A Refugee Community in Kenya is Open for Business

8 May, 2018

Original source: IFC

By Neha Sud, IFC Communications

Safi Kisasa fled conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo for Kenya, only to end up in Hong Kong. Not the Asian metropolis, but its namesake—a bustling business and residential district in Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp.

“There were so many shops and traders that refugees started calling the neighborhood ‘Hong Kong’,” says Kisasa, who is known to her friends as Mama Safi.

Mama Safi arrived at Kakuma in 2011, tired and penniless, after walking hundreds of miles from her village in Eastern Congo to a fishing boat to Tanzania and ultimately to cramped mini-buses that drove her to Kenya. The arduous journey took an entire year. But once UNHCR—the UN refugee agency—moved her to a shelter in “Hong Kong,” she couldn’t wait to get to work.


Kakuma’s location in the arid Turkana county in northern Kenya means farming is tough, so many refugees rely on their skills to earn a living.  Mama Safi tried selling dried fish and hand-stitched clothes, but soon found that baking was her bread and butter.

Five days a week, at dawn, Mama Safi and her 10 employees (also refugees) knead, shape, and slide 250 loaves of bread into two wood-fired ovens in her backyard. By the time Mama Safi’s bread is loaded onto a motorcycle for delivery, shutters are opening in “Hong Kong”—revealing grocery stores, mobile phone dealers, carpenters, tailors, and even barbershops. It looks less like a refugee camp and more like a market.

A recent IFC study, Kakuma as a Marketplace, examined the refugee camp and town in the same way that a business looking to enter a new market would evaluate the possibilities. According to the report, Kakuma has an economy of $56 million per year, based on household consumption. At the time of the study in 2017, the camp hosted about 165,000 refugees (that number has since climbed to more than 180,000). The neighboring town—also called Kakuma—is home to 60,000 people, many of whom work with refugees. The combined population of the camp and town qualify it as Kenya’s tenth-largest city.

Because Kakuma offers significant opportunities for private companies to engage and create jobs  , UNHCR invited IFC to explore its economic potential.

Researchers collected data on consumption levels, access to finance, telecommunications, education, employment, and business ownership.  IFC will use the data to encourage private companies to invest in Kakuma—by initiating new projects or scaling up existing ones—to benefit refugees and their host communities.

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