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Mapping the refugee journey towards employment and entrepreneurship: Obstacles and opportunities for private sector engagement in refugee-hosting areas in Kenya

Bathsheba Asati, Aparupa Chakravarti, Liviya David and Michael Owiso

entrepreneurship for refugees in Kenya, and the actual and potential role of the private sector in creating economic opportunities in Kenya’s refugee-hosting areas. In recent years, a range of stakeholders has shown increasing interest in promoting private sector investment in Kenya’s refugee-hosting areas. Market assessments and other studies point to the potential of private sector engagement not only in boosting the local economy, but also in propelling self-reliance among refugees. As donors, policy makers and humanitarian actors turn their attention to whole-of-society approaches that view refugees as actively embedded within host communities and markets, the study examines the steps refugees must take to gain employment or become entrepreneurs in Kenya, as well as the challenges and opportunities for private sector firms to employ refugees or act as catalysts for entrepreneurship.

The study was carried out jointly by Botho Emerging Markets Group and the Research and Evidence Facility (REF). The research employed a qualitative methodology, which included an extensive literature review of available data, reports and studies, and interviews with private sector actors, refugees, national and county government officials, and staff from The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and organisations working in Kenya’s Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps.

Key findings

  1. There are real opportunities for promoting private sector engagement in Kenya’s refugee- hosting areas, but these are limited by the fact that refugees lack access to the right to work legally and to travel outside the camps.
  2. Equitable and reliable pay and job security are key concerns for refugees with respect to employment.
  3. Movement outside of the camps is essential for promoting refugees’ economic inclusion because it enables them to take advantage of opportunities beyond their immediate locations and for entrepreneurs in the camp to access goods without having to go through intermediaries.
  4. Documentation and registration are imperative for refugees to secure employment or pursue entrepreneurship, but the process for obtaining both is ambiguous and changes frequently, which dissuades many refugees from pursuing these routes.
  5. There is a lack of adequate information among private sector actors on how to engage or employ refugees.
  6. A coordinated engagement and partnership strategy and promotion of best practices and positive precedence of private sector engagement in refugee-hosting areas are vital.
  7. An enabling environment and incentives, facilitated by the government, would promote greater private sector engagement in refugee-hosting areas.
  8. Relationship dynamics between refugee and host communities must inform employment/entrepreneurship programme development and private sector engagement in order to build social cohesion and mitigate existing tensions.


1.  Advocate for refugee self-reliance through greater freedom of movement and easier documentation processes

Freedom of movement is a requirement for refugees not only to seek work but also to acquire the requisite documentation for work authorisation. However, the process of obtaining documentation and authorisation can appear ambiguous and convoluted for refugees. Restrictions on movement, unpredictable movement authorisation processes, and unreliable and often inscrutable work permit and documentation application requirements are significant barriers to refugees’ economic inclusion and self-reliance.

  • Addressing these issues is the responsibility of government, but should be at the forefront of advocacy priorities for civil society organisations, donors and private sector actors.

2.  Address gaps in information and understanding among refugees regarding their right to work and documentation processes through demystifying procedures and providing free facilitation services

Considering the complexity of documentation required for the right to work and the gaps in understanding of these processes among refugees, an urgent recommendation is to encourage initiatives that address these information gaps.

  • Camp implementation partners and civil society organisations should work with UNHCR and the Government of Kenya to demystify the documentation process by ensuring refugee applicants have the requisite information on movement passes and work permits.
  • Implementation partners and private sector actors should also provide a free facilitation service to help refugees acquire the requisite documentation for work and travel and to guide them through the application process.

3.  Promote an enabling environment for private sector investment by addressing information gaps on working in refugee-hosting areas and employing refugees

In addition to refugees’ gaps in understanding the complex documentation processes, private sector actors also lack information on how to work in refugee-hosting areas and how to legally employ refugees.

  • Platforms such as the Kenya Private Sector Alliance, Kenya Association of Manufacturers, Federation of Kenya Employers, and the Amahoro Coalition could support this process through awareness-raising activities.
  • Private sector actors already working with refugees or in refugee-hosting areas should share best practices and success stories of their work in refugee-hosting areas.

4.  Facilitate local economic development through donor-funded programming, with close government and private sector coordination

The main refugee-hosting counties, Turkana and Garissa, are in the early stages of private sector investment, despite being vibrant markets in their own right. Local economic development must, therefore, accompany initiatives for promoting private sector investment in refugee areas. In doing

so, protection from exploitation, increased job security and reliable wages must be central concerns for all actors.

  • Donors (government and institutional) should expand their support to facilities that provide technical and financial support to small and medium enterprises.
  • Governments, donors and private sector investors should ensure their interventions focus on extending protections beyond those who work in the formal sector (through advocacy to policymakers), and include both refugees and hosts.
  • Donors (government and institutional) should focus on facilitating decent work, not just numbers of jobs/businesses created, and where possible align interventions with Kenyan actors already working on these issues.

5.  Expand targeted assistance to ongoing initiatives in refugee-hosting areas through mentorship, technical and financial support

  • Private sector actors could target support at existing initiatives through 1) mentorship, career counselling and business training support to refugee entrepreneurs; and 2) offering expertise in certain business areas, such as legal, finance, operations, logistics.
  • Private sector actors could also support or create a job-matching or employment agency that links refugees with available opportunities.

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Image source: ©European Union/ECHO/Anouk Delafortrie

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