Abundant crops of leafy amaranth and molokhiya greens, chillies and tomatoes are a living symbol of the success of a new project in Queensland that's helping African refugees to grow and share vegetables from their home countries - and bring hope of new jobs in their new home.
The Mulberry Project is transforming unused farm land into market gardens, which are then managed by migrants from different African countries.
It all began less than six months ago in Nobby, a town 40 kilometres south of Toowoomba. Louise Noble, one of the leaders of the project, was picking mulberries on her family property with some friends.
“One of our African friends said ‘what’s all this dirty grass doing here, why aren’t you growing anything?’” Noble told SBS. “The project grew from that conversation.”
Noble enlisted the help of a local farmer to cultivate 500m2 on her property, and within a few weeks, migrant families from the area were planting and managing crops.
Alongside vegetables like tomatoes, okra and chillies, the group are growing white maize, amaranth greens, leafy Egyptian crop molokhiya, cassava, and several other crops indigenous to different African countries.
The importance of local produce
The culture shock and difficulties associated with migrating to a new country as a refugee are extensive, and finding the right food is no different.
“A healthy diet is a problem for a lot of migrant communities, particularly in regional spots like Toowoomba,” says Noble. “We've got a fairly significant refugee community in the region, and many have a lot of trouble finding the food that they would prefer to eat.”
Most of the migrants and refugees working on The Mulberry Project speak Swahili, and are taking classes to learn English. Their children speak English, and one of them – Riziki Msabah – translated their words for SBS.
Schadrach Msabah and his wife Miriam Mangaza are originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo and migrated to Australia seven months ago, after spending 16 years in a refugee camp in Malawi. They have six children and both have agricultural backgrounds.
“We aren’t feeling as if we aren’t part of Australia anymore,” says Msabah. “Because we can grow and eat many different types of our food now, we feel like we are at home, and we feel free.”
“When I first got here, I wasn’t feeling good and our children weren’t happy because we couldn’t find our food,” says Mangaza. “But now, we are very thankful for this project.”
Joseph Numbi is also from the Congo, and spent time as a refugee in Kenya before migrating to Australia in 2014. He echoes the sentiments of the other families.
“I’ve been very happy to have African food to eat, and to have a place to start growing it,” he told SBS. “I hope the project continues to grow, and grow and grow.”
Tackling unemployment and poverty
A 2015 report found that only 1 in 20 recently resettled refugees in Australia were able to find a job after six months in the country.
The Mulberry Project’s organisers hope to provide short term and long term employment to new migrants: “From the actual growing, to food safety and hygiene, managing the markets, sales, and learning about a small business,” says Noble.
Mwisa Mujawimana has been working on The Mulberry Project from the very beginning. She is from Congo and has been in Australia for five years.
“Because of this project, we can be out of the home a lot to work in the garden,” she told SBS. “We kept asking ourselves: how are we going to get a job? And this will become our job.”
Each person that the SBS spoke with mentioned their struggle to find employment and to feed their – often large – families.
“This project will bring us out of poverty, we will work using our hands, and we will get something from it,” says Mangaza. “It will give us hope and let us help others to eat.”
Each family that works on the project will also take home enough food to feed their families, and the group have already had a huge harvest.
“It's incredible how many people are being fed just by this piece of land,” says Noble.
Bringing African vegetables to the wider community
While tackling unemployment and feeding local families are the main targets of the project, the organisers and families involved also hope to bring their knowledge of African vegetables to the wider community.
“I think we've got a lot to learn in terms of the future of agriculture in Australia and the changing climate, and these are really hearty crops,” says Noble.
The Mulberry Project team are hoping to take their produce to markets locally and further afield.
“Our aim is that even people who don't know about these African vegetables will learn about them and start eating them, and they will no longer be called African vegetables - they will be called Australian vegetables!" Numbi says.
“We hope to see the vegetables in big supermarkets and not just at the smaller markets,” says Msabah.
The growers have already been distributing their produce to families around the Toowoomba region, and are getting ready to sell at their first market.
“We contribute to the community with the vegetables, and we get our own food for our families. It means we are sharing, and it brings development to the community,” says Msabah.
The Mulberry Project is in the pilot stage, and is being developed into a social enterprise.
The team have set up a crowdfunding page, with the hope of reaching their target to invest in the equipment and training required to move the project forward. They are also in talks to take over more unused land in the region.
In the coming months and years, the group hopes that the model will be replicated across the country for other African migrants.