In Kenya, efforts are underway to better integrate refugees ahead of the planned closure of camps that house more than 400,000 people, mainly from Somalia, South Sudan and Congo. A project, supported by the International Rescue Committee, provides refugees with microloans to start small businesses.
Congolese refugee Enock Gatangi, 54, tends to customers at his small grocery store in Nairobi’s Kayole district.
Gatangi fled conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2003 with his wife and child for Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, where they lived for 12 years.
They moved to Nairobi where he worked as a security guard while saving his money and dreaming of starting his own business.
But, like most refugees, Gatangi was unable to obtain even a small bank loan.
Then he joined the Rangers Family Group, a savings and loan association, which in January loaned him $170 to help him finally open his shop.
I have so many customers, Gatangi says with a big smile, both Kenyans and Congolese. But most of my clients, he says, are Kenyans.
During their weekly meeting, the family group of Rangers sings a traditional Congolese song to celebrate their savings.
They are among 20 such groups supported by the International Rescue Committee in various poor areas of Nairobi.
The IRC program is called Refugees in East Africa: Stimulating Urban Innovations for Livelihood Development, or Re:Build.
This is a 5-year project aimed at empowering 20,000 urban refugees with their own businesses in Nairobi and the Ugandan capital, Kampala.
The IRC says the micro-loans have already helped 260 refugees in Nairobi to become their own bosses.
Boniface Odhiambo is the Re:Build project manager.
“Because the refugees themselves faced challenges in terms of accessing financial products from formal financial institutions, the project had to design innovative ways on how they can access financial services and also boost their economic livelihood initiatives,” Odhiambo said.
Under the program, refugees and locals form groups of 15 to 30 members who contribute actions.
The money is pooled in a mobile money app account which members can then borrow as microloans to start and run a small business.
Members in Nairobi say the project has improved their economic well-being.
Shantal Zabibu chairs the Rangers family group in Kayole.
She said before the program that they could not access investment funds. But since they came together and pooled their resources, Zabibu said, if a member wants to borrow ten thousand Kenyan shillings ($90), they will get it. She said if any other member wanted five thousand dollars ($45), they would get it. Zabibu said their lives have improved since coming together as a group.
Kenya hosts around 550,000 refugees and asylum seekers, of whom 87,000 are based in cities.
Their participation in Kenya’s economy is based on integration, said Project Manager Odhiambo.
“When we focus on economic empowerment, we give vulnerable or voiceless people the opportunity to also have a feel and contribution in the national pie,” Odhiambo said.
As the Kenyan government plans to close the Kakuma and Dadaab refugee camps in July, all eyes are on the authorities to see what action they will take.
Integrated refugees like Gatangi hope that if the camps close, those residing there, as he once did, will be ready and able to live in Kenyan communities.