May 14, 2012
The Dadaab refugee complex in Kenya's North Eastern Province often conjures up images of hunger and poverty among the refugees, but the camps also have thriving businesses that have contributed to the province's economy.
Development analyst and consultant Ibrahim Rashid Ahmed told Sabahi that Kenya should view the more than 436,000 refugees at the Ifo, Ifo II, Dagahaley and Hagadera camps as economic assets, rather than burdens.
A 2010 study commissioned by the Norwegian, Kenyan and Danish governments found that refugee-run businesses in Dadaab camps bring in annual revenue of about 2 billion shillings ($25 million).
The study, "In search of protection and livelihoods: Socio-economic and environmental impacts of Dadaab refugee camps on host communities", said Kenya earns about 251,000 million shillings ($3 million) every year just from livestock and milk sales in the camps.
"On a per capita basis, the combined economic benefits to the host community represent an estimated 25% of average annual per capita income in North Eastern Province," the study found.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees spokesman for Kenya Emmanuel Nyabera told Sabahi that there are more than 5,000 businesses run by refugees in the complex. He said the businesses include Internet cafes, butcher shops, hotels, grocers, barbershops, telephone bureaus, clinics, electricity suppliers and even second-hand motor vehicle dealers.
Refugees are encouraged to do business in the camps to foster independence and entrepreneurship, preparing them to rebuild their country once peace is restored, he said.
Nyabera said refugees who have been in the camp the longest tend to run the most successful businesses, as they have grown to know their way around the complex.
"We might lack a stable government back home, but we do not lack entrepreneurial minds," said Mohammed Ahmed Bashir, 39-year-old Somali refugee who supplies electricity in Hagadera.
Bashir said he started his electricity supply business in 2004 when he bought a diesel generator for 70,000 shillings ($840). He said he raised the funds with the help of relatives' remittances, and money he made from selling soft drinks in the camps.
In 2008, he upgraded and bought a 300,000-shilling ($3,600) generator. His customers are directly connected to the generator and the wires run through the sandy streets or hang from sticks running through the camps like power lines. He said he covers a radius of 3 kilometres.
Bashir, who fled Somalia in 1991, said his enterprise helps bring power to more than 80 households, 30 eateries and several computer cafes in the camp. He charges a monthly flat rate of 2,000 shillings ($24) for residences and 4,000 shillings ($48) for business premises. Bashir said earns an average profit of more than 30,000 shillings ($360) monthly.
Refugee Ambia Osman Mire, 43, said she ventured into business to supplement the humanitarian assistance provided by aid agencies.
"The food we received here was not enough to feed my four children and two nephews, so I had to do business to ensure their needs were met," she said.
Since 2000, Mire has been running an all-purpose store that serves refugees as an Internet café, currency exchange, telephone service provider and money wiring service. Her store has been so successful that she expanded to open another one at the Ifo camp, providing jobs to six refugees.
Despite their successes, some refugees say the law is restricting their potential.
Ahmeddin Omar Siyat, 49, sells electronics at Ifo. He said when he started his business in 2007, he could only invest 10,000 shillings ($120), but five years later his inventory is worth 1 million shillings ($12,000).
Siyat said he wants to expand his business outside the camps, but the government does not allow it. "We cannot move past these camps lest we get arrested, but we want the government of Kenya to issue us business permits to venture outside here," he said.
Siyat said he pays a monthly permit fee of 9,000 shillings ($108) to the local government to conduct business in the camps.
Kenya Chamber of Commerce and Industry Wajir branch Chairman Abdirahaman Mohammed Abdille Ali told Sabahi that refugees have transformed Dadaab refugee camp into a buzzing trade centre.
Yet the positive story of entrepreneurial refugees is too often overshadowed by the stereotype associating the refugees with al-Shabaab, he says.
"While it is undisputed that some refugees have had a negative influence, the refugees in Dadaab have generally contributed positively to the economy of North Eastern Kenya," he said. The refugees even employ Somali Kenyans who would otherwise be unemployed, he said.
The Kenyan government says it encourages businesses in the camps so long as they are legal.
"We only have issues with some of the refugees who take advantage of government goodwill to engage in illegal trades like selling firearms. But we often carry out swoops and seize the arms," North Eastern Provincial Commissioner James ole Seriani told Sabahi.
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