New study reveals private sector investment opportunities, that build self-reliance and empower refugees in Kakuma Camp, Kenya

“We need to change the mindset that refugees are sitting at the camp, doing nothing but receiving assistance. Many of them are, in fact, running businesses and creating jobs for others.”

Esperanza Tabisha, a 27 year refugee fashion designer from the Democratic Republic of Congo, organizes her latest clothing designs and fabrics for sale in a small shop made of iron sheets in Kakuma Refugee Camp, Turkana County, north western Kenya.

Two female customers arrive to take a look at what’s for sale. One is a refugee, another works for a local NGO. Most of the pieces are made of ‘Kitenge’, a thick and shiny fabric, traditionally dyed in bright colours. The women look impressed as they browse through the modern pieces. One of the women settles on a dress for 1,800 Kenya Shillings (18 US dollars). Another orders a customized long skirt and top which will cost 2,000 Kenya Shillings (20 US dollars). Happy with their purchases, the women head off, and Esperanza of back to organizing the shop floor.

The young business woman is just one example of thousands of refugee entrepreneurs and business owners living in Kakuma Refugee Camp and its neighboring town, which has a population of close to 250,000 refugees and locals.

Esperanza started her small fashion label, called Esperanza Fashion & Design in 2011 with just 22,000 Kenya Shillings (220 US dollars), after arriving in Kenya from fleeing violence back home in the North Kivu province of Congo.

She decided she wanted to continue in fashion design, despite finding herself refugee in Kenya. Her uniquely designed clothes soon cut her a niche in the thriving fashion industry in Kakuma camp, attracting fashion lovers not just from the refugee community, but locals too. She now earns around 12,000 Kenya Shillings per month (120 US dollars) selling her designs.

 “I love my work.” She says. “There’s no better feeling than having a happy client’, says Esperanza”

From the income she’s generated Esperanza has been able to invest in her business by buying a new sewing machine, a charcoal iron box, and other design tools to help develop the quality of her pieces. But despite running a successful business that supports her and her extended family, Esperanza says there are challenges

“I am really happy with what I am doing, I love being a designer and making clothes. But the money I make is only enough to take care of most of my basic needs. For me to expand my business, I require financial assistance which I can repay over time.”

And so Esperanza supports the launch of new and innovative study by the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and the UN Refugee Agency, (UNHCR) released May 4, that many refugees are not just passive recipients of humanitarian aid, but are involved in economic activity. The report also shows there are opportunities for private sector organizations to do business in Kakuma Refugee Camp and its neighboring town.

The study looks at Kakuma from the perspective of a private business looking set up in the area. The study found that there are over 2000 businesses and smalls shops in Kakuma, and the area’s economy is worth 6 billion shillings ($56 million dollars). The study also found spending power among refugees and locals for consumer goods. Half of household incomes go on consumers products, and the market for these goods is worth more than $26 million dollars per year.

Data was collected data on business ownership, consumption levels, access to finance, telecommunications, education and employment.  The findings show Kakuma’s economy is thriving, and there are opportunities for the private sector to invest in refugee and the host community ventures, that promote self-reliance, financial independence and empowerment of refugees, thus reducing refugee reliance on humanitarian aid, and integrating refugees socio-economically the places they exist.

“We need to change the mindset that refugees are sitting at the camp, doing nothing but receiving assistance. Many of them are, in fact, running businesses and creating jobs for others. And doing other important thing is to formalize their enterprises. “We tend to see the private sector as something sophisticated, coming from outside, but most times, it is built on initiatives of individuals who want to make money using what they know best, like a refugee who bakes bread”, says Raouf Mazou, the UNHCR Representative for Kenya.

 Researchers found over 2,100 small shops in Kakuma camp serving a mixed population. Twelve percent of refugees surveyed identified themselves as business owners. This the report says its finding are very positive considering the fact that most refugees arrived in Kenya with little more than the clothes on their backs. There are also very limited rights to move around the country, or own registered businesses or property.

Good internet connectivity in most parts of Kakuma,  coupled with a good mobile phone penetration has opened up opportunities for potential private sector investors, the study says. Approximately, 69% of refugees and 85% of the host community have access to mobile phones.

Esperanza knows the benefits of how connectivity has helped to expand her business. Clients identify their preferred design online where Esperanza has a gallery of designs they can choose from.

“The internet, social media, especially Facebook and Instagram are playing a major role in attracting potential customers to my business, as I advertise there”, says Esperanza.

 The study found also found that private sector investment in Kakuma allows refugee business owners and entrepreneurs not only support themselves but also benefits the host community.  Refugees often hire locals to work with them. They also buy livestock, wood, charcoal, and other commodities from the local community.

“Conflict, violence, and persecution are driving more people from their homes than at any time since World War Two. Government aid to tackle the challenge is limited. Private sector investment could make an important difference—by creating jobs and opportunities for refugees. But investors often lack the critical information they need to venture into these markets. This study is a key first step to boost private investment into an untapped market.”says IFC Chief Executive Officer Philippe Le Houérou.

 IFC and UNHCR are hoping the new study will raise awareness and interest across key private sector areas, such as telecoms, mobile money, health, education, housing and power, on Kakuma as a market opportunity. The hope is that the study will start a dialogue on how the private sector actors can contribute to finding solutions for refugees in Kenya and outside of Kenya.