team to investigate the economic, social, and ecological challenges faced by displaced people within the camp.
  • The project placed refugee communities at the heart of research as co-producers of knowledge. Camp residents were given training to collect and analyse environmental data throughout the camp to understand and analyse how these factors impact on farming and everyday activities.
  • A strong network of collaborators has been created to support the residents of the refugee camp.

First published: 24 May 2021