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Urban Gardens in the Slums of Djibouti: Repurposing wastewater to combat malnutrition (Updated 12/22)

By utilizing renewable energy and culturally adapted gardening methods, we will introduce urban gardening as a way to combat malnutrition.

Photo of Andrew Gamble
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Djibouti is a small but strategically important port country in the Horn of Africa. However, Djibouti is unable to produce food to feed its population, and relies mostly on expensive imports. At the same time, climate change and conflict have led to migration to Djibouti City, which has resulted in massive slums on the outskirts of the city. Pastoralists, discouraged by the ever harsher climate, often migrate to the city, looking for better lives. Similarly, conflict in the neighbouring countries has contributed a consistent flow of refugees to Djibouti. Both groups often find unemployment and end up settling in the slums. In these slums, there is a lack of food, clean water and inadequate facilities, which has led to high rates of malnutrition. Our idea is to empower the residents of the slums need to be able to meet their basic needs. The idea is to utilize treated wastewater to irrigate home gardens with solar-powered drip irrigation. As many of the slums’ residents are traditionally pastoralists, a great deal of effort needs to be put into building the capacity of the residents to be good gardeners. Therefore, the project would be implemented in three phases – 1) Pilot and demonstrate effective gardening, 2) Train and empower residents, 3) Scale-up gardens to maximize the output of the sewage treatment plants. The idea makes better use of the available resources, while empowering communities to be more self-reliant.


The residents the Balbala slums will be the beneficiaries of this idea and the number of beneficiaries will be determined by the grey water output of the five adjacent water treatment plants. The people living here are mainly native Djiboutians, but many are refugees. Approximately, half of Djibouti City's population lives in these slums, which are located in the peri-urban outskirts of the capital city of Djibouti.


Climate change is one of the primary drivers creating slums. The harsh climate and erratic rainfall make forage harder to find, and the rural areas of Djibouti can no longer sustain its people and livestock population. As the harsh conditions continue to drive people to the city, there is an ongoing transformation from a nomadic pastoralist lifestyle to a more stationary lifestyle. However, the nomadic culture of the community is still very present in the slums, and it is often the case that entire bands (smallest social unit among the main ethnic groups of Djibouti) will suddenly move to another area. These bands usually consist of 1 to 6 families, with frequent coming and going. This idea plans to cultivate community gardens that a band could manage given their lifestyle. This means fast growing crops and little equipment to transport. Women will be empowered to be leaders of the community gardens and will play a key role in the planning and implementation of the project. The gardening idea is actually a by-product of local water treatment initiatives. The municipal government has developed small-scale water treatment systems that lie on the border between the slums and permanent housing on the outskirts of Djibouti City. These initiatives aimed to improve water sanitation in the city, and, when functional, the output of the plants is grey water that is clean enough to cultivate crops. Usually, this water is fed back into the hydrological system, but, by utilizing solar energy, we can connect the residents of the slums with the water.


  • Yes, for two or more years


  • I’ve worked in a sector related to my idea for at least two years


  • Yes


We are from the Horn of Africa Regional Environment Centre & Network, a multi-country network connecting civil society and academia throughout the Horn of Africa. The University of Djibouti, CERD, and Djibouti Nature are members of this Network and will be the lead implementers for this project.


Our organization has been doing similar projects for since its establishment in 2006. Throughout the Horn of Africa, we have initiatives on livelihood, food security, solar energy and waste management. For example, one of our flagship projects is a Clean Development Mechanism project that is transforming the 50 year-old landfill of Addis Ababa into a public park. One of the key components of this project was first identifying alternative livelihoods of the trash pickers working at this site, while considering the energy and environmental needs of the area. Additionally, projects on solar irrigation and permaculture are ongoing. This idea has been discussed, but this project will be the first time to bring our experience on agriculture, solar energy, wastewater management and livelihood development together in an urban setting. Additionally, this project is innovative for Djibouti. However, the unique and constant aspect of this project will be the holistic approach that we take.


Currently, the work in the Balbala slums focuses on microfinance schemes, sanitation, and building roads to connect the slums to basic services. Our idea is unique because of the holistic landscape approach it employs. Our organization focuses on environmental governance and management, but, to do this, one must consider the interactions of ecosystems, agro-ecosystems, people’s livelihoods and the institutions that hold these components together. The idea we have put forth considers each aspect of our targeted urban landscape. Finally, Djibouti itself is unique regarding development projects. Because of its strategic location, Djibouti is often overlooked by development organizations. We have a unique advantage in Djibouti because of our long established Network in Djibouti. This project will require a strong partnership between government, academia and civil society, and we have already identified a strong team that is willing to work on this project. This consortium, along with the strong social cohesion that exists within the slums, will give the project the backing it needs to succeed.


The largest unknown of this project is the scale at which we will be able to implement. A parallel wastewater treatment project will provide the limiting resource of this project, which is water. Five of these plants exist, but we do not know the total grey water output and functionality of these plants. The Office National de l’Eau et de l’Assainissement de Djibouti (ONEAD) is the lead on the wastewater treatment project, and we have notified them of our idea. To better answer this question we will work closely with ONEAD and begin the project with small pilot sites.


Djibouti is a small country with few resources. Over the past 10 years a prolonged drought has driven pastoralists to settle in the peri-urban slums at an alarming rate. Approximately, one fourth of the population of the country now lives in these slums. The rapid population increase of the slums and lack of resources within the country have been the primary drivers of the problem of malnutrition. Additionally, the problem itself, malnutrition, exacerbates itself, as people are less likely to be able to change their situation when they are hungry and physically tired. Finally, the slums are relatively new, and, therefore, the problems that exist there are not well known.


The feedback we received was primarily from community leaders who are the implementing partners for the project. They are enthusiastic about the idea and confident that we will be able to get buy-in from government and community leaders in the slums. However, their biggest concern regarding this idea is the risk of raising the expectations of the residents of Balbala slums. As leaders of the community and residents of the Balbala neighborhood, they strongly recommended against even bringing up the project to the community. However, we visited the slums and spoke to a few residents, informally. We approached the topic, indirectly, by talking to residents of Balbala slum about the adjacent small-scale sewage treatment plant. Residents complained about the plant, which was recently not working and leaking raw sewage directly into the slum. Also on this field visit, it was noted that due to the household setup and layout of the land in the slum, a traditional garden would be impractical. Therefore, we thought it would be better to use a vertical garden setup. Our partners commented that from the project onset community members will be very eager and energetic to start the project, so we need to be well prepared to implement when we first bring the project to the community. The endorsement of the community leadership will be our most important asset going into the project. The most important message from our partners was that we need to follow through with whatever we start.


This project aims, first, at helping residents in the Balbala slums meet basic needs of health and nutrition. Without these basic needs being met, it is difficult for people to change their situation. The goal of this project is to empower people to change their situation – to show them that by working together, they can improve their lives. We envision that by empowering these people, this project will change their perceptions, and end the blame game between the slum residents and government. The residents will prove that they do have the capacity to improve their lives and the status of Djibouti. At the same time they will see that they do not need to rely on assistance.

How does your idea connect to the broader system of the city where you plan to implement?

The informal and temporary structures that make up the slums have become part of the city but are not part of a formal system. With limited resources, Djibouti City administrators struggle to deliver basic services to the slums. In Balbala, for example, housing is mixed – in one area you will find permanent structures with basic services. However, across the road it is not uncommon to find slums with no services. Our idea aims to create better cohesion between these two realities. The inability to provide basic services has resulted in a waste problem. The ONEAD initiated a project in 2014 to address the problem of liquid waste by installing five treatment plants in Balbala. The treatment systems are only connected to housing with proper plumbing, but they benefit the slums by preventing liquid waste from spilling directly into the slum. These waste treatment plants give us an obvious entry point for our pilot gardens.

Attachments (1)

Experience Map_Prototype.pdf

Our experience map, prototype selection and feedback is all in this document.

Inspired by (1)

Backyard Bioponics


Join the conversation:

Photo of Chioma Ume

Hi Andrew!
Below is some feedback from our experts. We look forward to reading your responses!

May you please tell us more about what you have done to determine what the priorities of your users are , or have been able to contribute to the design of your idea? 

Slums are often crowded places. Where is the land for this garden going to come from? Who owns land? How can it be purchased or leased for a community rather than an individual? Also, you need to grow an awful lot of food to have an impact on malnutrition, and it's not clear that this project is the right scale for those ends - is that one of your objectives?

Photo of Andrew Gamble

Thanks, Chioma, for your thoughtful feedback! I have consulted with our partners, and I've written a detailed response to your concerns below. 

With regards to determining the priorities of our users, we identified the priorities of our users by answering a few key questions and discussion points with the consortium that we have formed between the Association of Djibouti Nature (ADN), CERD and the University of Djibouti. The representatives from ADN, CERD and the University of Djibouti are the backbone of the Djibouti Chapter of the Horn of Africa Regional Network  (HoA-REN) as founding members of HoA-REC&N and are leaders of the community. Some live in the Balbala neighborhood and ADN has experience working in the Balbala slums, so they are in a good position to identify needs. Malnutrition due to high food prices and low production has been an ongoing problem that the Djibouti Chapter Network members have been trying to address for a long time. Necessities, including clean water, food and shelter are severely lacking in the Djibouti slums, and these basic needs must be met for the community to develop.

Community gardens are a way to combat high prices from imported food, and we decided on this approach after considering other conditions of the slums.

We identified other initiatives ongoing in the slums and were able to identify microfinance, water sanitation and road building. So, there was still room for our gardening idea was still viable. Secondly, we identified our areas of expertise within our consortium that could be applicable, which included, wastewater, solar energy, agriculture, community outreach, and networking, and, with this, we were comfortable that we had the expertise to do this type of project. Thirdly, we tried to identify where our idea fit into the bigger picture of the slums, and that is how we identified partnering with the ONEAD water sanitation project.

Finally, when we conducted the experience mapping exercise, we realized the importance of building trust with the community. There will be a lot of excitement and high expectations with any project that is brought to the community. It is critical to manage those expectations and follow through with our idea.

With regards to land issues - land will be an issue in the Djiboutian slums. However, the slums are relatively spread out, and most community groups will be able to devote a small plot of land to gardening. Even better, community groups will likely be willing to pool their land, as they are usually organized within family groups of 30 to 50 individuals. So obtaining a 4x4 m plot of land, which can sustain at least one third of a clan’s nutritional needs, is possible. The bigger issue will be the hummocky, rocky terrain, which has prompted our team to start researching more about vertical gardening systems. A vertical garden will allow our gardens to use space more efficiently.

Land ownership in Djibouti is based off the French Land Ownership model, whereas the government owns the land and anyone can buy a land ownership title. Most of the community groups in Balbala do not own the land where they live, and, in that case, it belongs to the state. For the purpose of development projects, the Djiboutian government will almost always give the land for free for the implementing organization. Therefore, obtaining land will be relatively simple, but the larger question will be regarding what will happen to the land after the project finishes. In that case, it would be beneficial to transfer the ownership of the land to the end-users, so they can further develop their gardens. However, given the transient nature of the communities, a cooperative of garden land owners may be appropriate.

Regarding the scale of the project and having an impact on malnutrition - our objective is to combat malnutrition, and, while scale is one of our unknowns, we plan to start with pilot gardens and determine the capacity of our water resources. Home and community gardens have been shown as an effective way to combat malnutrition at a household level. A 4 m x 1 m plot of land can provide an average family with about one-third of their nutritional needs. With food prices being exorbitantly high in Djibouti, this additional food can be a great supplement for what residents are already eating. Additionally, by making the gardens vertical we will quickly multiply the space available, and we will still need to develop strategies on how to maximize land use. Water will more likely be our limiting factor. In general, the communties in the slums are organized in family groups that are made up of 30 to 50 individuals. Within these groups, it could be possible to utilize a large plot of land to make a community garden, while splitting up labor and garden yield.

Photo of Chioma Ume

Thanks Andrew! It will be exciting to see how else your idea evolves based on the reality of the communities you're working with. In the meantime, have a happy holiday!

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