Lessons from Research on Refugees’ Economic Opportunities in Kenya

The reflections shared below come from our research for a recently published REF study mapping the pathways to employment and entrepreneurship for refugees in Kenya.

Conflict disrupts family dynamics, education, and work. For many asylum seekers, internally displaced persons (IDPs), and refugees, the transition to a semblance of normalcy, economic security, and  a sense of belonging is bumpy. Despite these difficulties, we were struck by the entrepreneurial and innovative spirit of the refugees who participated in this study and shared their individual experiences and observations from their communities. Although refugees in camp settings largely lack access to financing, reliable internet and energy connectivity, and external markets, many have built successful enterprises that are a source of goods and services and employment for community members. For instance, one interviewee was a serial entrepreneur who owned a business offering internet packages at prices suited for the local market. Another refugee featured in our report created commissioned art pieces for local and international clients, winning multiple global art competitions in the process. When asked about their economic aspirations over the next five years, one respondent’s sentiments encapsulated a recurring theme across all interviewees:

I’m looking forward to … economic freedom, whereby I don’t need to depend on anyone to be able to … make a business transaction or to just run a business, but I can actually just own something and work on it and improve on it without a lot of restrictions. 

Many refugees in Kenya operate in an environment riddled with uncertainty and barriers to economic opportunity, which can inhibit their ability to realise their economic potential. As humanitarian aid dwindles, there is a growing need for more sustainable and durable solutions to support both refugees and their host communities. To successfully implement these durable solutions, the private sector must facilitate greater access to economic opportunities for refugees. This access includes integrating refugees into both formal labor markets and national and regional supply and value chains. Our study in part answers the question: “How can the private sector support refugee employment and entrepreneurship?” In Kenya, like many countries across Africa, private sector engagement with refugee communities remains limited. This limited engagement is partly because of a lack of sufficient information on the opportunities and barriers to private sector engagement in displaced settings. We hope our report and the wealth of insights we gathered from refugees, the Kenyan private sector, NGOs, and government officials contribute to filling these information gaps.

The report also offers actionable recommendations to catalyze engagement from the private sector to advance refugee economic inclusion. To start, donors should support and fund multi-stakeholder platforms, such as the Amahoro Coalition, that promote cross-sectoral coordination to accelerate private sector engagement in refugee economic inclusion. These stakeholders—private sector, donors, government, humanitarian and development organisations—can work under such a platform to promote local economic development in refugee-hosting areas. More specifically, the private sector can initiate its engagement by providing targeted assistance to ongoing initiatives in refugee-hosting areas through mentorship, technical, and eventually financial support.

We conducted this study from a private sector lens. Still, there are other approaches researchers can take in the future to further interrogate other topics related to refugee economic opportunities. At a systemic level, questions remain regarding the necessity of bringing refugees into the formal sector as a precursor for private sector engagement. One possible answer to this question may consider informal – and more easily accessible — means of engagement that still support refugee self-reliance without deepening their vulnerabilities. Future research should further investigate refugees’ economic contributions towards their host country as this shapes governments’ and private sector firms’ decisions around future engagement. Lastly, while this study focused on Kenya, it would be valuable to explore how private sector engagement with refugees compares across diverse geographies, such as the IGAD region.

Our conversations with refugee youth further reinforce the need to adopt whole-of-society approaches to address the inequities that face displaced communities and support them in achieving self-reliance and stability. The key to enabling greater economic inclusion for refugees lies in providing them with the tools, training, and enabling policy environment to create successful enterprises, access markets beyond refugee camps, and live full and dignified lives. We are reminded of a statement by Isaac Fokuo, founder of Botho Emerging Markets Group and the Amahoro Coalition: “I have had the privilege of speaking to many refugees and each conversation leads me to the same conclusion: Every human being has dreams and aspirations. We all crave opportunities to contribute to our societies, to find happiness, and a safe place to not only live but also thrive.”

By Bathsheba Asati, Research Associate, and Liviya David, Business Development & Research Analyst, Botho Emerging Markets Group 



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