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This Refugee Is Growing African Eggplants in the US to Support Her Family

By Phil Dierking

Janine Ndagijimana’s parents came from Burundi. But she was born in a refugee camp in Rwanda, a neighboring country. In 1994, her family fled Rwanda at the start of the genocide and settled at another refugee camp in Tanzania.

Ndagijimana arrived in the United States in 2007. She settled in the northeastern state of Vermont and began to dream of farming. While deciding what to plant, she thought back to her time in Tanzania.

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It was at the refugee camp that she considered growing African eggplants, known as “intore,” in her native Kirundi language. She bought vegetables from farmers and sold them at the refugee markets. She saw that growers of African eggplant were making a lot of money, but she did not have the land to grow the fruit herself.

Ndagijimana remembered how a person would receive just 3.6 kilograms of food, which was usually only corn and beans, to eat for two weeks.

“Life was not easy because even the food they provided was not enough for one person,” she said.

To Support Her Family

Vermont is one of the least culturally or racially diverse states in the US Its population is 95% white.

In Vermont, she was able to use about 0.4 hectares of community garden. Later, a farmer leased her another 0.8 hectares for free.

“This is to support the family,” she said. She hopes that when the business gets bigger she can use the money she makes to send her children to college.

Since Ndagijimana planted her first crop in 2013, she has sold her 2,270-kilogram harvest through the mail to Africans in Arizona, Texas, Utah, Michigan, and Idaho.

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She is part of a growing number of farmers who have successfully used social media and the internet to sell crops from their home countries in the US.

The US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants said that other refugee communities also are growing and selling native crops around the US. For example, Burmese and Bhutanese farmers are raising and selling eggplants, peppers, and herbs in Lowell, Massachusetts. In Dearborn, Michigan, Syrian and Iraqi refugees are growing peppers and mint.

Expanding Her Business

Ndagijimana hopes to eventually farm on 4.1 hectares. She has received help from a program called New Farms for New Americans. The program receives support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the University of Vermont (UVM).

Ben Waterman, of the UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture meets with her weekly. He said she has also been teaching people how to copy her business model.

“Janine does her research and she really kind of weighs her options and makes use of a lot of the resources around here,” Waterman said.


This story was originally reported by Lisa Rathke for the Associated Press. Phil Dierking adapted this story for VOA Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.