The World Food Programme (WFP) has introduced electronic cash transfers in the Kakuma refugee camps. The cash transfers – dubbed bamba chakula, or “get your food” in Sheng, a Swahili-based slang – replaces part of the monthly food ration that the refugees receive each month.
“We are introducing electronic cash transfers in a refugee camp for the first time ever in Kenya,” said Julia Vasconcelos, the head of WFP’s office in Kakuma. “This is going to improve the lives of the refugees. It gives the mothers the power to decide what their family will eat, and now they can go to the market to buy the food of choice.”
Bamba chakula is a form of ‘restricted cash transfer’. The cash, which is sent through a mobile phone, can only be redeemed for food.
As the initiative starts, WFP is giving 100 Kenyan shillings (about US$1) per person every month, replacing 10 percent of the monthly share of the staple cereal, maize, wheat flour, or sorghum. A family of six, for instance, now receives 600 shillings (US$6) every month.
In the first round of distribution, which took place end of August and beginning of September, bamba chakula contributed about US$137,000 into the Kakuma market. Over time, WFP will reduce the amount of in-kind food assistance and increase the cash transfers, while allowing the market time to adjust to the new demand.
Choice for the refugees
“It is a great idea to go to the market and choose your preferred food. The market offers a big variety,” says 21-year-old Francis Miyar, who fled what was then Southern Sudan close to 10 years ago. He said he sees the new approach as revolutionary.
Getrude Mkandahiro wants to buy tomatoes, onions, and fish with the money received through the bamba chakula programme. Getrude lives in a part of Kakuma camp known as Hong Kong, with her six children. She has received 700 shillings (about US$7) and knows that she doesn’t have to spend it all at once. Getrude herself sells traditional vegetables in a section known as ‘Ethiopia market’, by far the most diverse food market in the Kakuma camps.
Giving more value
“Cash transfers using mobile phones allows us to offer the refugees more than we can give them with a truckload of food alone,” said Julia Vasconcelos. “In addition to more choice and control over what they eat, it can actually give them more value as well.”
Refugees often sell part of their food rations to meet other needs and unfortunately, receive very low prices for the food they sell.
“Sometimes the refugees sell a tin of maize (roughly two kilos) for as little as 20 shillings (about US$0.20),” said Mohammed Guyo, one of the traders in Kakuma camp. “A kilo of sorghum goes for as little as five shillings.” The market prices of maize and sorghum are much higher than this.
This is a loss for the refugees, and also for WFP and its donors. With bamba chakula, the refugees are receiving the full value of their entitlement, and no longer bearing the difference in the market rates between selling and buying.
Working with local and refugee traders
WFP is working with more than 300 traders, including women selling fish and vegetables off blankets or from wheelbarrows along the bustling streets of the Kakuma camps.
The traders were selected through a fair and open process, and come from a variety of backgrounds to attain a balanced representation from the refugees’ different ethnic communities and from the host community. WFP plans to include as many traders as possible, to spread the benefits and ensure that refugees have options about where to shop so that they can receive the best prices and service.
“I was taught how to charge for the services rendered using the mobile phone. I must have two phones as a trader so that I can assist those clients who don’t have a phone,” said Riziki Nadia, a 22-year-old refugee from Burundi, and one of the selected traders. Bamba chakula includes this requirement because some refugees, especially those newly arriving, do not own mobile phones.
“It is a smart move that will benefit us as refugees and as traders,” said Riziki, whose name in Swahili means “income.”
Mohammed Ishmail Abdallah, a refugee from Somalia, is enthusiastic. Mohammed is one of the shopkeepers in the bamba chakula programme. He’s just opened a new shop along the main street cutting through Kakuma 4 market.
“I know that bamba chakula will help raise my sales because the refugees will have more money to spend – and not all traders can serve them. I’m one among those selected,” he said.
“Bamba chakula will help me keep my money safe on the mobile phone. It is safer to transact on the phone compared to handling cash,” he added.
Francoise Musabyemaria and her husband Theophire Byizigiro are running a butchery and a small restaurant in Kakuma 3. They fled Rwanda in 1999 and have lived in Kakuma with their five children since.
“We supply meat in this area,” said Theophire. “Bamba chakula is a good idea. It will allow the refugees to buy what they cannot receive at the food distribution centre, and this will in turn profit the business people. We will have more clients.”
The bamba chakula programme is supported by the humanitarian aid department of the European Commission (ECHO) and the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID). The initiative will be introduced in the larger Dadaab refugee camps later in the year.
Story by Martin Karimi, WFP Kenya