African refugee grows homeland's bitter eggplants in Vermont

COLCHESTER, Vt. — After surviving refugee camps in Africa, Janine Ndagijimana settled in Vermont and began to dream of farming.

When she considered what to plant, she thought back to her time in Tanzania and settled on the African eggplant, also called bitter ball or garden egg. It wasn't found in Vermont, and she remembered how it garnered a good price at the refugee market.

These days, Ndagijimana's farming of the oblong white fruit and other varieties has turned her into a refugee success story in Vermont, one of the least culturally or racially diverse states, with a population that's 95 percent white. She's part of a growing number of farmers from other parts of the world who have used social media, the internet and niche markets often in big cities to successfully sell crops native to their home countries. She grows eggplants on 3 acres (1.2 hectares) of land on two plots in Burlington and Colchester, one of which was leased to her for free by a local farmer.

"This is to support the family," she said through an interpreter as she stood on a hot afternoon in the farm field just a week before she was expected to deliver her sixth child.

She said she's hoping when the business gets bigger she can use the money she makes to send her kids to college.

The 38-year-old Ndagijimana's success goes well beyond Vermont. Since she planted her first crop in 2013, she has sold her 5,000-pound (2,270-kilogram) harvest through the mail to Africans in Arizona, Texas, Utah, Michigan and Idaho.

Her business is spread by word of mouth. Other customers come to pick up the harvest themselves. One Florida man was expected recently to pick up 2,500 pounds (1,130 kilograms) of eggplant, which he planned to resell.

Other refugee communities also are growing and selling native crops around the U.S., according to the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants in Arlington, Virginia. For example, Burmese and Bhutanese farmers are raising and selling eggplants, peppers and herbs in Lowell, Massachusetts, and Syrian and Iraqi refugees are growing peppers and mint in Dearborn, Michigan, said Lee Williams, the committee's senior vice president.

"It's good community building," Williams said. "Obviously it's important to us that our clients have access to nutritious food, and having food that's familiar to our clients is great."

African eggplant, an important crop in several African countries, can be found in some urban areas, such as in Minneapolis, where Hmung farmers grow it for mostly African customers. A refugee from Liberia, Morris Gbolo, grows it among other West African vegetables in Buena Vista, New Jersey, and sends it to customers around the U.S.

"It is what we love eating, you know," he said of the fruit, which is more bitter than the purple-skinned variety. "This is our native food."

Before arriving in the United States in 2007, Ndagijimana knew only life in a refugee camp. She was born in one in Rwanda to parents from neighboring Burundi. The family fled the country in 1994 at the start of the genocide and ended up at another refugee settlement in Tanzania.

"Life was not easy because even the food they provided was not enough for one person," she said, recalling how a person would receive 8 pounds (3.6 kilograms) of food, often consisting of corn and beans, to eat for two weeks.

It was at the camp that she considered growing African eggplant, known as intore in her native Kirundi language. As a young entrepreneur she bought produce from farmers and sold it to the refugee markets. She saw that growers of African eggplant were making good money but didn't have the land to grow the fruit herself.

In Vermont, she also lacked land — until she was able to use about an acre (0.4 hectares) of community garden land and then a farmer leased her another 2 acres (0.8 hectares) for free.

She hopes to eventually farm on 10 acres (4.1 hectares). She has gotten help from a program called New Farms for New Americans, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the University of Vermont extension service.

She's been a teacher for people who want to emulate her business model, said Ben Waterman, of the UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture, who meets with her weekly.

"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.

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