Inclusion of Refugees in the Global Cosmetics Value Chain

“We want other companies to see the benefits that come from working with refugees” – Theo Hakizimana, Asili Natural Oils Managing Director

Asili Natural Oils is a Rwandan company aiming to become East Africa’s leading exporter of cold pressed speciality vegetable seed oils. Asili, meaning “from the source” in Swahili, currently produces four such oils from the seeds of chia, passion flower, wild African calabash and moringa. The oils are then exported to wholesale clients in the global cosmetics and personal care industry, primarily in Europe and North America.

Moringa (the “miracle tree” owing to its hardiness, ability to thrive in poor soils, resistance to drought, and ability to inter-crop once it is established, thus allowing farmers to continue with their normal activities) is Asili’s most important product. Asili works with local co-operatives and farmer’s associations (who gather together about 1,500 farmers across Rwanda), but also manages two company-owned farms.

One of these is located at Mahama Sector in Kirehe District in the South East of the country and was purchased by Asili at approximately the same time that UNHCR and MIDIMAR initiated operations for the Mahama Refugee Camp. Mahama has now grown to approximately 60,000 refugees.

From the day Asili started work on its plantation it has employed refugees from the camp. Today Asili continues daily to employ between 75 and 200 people (depending on the time of year and needs of the farm) from the camp as labourers (working on the weeding, composting, pruning, watering, harvesting and so on). In addition, Asili has a number of full time employees from the camp on its staff.

“Having this [Asili] job has considerably changed my living standards. Differently to other refugees in the camp, I am able to change meals and buy clothes. I was single, but this job helped me marry, now I have a wife and a child; and thanks to the job, I afford clothes and meals for myself, my wife and my baby. I don’t look/feel like a refugee,” said Claver Nzoyihaya, a Burundian Refugee employed as full-time guard at Mahama plantation.

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Mahama refugees in a queue waiting for their turn to be paid for work done - Photo: Courtesy

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Asili employee pays the lady holding a child for her daily work - Photo: Courtesy

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Post-harvest handling – cracking moringa pods to get seeds that are proceeded into oil for export. Photo: Courtesy

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Harvesting moringa – Burundian refugee woman carrying moringa pods collected from moringa trees. Photo: Courtesy

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Some of the refugee and local population doing the weeding of moringa trees. Photo: Courtesy

Asili is looking to find other ways to work in partnership with UNHCR and MIDIMAR and refugees from the camp, and has for example offered two refugee agronomists with new agricultural diplomas positions as interns.

“Given the remote location of our plantation and relative scarcity of local labour it has been a wonderful blessing to find so many hard working people on our very doorstep who are eager to work with us on our farm. We hope this association will continue while our Burundian friends remain located so near to us,” said Theo Hakizimana, Managing Director of Asili.

As Asili grows, it hopes to generate new labour and business opportunities both for Rwandans and Burundian refugees. Especially in Kirehe District where consistent, full-time employment is unfortunately not readily available, Asili hopes to impact as many lives as possible. It also hopes to serve as a model of sorts for other employers.

“We want other companies to see the benefits that come from working with refugees. Rwandans, more than most people, understand the hardship that comes from being forcibly displaced. We hope that our neighbours from Burundi can go home one day, but while they’re in Rwanda, we want to help each other, and we want other employers to benefit as Asili has,” said Theo Hakizimana.