Forced to Take the Road Less Travelled: Lessons From Research on Refugees’ Economic Opportunities in Kenya

When people are reflecting on watershed moments in their lives that ultimately made them who they are today, you often find the poem by Robert Frost:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

The choice to take the road less traveled is often exalted but for many young people coming from displacement-affected settings, taking the road less traveled and fleeing from their homes is the only way to survive. The reflections shared below come from our work conducting research on the latest REF study mapping the pathways to employment and entrepreneurship for refugees in Kenya.

Conflict disrupts family dynamics, education, and work, and for many asylum seekers, IDPs, and refugees, the transition to a semblance of normalcy, economic security, and having 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 enterprises to address their communities’ immediate needs and in some cases, provide employment to host community members. One of our interviewees was a serial entrepreneur, and one of their ventures offered internet packages at prices suited for the local market. Another created commissioned art pieces for local and international clients (and they also have won multiple global art competitions). When we asked our refugee interviewees about their economic aspirations over the next five years, one interviewee’s sentiments perfectly encapsulated a recurring theme across our respondents:

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 inhibit their ability to realise their economic potential. As humanitarian aid continues to dwindle, 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 needs to be engaged in facilitating greater access to economic opportunities for refugees. This access includes integrating refugees into both formal labour markets and into 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 and many other economies across the continent, private sector engagement with refugee communities is still limited. This is partly because of 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, which, if jointly implemented by the actors in the refugee space, will catalyse 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, but there are other approaches we and other researchers can take in the future to further interrogate other topics related to refugee economic opportunities. At a systemic level, there remain questions regarding the necessity of bringing refugees into the formal sector as a precursor for private sector engagement, versus considering more informal – and more easily accessible – means of engagement that still support refugee self-reliance without deepening their vulnerabilities. It would also be valuable to document refugees’ economic contributions towards their host country as this will factor into 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 reinforced the need to leverage whole-of-society approaches to address the inequities that face displaced communities and support them in achieving self-reliance and stability. The key lies in providing refugees 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 Liviya David

Business Development & Research Analyst

Botho Emerging Markets Group

Image: Oxfam International. Building a latrine, Dadaab refugee camp, Kenya, as part of Oxfam’s cash-for-work initiative.

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