Farms Not Arms Tackles The Refugee And Food Security Crises

Image By: Bau Land

Image By: Bau Land


Written By: Briana Zagami, Marketing Specialist

Editor’s note: The following information is derived from an interview Agritecture conducted with Jehane Akiki, International Affairs and Design, education programs in refugee space Managing Director. 

Farms Not Arms is a collective of designers, farmers, strategists, & agriculturalists who have come together under the same mission to design a farm model, starting in Lebanon, that targets food insecurity, the refugee crisis and social cohesion with host communities, and climate change in a way that will help refugees learn innovative agricultural techniques. Jehane Akiki is the Managing Director of Farms Not Arms, her background experience in international affairs and design has been integral to successfully designing a multicultural agricultural farm while addressing the needs of Lebanon’s refugee population. Akiki explains, “I had been working in the refugee space on building education programs using design thinking and systems thinking and I’m also from Lebanon, so instead of starting with a solution that we think could help refugees, I wanted to start by understanding the problem and embarking on a design thinking process that is community led, and engages with refugees in order to understand how they go about procuring their food and what are some of the problems they face.”

Lebanon is entirely dependent on food imports, around 85% of food is imported even though the country is rich in agricultural land. In Lebanon, it is cheaper to import food than it is to grow it yourself. Akiki explains, “There are a lot of subsidies on things that are imported, and there are a lot of political reasons for that, but the agricultural sector doesn’t have enough incentives for farmers.” Lebanon’s economy has always been more focused on the banking and tourism sectors, leading to many people having abandoned their land.

Lebanon is currently facing an economic and financial collapse. Akiki further explains, “the currency has been devaluating so much that prices of goods have been increasing by more than 50%, and now everything that is imported is more expensive. The organic agriculture sector is seeing a boom because people are trying to grow their own food because they see it as cheaper now than buying imported items from supermarkets.” This socio-political context feeds into the educational farming model that Farms Not Arms has developed. 

Including Refugees in the Design Process

Bekaa Design Sprint; Image sourced from Farms Not Arms

Bekaa Design Sprint; Image sourced from Farms Not Arms

Akiki started her process by conducting research with refugees in the Beqaa area of Lebanon, which is the main agricultural area. Later, they hosted a more formal design sprint where they invited Syrian refugees who live in Beqaa and work in the agricultural industry. The workshop included design activities, interviews, problem solving activities, and brainstorming on some preliminary solutions. “We took all of those insights and had an echoing design sprint in New York at Bjarke Ingels Group in Brooklyn and with BIG the architecture firm, and in that design sprint Henry Gordon-Smith and Yara Nagi of Agritecture participated,” Akiki explained. This design sprint included a group of multidisciplinary experts and also allowed refugees to Skype in from Lebanon in order to ask questions. From these questions and responses, the teams were then able to design some solutions. “That design sprint was also quite instrumental in helping us form our team and start building a consortium of different organizations and individuals who are involved in the design process,” said Akiki.

After this design sprint, the ideas were tested in the local context and fed into building the concept behind Farms Not Arms. Akiki describes, “We defined three pillars as what we’re focusing on. The first one was nutrition, the second was regeneration, and the third was social cohesion.” Refugees sometimes do have access to food, but it is not as nutritious and low-quality, so Farms Not Arms is trying to help them be more secure with healthy and nutritious foods.  Since agriculture is one of the biggest contributors to climate change, they wanted to come up with a solution that doesn’t create a wider systemic problem. Akiki explains, “Throughout our process we did some soil sampling in the Beqaa region, figured out the organic matter in the soil, and really wanted through food security and through agriculture to work on the wider problem which is climate change and how it’s linked to soil health and how soil can actually be one of the solutions for it. 

Addressing the Refugee and Food Security Crises

Image By: Bau Land

Image By: Bau Land

Lebanon has an extreme case of refugee influx. The country hosts the highest percentage of refugees in the world.25% of the population consists of refugees (1 in 4 people is a refugee), becoming a huge strain on the country. “You can’t really help refugees in a vacuum, but anything that you do for refugees has to also include the host community in order to come up with a long-lasting solution and make sure that there aren’t any security problems.”  

Through these three pillars Farms Not Arms has designed a multi agricultural farm that combines regenerative agriculture with an adaptive low-tech hydroponic system that revolves around a community center where the host community and the refugees come together. Akiki explains, “We’re using hydroponics to develop nutrient-dense food grown faster and in larger volumes, and then having education be the binding thing where we have the people who are involved learning all of those different agricultural skills.”  

Akiki described her vision of having a farm model that would be a school bringing Lebanese people and refugees together to learn the right skill sets to grow using regenerative methods, learn about hydroponics, and then connect them to the country’s unused land. “We calculated that with a little over 3% of Lebanon’s land using our farming model, you can feed every single Lebanese and refugee person who is living in Lebanon,” Akiki explains.  

Agritecture Supports Farms Not Arms’ Winning Design

NY Design Workshop; Image sourced from Farms Not Arms

NY Design Workshop; Image sourced from Farms Not Arms

Farms Not Arms participated in The Rockefeller Foundation’s Food System Vision Prize – an open, global challenge calling for food systems stakeholders anywhere to submit their visions for a nourishing and regenerative food system for the year 2050. There were more than 1300 applications representing more than 4,000 organizations, narrowed down to 76 semi-finalists, which included Farms Not Arms. They submitted this idea for their multicultural agriculture farm and were selected as one of just 4 with a special mention in the prize.

Agritecture has been a supportive partner since the first design sprint, and considered part of the Farms Not Arms team. “Henry from day 1 was very supportive and invited Yara Nagi to the sprint because of her Middle Eastern background.” Agritecture participated in the blueprinting meetings where the foundation of the model was developed. “Some of the things Agritecture helped us work on was the economic model and what are the economics of the farm, what’s the yield, what are we producing.” Yara Nagi, Director of Operations at Agritecture, created the first economic yield calculator of the farm. The hydroponics systems of the farm was based off of Agritecture’s Plus Farm model. “With the hydroponics and the farm economics, those were some of the more tangible outputs that were part of Agritecture’s contribution. And in general, the know-how of the industry - Agritecture has a lot of experience in this field, and it was helpful to get their expertise,” says Akiki.

Expanding the Model to Adapt to Other Refugee Populations

While the mission of Farms Not Arms was initially developed for Lebanon, their goal is to adapt and scale their model to different places, and continue to target the three pillars of nutrition, regeneration, and social cohesion. The design process utilized enables them to adapt to different places. Akiki describes, “Our crop selection now comes from what the refugees told us they want to eat and what is part of the local diet, and what things have the most nutritional content and that could be marketable. And those crops are going to be different in different places, so we do have a general process of adaptation and that is sort of our big picture goal.” 

There is a huge need for models that are addressing both food and climate change around the world. Jehane Akiki has been in talks to bring the model to Western African countries, and sees the potential for Central America, for indigenous communities, and even expanding to New York. “We’ve had some dreams around that,” she exclaims! 





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