How Permaculture Empowers Refugee Women in Uganda

African Women Rising is training women in permaculture so that they can feed their families and have a better future.


Unidentified farmers work on their fields on July 26, 2004, in Buikwe region, Uganda. (Pecold /

One organization, African Women Rising (AWR), is making a big difference in the lives of refugee women in the Palabek refugee camp in Northern Uganda by teaching women about permaculture. These lessons could make a big difference in whether these women leave the camp and thrive in a new home.

That's because the women arrive at the camp with what they are wearing and little else. According to the aid organization, the new arrivals who come mostly from South Sudan – a new country formed in 2011 that is now plagued with a civil war – receive a tarp, tent poles, water can, cooking pot and a ration card but this is not enough.

In the South Sudanese civil war, more than 4 million people have been displaced with 1 million of those crossing the border into Uganda. This is putting a massive strain on resources. There are currently more than 40,000 refugees in the Palabek refugee settlement according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

There are only limited rations per person, and there are no guarantees of adequate food quantities. To supplement this, the Ugandan government, despite a shortage of land, has allocated 30 x 30-meter plots of land on which refugees are supposed to grow their own food.

Since 2019, AWR has been working in the camp has provided permagarden training for at least 2,000 households. Permaculture is small scale agriculture designed to be sustainable and self-sufficient.

The nonprofit launched in 2006 in Santa Barbara California and Uganda to empower women after war by providing technical skills and support including education for girls and micro-financing training. Since AWR is committed to empowering women, refugee women are involved in all the decision making.

AWR developed this permagarden program in Palabek, founders Linda and Tom Cole told, because “There’s a seldom-challenged maxim within the humanitarian sector that if you provide a refugee with some packets of seeds and a few tools, she might translate that into a regular supply of food for the family.” But this approach has failed due to poor quality of soil and a lack of water.

The organization is turning that around. Today, more than 6,000 South Sudanese families are successfully cultivating vegetables at the refugee camp. The permagardeners have learned to harvest water and capture waste streams to improve the fertility and yields of their plots according to Inhabit. They also manage and plant trees, cultivate living fences and biomass plantings.  

“This helps reduce pressures on the environment — such as the collection of fuelwood, gathering of wild foods, burning of charcoal — that will continue to worsen as time goes on, exacerbating tensions between host communities and refugees,” the Coles told Inhabitat. “Strengthening the ecological base of food systems also reduces vulnerability across time by shoring up resilience in the face of climate instability and extreme weather events.”

Over 80 percent of the women in AWR's agricultural programs have doubled their yields due to a series of training throughout the growing season and local field staff – called community mobilizers – that monitor the gardens and help solve any problems that arise.

The gardens are starting to thrive and have become a hope for the future in the bleak refugee camp where many of the refugees have lost their family structure and friends who were their support systems. The Coles told Inhabitat that “apart from providing food for the family and some residual income, the most profound effect of AWR’s programs is to help rebuild those layers of social capital. Extra food to provide to neighbors. Some small money for school fees or church offerings. Female mentors and role models.”

AWR sees the success of this permaculture project in one of the most aid-dependent places in the world as a green light to start other programs in other places. The organization's long-term goal of shifting dependency to independence where women are literate and can successfully provide for their families. The organization is well on its way.

How Permaculture Can Give Food Security to Future Generations
This Former Refugee Is Now Impacting the World through Coffee
General Mills is Planning on Regenerating 1 Million Acres of Farmland