Refugees demonstrate entrepreneurship and creativity

In Malawi, refugees use their initiative to establish small businesses to help support their families.


Freddy Kwabo, 36 from the Democratic Republic of Congo outside his gaming shop in Dzaleka refugee camp with his nephew, Emmanuel, 14. Thanks to his PlayStation2 that he carried with him when he fled, he is able to help support his family  © UNHCR/Tina Ghelli

Dzaleka Refugee Camp, Malawi - Resilience and entrepreneurship of refugees is evident all over Dzaleka refugee camp in Malawi. Located some 35 km from the capital Lilongwe, the camp, which is a melting of pot of populations from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, Somalia, Ethiopia, has a bustling economy.

With food rations constantly fluctuating,sometimes as low as 50% of recommended rations, depending on the funding situation of the World Food Programme, some residents of the camp have taken it upon themselves to find creative ways to help support their families.

Freddy Kwabo, 36 years old is busy setting up a small TV and his Sony PlayStation2 in a dark one room shop located next to one of the water points in the camp. A hand painted sign on the wall outside says Legacy Gamerz – advertising to young people in the camp to come and play on the PlayStation. For 200 kwacha (about US 50 cents) they can play one of the two games he has – either Football Champion or Tekken, a martial arts game.

Five years ago, Kwabo had a regular job as a logistician working for a small non-governmental organization in his home town of Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He saved up enough money to buy a used PlayStation2 and a couple of games. Just like gamers around the world, he would invite his buddies over on the weekends to play.

One night, he heard that an armed group was looking for him so he had to flee in the middle of the night with his wife and three young children. “I grabbed the PlayStation2 to take with me. It was something that I had grown attached to and I just couldn’t leave it behind.” He made his way to Malawi where he heard it would be safe for him and his family. 

After a few months, he saw that many people in the camp were interested in the PlayStation2 so he thought it would be a way to make some money to help support his family. He opened up his shop. Around ten children per day come to play.

“I never dreamed when I bought the PlayStation2 that it would serve me in this way. I never envisaged this,” says Kwabo.

Mamale Eureka Exode, aged 29 and her six year old son, Messi, outside her "cinema" in Dzaleka refugee camp. Eureka paved over her small cornfield to the build the cinema in time for the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON). She was able to supplement her income by charging camp residents to come watch the games.  © UNHCR/Tina Ghelli

Mamale Eureka Exode* loves football so much, that she named her first born son, Messi, after the Barcelona football team mega player Lionel Messi.  Exode, from the Democratic Republic of Congo fled to Malawi in 2012. At that time, she was a house wife and had begun to get active in politics, joining the opposition party, Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS). She attended demonstrations in support of the party and ended up being arrested and beaten. Her husband, who was a journalist wrote a story about the incident. A few days after it was published, Exode was cooking dinner when she heard some men break into the house and start shouting at her husband who was watching television in the living room. She heard him shout back and then heard gunshots. The frightened Exode managed to jump out of the kitchen leaving her 2 year old son, Messi, sleeping upstairs. After a few hours hiding at friend’s house, she got some neighbors to check on Messi and her husband. They found her husband had passed away and managed to get the still sleeping Messi out of the house and reunite him with his mother. She fled the next day, to get as far away as she could from the DRC, where she felt her life was in danger.

Once she arrived in Dzaleka, she did what she could to keep busy. She took courses in auto mechanics and a found a job cleaning cars at the garage in the camp. She planted corn in a small patch of ground next to her house to sell.  As she loved football so much she thought the others in the camp probably would too, but there was only a few places to watch the games and they were located quite far from her area of the camp. It was difficult for people to go watch the games in the evenings and then return home safely.

So Exode decided to sell the five bags of corn she grew and use the money to construct a small “cinema” where people could come and watch the Africa Cup of Nations, Africa’s largest football tournament.  She spoke to a Congolese man who ran a small shop and got him to invest in her business, loaning her money to hire a generator. She managed to install satellite TV and get a subscription during the tournament. She charged 200 kwacha (about 50 cents US) per match and ended up making enough money to cover her costs and make a small profit.

“I would love to grow the business, and install solar panels and expand to showing other sporting events,” she says.

Kiza Sango, 27 , from the Democratic Republic of Congo with one of the frames she uses to make cement slabs for pit latrines. She sells them to help support her husband and six children. "The slabs need to be strong so there are no accidents." she says.  © UNHCR/Tina Ghelli

Making cement covers for pit latrines was not something Kiza Sango, 27, thought she would end up doing to earn a living. She had grown up cultivating the fields next to her family home in South Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In 2006, she fled to Malawi after armed rebel groups showed up at her house threatening to kill her and fisherman husband.  She and her family first lived in Luwani camp until they were transferred to Dzaleka in 2007.  She saw that many of the families had to dig and set up latrines behind their homes in the camp so she realized there was a need for   slabs to cover them.  She makes the slabs using cement, stones, sand and water. “They need to be strong so that no accidents happen,” says Sango.

She makes them in an open space just next to her mud house so that people in the camp will see that they are available for sale. The money she makes is used to supplement her food rations and purchase school supplies for her children.

 “The economy of Dzaleka is intertwined with the surrounding economies of the host community,” says Line Astrom, UNHCR’s Senior Regional Livelihoods Officer. “We need to better understand the socio-economic profile of the people, as well as the economic linkages and market opportunities to develop programmes that can make a difference and help people earn a living and support their families.”

Thus, recognizing that there are entrepreneurs in the refugee camp who, with some additional support, could eventually grow their businesses, UNHCR has embarked on a livelihoods survey in Dzaleka camp.  Once the results are tabulated, it will be used to develop a strategy to help refugees and surrounding communities on to the path to self-reliance.

“Dzaleka refugee camp has been around for more than 20 years. We know that there is donor fatigue in supporting programmes for refugees in the camps,” says Monique Ekoko, UNHCR’s Representative in Malawi. “This is apparent with the constant reduction in food rations due to lack of resources. We see the impact of the financial constraints on the resulting protection problems in the camp.  If we can develop a comprehensive livelihood programme that will decrease dependency on international aid and allow for families to be able to meet their needs independently, only then can we really help improve the lives of the refugees in Dzaleka.”

Capitalizing on the entrepreneurship that already exists in the camp and helping businesses to grow will be one way to do it.

*Name changed for protection reasons