Saharawi: the people of the desert

In accordance with the principles of international solidarity, VSF Italia has been cooperating with the Saharawi people for more than twenty years, working side by side to fight poverty, improve animal health and contribute to food security and sovereignty.

The Hammada Desert, located in the heart of the Algerian Sahara, is one of the most inhospitable places on Earth: extreme weather conditions and lack of drinking water make life there extremely difficult. Those who have been there, like many of us at VSF Italia, know the resilience of the Saharawi people.

Here, for more than forty years, these people have been living as refugees waiting for a referendum on self-determination, while Western Sahara, their place of origin, remains under occupation by Morocco, which invaded it in 1974. As a matter of fact, Western Sahara is divided longitudinally in two: the coastal zone is occupied by Morocco, while the interior desert is inhabited by the Saharawi who took possession of it during a war that lasted from 1974 until 1991. The name of the liberated territories derives from this conflict.

One of the main activities carried out by the people in exile are sheep and goat farming, practiced in the refugee camp settlements, and dromedary farming, practiced in a semi-nomadic way in the Liberated Territories of Western Sahara. The conditions in which the animals live make non-commercial farming unprofitable: sheep and goats are fed mainly on kitchen waste and are given cardboard to make up for the lack of fiber. Moreover, as they can move freely around tent cities, they often ingest plastic and other waste, leading to health problems.

In 1996 the first initiative for an animal health project in the tent cities was starting to develop and it was promoted by VSF Italia, which at that stage launched a technical collaboration with the NGO Movimento Africa70 of Monza that has lasted until today. That first project has been followed by many others, some of which are currently being implemented.

The overall goal of these interventions has been to improve the life quality of the Saharawi population from a nutritional point of view and to promote local food production in quantity and quality. In fact, the food needs of the refugees depend on the World Food Program, which distributes a food basket consisting of nonperishable products (cereals, legumes, sugar, oil). This basket, designed to cope with emergency situations, does not include fresh produce [1].

Non-commercial farming makes up for this shortage with the triple function of producing quality fresh food, keeping the population active and helping keep them connected to their pastoral tradition, which in exile would risk being lost.

Traditional tents and houses built with sun-dried mud, Saharawi refugee camps (photo by Piero Casale)

From our very first project, a close collaboration arose with the local authorities and with the local veterinary department (part of the Ministry of Public Health of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic proclaimed from the exile). The veterinary department has been and still is our privileged active counterpart in all the projects we have implemented. Later on, after realizing that most health problems and low productivity of livestock stem from food deficiencies and imbalances, we also began to cooperate with the Ministry of Economic Development (the on-site reference institution for Agriculture) and the Ministry of Cooperation. These established partnerships ensured that these projects were carried out even during the pandemic, when out-of-country staff could not be present on site.

We currently have an important project co-financed by the Tuscany Region called “Healthy Eating” underway. The project, which started in May 2020 (at the height of the pandemic), is being carried out thanks to constant remote coordination and active participation of local veterinary staff [2] despite the many difficulties resulting from border closures.

What has been done since 1996? A lot.

The Department of Veterinary Medicine, which was an administrative structure lacking in resources and personnel twenty years ago, has been strengthened in terms of infrastructure, material equipment and continuing learning. In Saharawi society, as in many predominantly pastoral societies, the figure of the Veterinary Doctor is often considered useless: breeders believe that they know the problems of their animals and can solve them themselves.

However, the traditional knowledge of shepherds is linked to a breeding and environment context that has changed radically with the exile, creating new problems in the livestock that were previously unknown and that the breeders themselves had never seen in the past and therefore were not able to solve. Faced with this new situation, the Department of Veterinary Medicine gained more and more importance and authority until it became an autonomous directorate within the Ministry of Health. Over the years, the number of staff has increased to meet the growing demands for intervention by the population. This represents a shift in attitude and a growing confidence in the role of veterinarians.

Practical training for Saharawi veterinary staff (photo by Davide Rossi)

Operators of the veterinary services have increased from 12 in the year 2000 to 25 today. Among these, six are veterinarians, 12 are veterinary technicians, six are veterinary assistants and one is a laboratory technician. Thanks to our project, a veterinary school has been built and activated to train veterinary assistants, people with a lower professional profile than technicians but still necessary to cover the needs of intervention in the area with complementary tasks to technicians and doctors.

The Department of Veterinary Medicine can rely on a diagnostic laboratory – recently equipped with an autoclave for the activation of a poultry salmonellosis control system – and, since 2007, a veterinary pharmacy. The latter has made it possible not only to ensure the availability of safe medicines for breeders, which is by no means a matter of course in Africa, but also to guarantee the Veterinary Directorate a continuous source of income that allows it to operate.

In accordance with the principles followed by VSF Italia, the interventions carried out over the years have always sought to promote the local economy, social development and self-sufficiency, helping the Saharawi population to become increasingly independent of humanitarian aid over time.

Of particular importance are the educational activities aimed at breeders and the local population on the correct management of animals and their products in order to increase the profitability of their livestock farming, health education to prevent zoonoses, focusing on good hygiene practices, nutritional education to combat malnutrition. By working in synergy and actively involving the local population in these activities, we want to restore their dignity and autonomy in a context of marginalization and poverty.

To increase the quantity and variety of food available to each individual family, small family chicken and rabbit farms were established, complemented by the training of women and breeders in good management practices of these animals. Pursuing a sustainable and low environmental impact livestock farming system, we sought to improve the health and productivity of livestock using traditional prevention systems and local medicinal plants – such as Pergularia tomentosa, an effective natural pesticide – and the awareness of local authorities about the importance of their use. These notions, in addition to those concerning the main livestock diseases, were collected in a dossier and distributed to breeders.

Supporting pastoralism means recognizing the economic and social role of farmers, which in a particular context such as tent cities, is of vital importance.

Since 2017, thanks to funding from the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation (AICS) with the project “Food and Work: self-producing with dignity” [3], a system of continuous technical assistance has been activated for a battery-powered laying flock whose function is to produce eggs for distribution to refugees. The farm was built years ago with funds from international cooperation and can accommodate up to 68,000 laying hens and has recently been equipped with a sector for breeding broilers with a combined slaughter plant.

The facility, which is managed by the Ministry of Economic Development, is staffed by a local veterinarian who is specially trained for this role and has the opportunity to contact an expert in avian pathology in Italy, Dr. Luigi Montella, when necessary.

The constant production of eggs has allowed the population to have a very important food from a nutritional point of view. The diet of people living in refugee camps is, as mentioned above, unbalanced in favor of a carbohydrate consumption at the expense of proteins and vitamins.

The entire team of veterinary staff with Dr. Sara di Lello, VSF Italia’s project manager in the Saharawi refugee camps (photo by Sara di Lello)
Dr. Baba-Ahmed Mohamed Iadih Efdeid, segretario generale del Ministero dello Sviluppo Economico Sahrawi, mentre misura l’altezza delle piante di Moringa Oleifera destinate all’alimentazione delle famiglie Sahrawi (foto di Sara di Lello)
Dr. Baba-Ahmed Mohamed Iadih Efdeid, Secretary General of the Saharawi Ministry of Economic Development, measuring the height of Moringa Oleifera plants intended to feed Saharawi families (photo by Sara di Lello)

In this regard, we cannot fail to mention Moringa oleifera. This plant native to India is resistant to drought and can grow easily even in the desert. For this reason, it has been the subject of studies on its nutritional capacity for both humans and livestock.

Moringa leaves contain high levels of protein, vitamins, iron and calcium. In a place like the desert, where there is little wild vegetation and usable water for irrigation, a plant like Moringa is very important for a population suffering from severe malnutrition.

A study carried out in collaboration with the University of Milan [3] has shown how daily consumption of Moringa oleifera can help control blood sugar in people suffering from type 2 diabetes, a condition that is unfortunately very common in tent cities. Because of the great capabilities recognized in this plant, it has been decided to promote its cultivation at family level and its consumption in the population’s diet. Moringa has also proven to be an excellent food for livestock – which, let us remember, has almost no vegetation as it is giving good results in both animal growth and productivity.

As part of the aforementioned project “Food and Work: Respectable self-production” [4], which aims to enrich and diversify the refugees’ diet, we also carried out a supply chain study on camel milk, a locally available food of high nutritional quality.

Saharawi women have always played a major role in the projects promoted by VSF Italia and Africa70: in 2017, 20 women’s production groups were created to prepare and sell couscous and baked goods. We started by renovating the kitchens where they would work, then we bought them the materials they needed for production. At the same time, regular training cycles were held on business management, marketing, food processing hygiene and baking.

The results were excellent: 90% of the activated groups are operational and sell their products on the market, providing not only an economic entry to families, but value and dignity to the individual women who are part of it.

As with other vulnerable populations, the pandemic has had a devastating impact on the Saharawi population. In addition to slowing down the work of all the NGOs operating in the territory, the food basket distributed mainly by the World Food Program has been further reduced [1].

Fortunately, thanks to the Algerian government, which donated the first doses of vaccine, it was possible to launch a free vaccination campaign for the population, as was the case in the West.

To date, normal life has returned, albeit slow, and VSF missions have finally resumed. Last fall, Sara di Lello, project manager for VSF Italia and Africa70 since 1996, was accompanied on a mission to the Saharawi fields by three VSF experts [2] as part of the “Healthy Eating” project.

Dr. Saleh Mohamed Lamin Saleh, Director of Sahrawi Veterinary Services; Dr. Ilda Idrizi; Dr. Sidumu Jatri, Laboratory Manager; Dr. Alda Giorgio; Dr. Piero Casale, VSF Italia President

In this climate of uncertainty and without the presence of expatriate staff on site, the veterinary management has nevertheless continued with its activities. As VSF, we have tried in every way to cope with the remoteness and to continue with our decades-long support of our Sahrawi colleagues by “inventing” new ways of working. For example, one of Lello’s ideas was to set up a group of experts in anatomopathological diagnostics to provide remote support to the local veterinary staff.

In addition, an advocacy and awareness-raising campaign was recently launched in the tent cities to reduce the number of female dromedaries of reproductive age slaughtered for meat consumption, a practice that must be discouraged in order not to endanger the heritage of this species in the region.

Unfortunately, the difficulties caused by the pandemic have been aggravated since last November by a resumption of the conflict between Morocco and the Polisario Front. This news has violently shaken the Saharawi population living in the refugee camps, who, after many years, are peacefully awaiting the referendum. To date, international institutions, including the UN, have not taken a position on these events, which is very discouraging.

VSF, in addition to its work on the ground and remotely, will continue to raise awareness among the community on the delicate situation of the Saharawi people, whose voice has a right to be heard by the public.



[3]: A. Leone et al., 2018; Effect of Moringa oleifera Leaf Powder on Postprandial Blood Glucose Response: In Vivo Study on Saharawi People Living in Refugee Camps;