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A ‘Water Wall’ Aims to Solve Food Waste in Kenyan Refugee Camp

In the first of our interviews with the finalists in a design contest to make marketplaces for refugees, we spoke to architects Ambra Chiaradia and Diana Paoluzzi about their proposal for a cooling system to keep food fresh in Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp.

Written by Kim Bode Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Sudanese refugees in kenya
Children, mostly from South Sudan, gather outside homes in Kakuma 1, one of the four camps in Kakuma, May 9, 2016. Dominic Nahr/dpa

Keeping food fresh in the dry and hot climate of Kenya’s Turkana county is a major challenge for refugees living in the Kakuma camp.

Two Italian architects have come up with a proposal to answer this problem. They have designed a “Water Wall,” which collects water during the rainy season and then uses evaporative cooling to keep fresh food on its shelves at about 10C-15C (50F-60F).

Water Wall is one of three finalists in the Place and Displacement competition hosted by social innovation lab Ideation Worldwide. The San Francisco-based organization asked students and young professionals in the fields of architecture and public administration to design a marketplace for refugees living in Jordan’s Zaatari camp, Kenya’s Kakuma camp, and Berlin, Germany. The interdisciplinary teams were challenged to come up with a three- to five-year plan for a project that wouldn’t cost more than $100,000 to build and operate.

The proposals of the three finalists, which are still in design stage, will be presented at the “Ideas in Action: Reform Refugee Response” summit on April 22 hosted by Ideation Worldwide and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Ambra Chiaradia and Diana Paoluzzi, who designed the Water Wall, told Refugees Deeply what they’ve learned throughout the design process and where they see opportunities for it to scale.

Refugees Deeply: How did you get the idea for your innovation and what problem does it set out to solve?

In places like Kakuma camp, markets play a critical role in meeting refugees’ food needs not covered by humanitarian agencies. But food waste is a problem in developing countries. Often, markets with fresh food don’t function properly and do not bring optimal benefits to the population.

We had the chance to study this problem and some possible solutions in a post-master’s program in Bologna. In particular, we looked at the technology of evaporative cooling, which is used to keep food fresh.

This is how we started to develop the idea of the Water Wall. We had the idea to combine a technical solution with an architectonic approach to address the problem of food waste and post-harvest structures in challenging environments. We developed a passive technique using zero-net energy, perfect for the hot-dry climate of the Turkana region. With that, we promote investment in low-carbon technologies, which is essential to reduce carbon emissions and prevent climate change.

6214-2Refugees Deeply: What did you learn about the importance of the marketplace to refugees during the course of your research?

Food is wasted all along the supply chain, from farm to fork. In developing countries, food is especially wasted due to a lack of post-harvest technologies. That’s unfortunate for both suppliers and consumers. From a producer’s point of view, a lot of their goods are wasted after harvest – they can’t even reach the market or they are sold at a very low price because they would deteriorate otherwise. For many refugees, that means that fresh food can’t even reach them, as there are no structures where fruits and vegetables can be stored, for example. In an efficient market – which our Water Wall will help to establish – food production and demand meet in the middle.

The marketplace with the Water Wall will be managed by the refugees themselves, which will also help to strengthen their self-determination. By processing and selling fresh food, the refugees will have the opportunity to improve their entrepreneurial skills, and the new food-based economy will be a solid base for the creation of new jobs and services inside the camp.

Refugees Deeply: Have you learned anything while working on this project that really surprised you?

Refugee camps never ceased to surprise us. They’re almost like cities – huge, with people living there for years. But unfortunately they are very isolated from the rest of the host country. We were also very surprised by the large number of female-headed families. Commercial relations between the cooperative of refugees and the small farmers of Kenya, from whom the refugees could buy the fresh food, is fundamental.

Refugees Deeply: How can the discipline of architecture be harnessed to better protect the autonomy and creativity of refugees?

A better designed space can bring dignity to people. Especially at this historic moment in time, architecture is teaching us that – even if it’s just with basic and low-cost materials – we can use our creativity to design a quality space. That is something really important in such harsh living conditions. Moreover, if refugees get involved in the process of construction, they will feel that they are building their future, while also learning new knowledge and skills that they can share with others.

Refugees Deeply: What are your next steps to transform design into practice?

We would like find an association or private investors that believe in our project and would like to invest in it. Then we will have to construct a prototype of our proposed model and test it. This is a crucial step. If the technology we came up with actually works, then further development and practical applications of our water wall could be very broad.

Refugees Deeply: What do you expect to be the main challenges and risks to the implementation of the project?

The biggest challenges and risks are to confirm that the technology works and it can cool the air by several degrees, as we estimate. Another hurdle is to find out if the benefits are higher than the costs. We calculated that the materials for a Water Wall module will cost approximately $1,300. But beyond that, implementing our technology in the society in that region of Kenya could be difficult; the challenge is to convince all of the stakeholders (refugees, farmers, local government, etc.) of our plan so that the entire network can work.

Refugees Deeply: Do you see opportunities to scale the initiative?

We plan to develop structures for growth, but starting with a basic model that works independently. This way, the market can be expanded according to the demand and to the number of people joining the cooperative.

For Kakuma camp, the new food hub is designed to store 180 tons of food in cold storage. This can be used for cooling food for around 40,000 people. Considering the camp has a population of 160,000, we will need more hubs in other sectors of the camp. The first hub will be pilot project for the rest of the camp.

The basic cooling component could also be installed remotely: for example, close to a small field owned by a single family. This could foster investment in the difficult agriculture in the region, and help it move towards a more self-sufficient economy. We envision a network of cooling hubs all over Kenya, connecting the most vulnerable groups on both the production and consumption side. Our innovation could then also be applied in other environments around the world. Food insecurity and food waste are still a huge problem in many countries.

This interview was conducted by email and Chiaradia and Paoluzzi responded jointly. Their answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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