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RefuSHE Resource Center & Business Incubator: Moving Refugee Girls and Young Women from Protection to Livelihoods

Creating an enabling environment that helps refugee girls, young women, and their children move from dependency to self-reliance

Photo of Jessi Wolz

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What problem does the idea help to solve and how does your solution work? (2,000 characters maximum)

Despite the highest number of displaced people in 70 years, global resettlement decreased by nearly 50% from 2016-2018. RefuSHE must adapt its model to better prepare urban refugee girls for a life in Kenya. Our beneficiaries experience severe trauma fleeing violence and are at risk of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). 60-80% have experienced SGBV and 1 out of 4 became pregnant as a result of it. Around 75% of the girls referred are under 17 and lack access to food, water, healthcare, and safe shelter; 70% are illiterate and don’t speak English or Kiswahili. We support their basic needs and provide education and tailoring training. RefuSHE was founded in 2008 to provide immediate protection and essential needs, but as the option for resettlement dwindles, we must provide longer post-graduation support to move girls from protection to self-reliance. Our 2018 impact report showed that only 13% of Nairobi alumni find consistent dignified work compared to 72% of resettled alumni. Refugees in Kenya face many obstacles to building a livelihood. They don’t have the right to work, and obtaining a work permit for employment is highly unlikely. The most realistic option is self-employment in the informal market where they face discrimination and high competition. Our answer to this challenge is a Resource Center & Business Incubator (RCBI) where RefuSHE alumni, other refugee women, and Kenyans will access resources to help build a sustainable livelihood. The RCBI will provide alumni with access to capital, business advisory services and mentoring, business placements, additional skill building, an IT and tailoring workshop, retail space, and counseling services. While our alumni is our target population, we will also mobilize Kenyan and refugees in the community to use these services, creating incentives for their participation. Long term, we aim to demonstrate that social and economic integration of refugees is beneficial for both host community and refugees in Kenya.

Geography of focus (500 characters)

We will pilot the RCBI in Eastleigh, a thriving business community well-known by refugees in Nairobi, Kenya. It is a hub for refugee support in Nairobi: RefuSHE rents a small space there and all of our strategic partners conduct activities there. The majority of RefuSHE alumni live in the area or are a short bus ride away. Our Alumni Association is organized and active in Eastleigh.

Building Bridges: What bridge does your idea build between people on the move and neighbors towards a shared future of stability and promise? (500 characters)

We’ll build a bridge between refugees and neighbors via livelihoods activities. We’ll mobilize neighbors who’ll benefit from RCBI services to join us, e.g. local entrepreneurs will lead trainings on various trades, gaining additional income and leadership skills. Tailors ready to expand production capacity can access advanced machines. By mobilizing neighbors, alumni access social networks, mentors, and potential employers. The RCBI will increase social cohesion and economic promise for both.

What human need is your idea solving for? (1,000 characters)

Our programs go beyond fulfilling basic needs to provide education, life skills, psychosocial well-being, tailoring skills, business education, and community. The RCBI builds on these efforts and empowers young women to achieve economic self-sufficiency through dignified livelihoods. Before arriving to RefuSHE, many girls were forced to engage in demeaning activities in exchange for shelter or income, e.g. street begging, survival sex. The RCBI is a means to ensure a young woman never needs to make that choice again. Alumnae will access capital and business advisory services while using the tailoring or IT workshop to upskill, build a clientele, save money, and diversify income streams. They’ll access expanded vocational training and community networks. The RCBI will help fulfill their need for self-determination, confidence in their ability to provide for themselves and their children, and a belief that their future in Kenya will be more hopeful than the circumstances they fled.

What will be different within the community of focus as a result of implementing your idea? (1,000 characters)

The RCBI will increase the number of alumni in Nairobi that have consistent dignified work. Alumni have told us access to capital to start a business is the biggest challenge they face, then advice for managing a business, and equipment to start a tailoring business. They also want to learn different skills, especially IT. As refugees, they struggle to join community savings groups for start-up capital and Kenyan law makes it difficult for them to open MPESA and bank accounts. At the RCBI, alumni will access the capital, equipment, material, and ongoing skills training they desire. They’ll strengthen networks in the local economy as we mobilize the community to join us as participants, trainers, mentors, future employers, and customers. We’ll see positive change when alumni have more consistent work and feel more integrated into the community. We’ll know we’re creating greater social cohesion when there is unity around livelihood-based relationships such as mentoring or apprenticeships

What is the inspiration behind your idea? (1,000 characters)

The driving inspiration behind the center are the voices and aspirations of our alumni. Through routine surveys, formal evaluations, and alumni and student committee meetings, we have heard clearly that RefuSHE needs to do more to prepare them for life in Kenya. They have told us what they want and need to be more hopeful about their future – access to capital, more vocational training options, IT classes, more advanced and modern tailoring design skills, internship and apprenticeship opportunities, and more support from the local community. Additionally, our social enterprise - the Artisan Collective - that creates scarves, pillows, and tea towels for sale abroad has reached production capacity. We see the RCBI as a way to not only meet increased product demands but give alumni a source of income. When the number of orders outstrip our capacity to produce on campus, we can outsource production to our alumni who can use the RCBI workshop and secure their first client – RefuSHE!

Describe the dynamics of the community in which the idea is to be implemented. (1,000 characters)

RefuSHE’s alumni network in Eastleigh is structured to collectively take action on the challenges they face as young female refugees settled in Nairobi. Many have married and rely on their husbands for support, but desire to create their own livelihood and lead change in their community. While each has formed a limited network within their own ethnic community, they remain constrained to opportunities within these siloes. Eastleigh is a bustling, culturally vibrant “free” trade zone, where the exchange of goods and services is a bridge between ethnic and religious communities. The social hierarchy is less fixed here than in the rest of Nairobi: Kenyans work for Somalis and Somalis for Kenyans. Traders and businesspeople come from as far as Burundi, Tanzania, and Uganda to buy raw and finished goods to sell at home or to export. The physical and financial infrastructure is well developed, with the presence of regional money transfer companies, banks, power, water, and retail.

How does your idea leverage and empower community strengths and assets to help create an environment for success? (1,000 characters)

The spirit of Eastleigh is entrepreneurial; people from diverse backgrounds and life journeys convene here to build and live out their vision for economic empowerment. The community has within it myriad technical and business skills tested in a local market with regional reach that we can leverage to give alumni more grounded vocational and business training. We will hire talent in the local community to facilitate knowledge and skill transfer, thereby giving them a supplementary source of income and a chance to hone teaching skills. Since Eastleigh is a hive of business activity, alumni will have greater access to business mentorships, apprenticeships, and employment, and, once they’ve established their own business, access to a higher volume of potential customers. Finally, our alumni community is already organized and networked and we rent a space in Eastleigh, so we won’t be starting from scratch.

What other partners or stakeholders will work alongside you in implementing the idea, if any? (1,000 characters)

We are one of many organizations serving urban refugees in Kenya. We believe collaboration is key to solving complex problems and we intend to use the RCBI to demonstrate this. In May, we held a workshop with the Xavier Project, Danish Refugee Council, and Refuge Point to present the RCBI. These partners serve refugee populations in Eastleigh, but currently rent space. The establishment of the RCBI could bring partner activities under one roof, allowing for cross-pollination, lesson sharing, and synergies that benefit end users. We could offer partners subsidized rates to use our space in exchange for RefuSHE alumni participation in their skill building workshops - a win-win where our partners meet targets at a reduced cost and our alumni benefit from more offerings. Potential legal advocacy partners like the Refugee Consortium of Kenya or Kituo Cha Sheria could use our space to host legal clinics, reducing their cost for space and giving alumni access to needed documentation services.

What part of the displacement journey is your solution addressing

  • Arriving and settling at a destination community

Tell us how you'd describe the type of innovation you are proposing

  • Platform: Creating a community or market that facilitates interaction between users and resources

Idea Proposal Stage

  • Blueprint: We are exploring the idea and gathering the inspiration and information we need to test it with real users.

Group or Organization Name

RefuSHE (formerly Heshima Kenya)

Tell us more about your group or organization [or lived experience as a displaced person?] (1000 characters)

RefuSHE serves unaccompanied, orphaned, and separated girls, young women, and their children who have fled conflict in their countries and come to Kenya for safety. We are the only organization in Kenya exclusively designed to serve the needs of this vulnerable population. Our programs meet their urgent needs for safety, shelter, healthcare, counseling, case management, and community while ensuring they work towards building skills, confidence, and a dignified livelihood. They enroll in an accelerated primary education program with literacy, math, life-skills, and vocational training. The RCBI is an enhancement of our community outreach and livelihoods program, under which we conduct activities to support the social, economic, and political integration of refugee girls into the local community. We are recognized leaders in the ecosystem for our holistic approach that empowers young women and works with a network of partners to better serve our target population – people on the move.

Website URL:

Type of submitter

  • We are a registered Non-Profit Organization

Organization Headquarters: Country

USA and Kenya

Organization Headquarters: City / State

Chicago, IL, USA and Nairobi, Kenya

In preparation for expert feedback: What are three unanswered questions or challenges that you could use support on in these categories? These questions will be answered directly by experts matched specifically to your idea. (600 characters)

1) Is one year realistic for a pilot and to know whether our idea will work? Are there any components of our model that we should hold off on or add later into the pilot? 2) The fee structure (for workshop space, trainings, sewing machine rental, etc) - do we introduce this slowly or start from the beginning? Can we change the fee structure as we go (as we learn) or do we need to keep it the same for the year and adjust after? 3) If we get real time feedback on major components of the model, what’s the best way to adapt as we go?

Did you use the resources offered during the Improve Phase (mentorship, expert feedback, community research)? (2000 characters)

We used all of the resources offered during the Improve Phase. We used the Community Research Guide to formulate questions for our target groups – RefuSHE alumni, refugee women in the community that we already work with, and members of the host community. We split these populations into two groups – alumni and community members. Since the centerpiece of the RCBI idea was a tailoring workshop in which our alumni could upgrade their skills under the mentorship of established tailors, we asked refugee women to each bring a Kenyan tailor with them to the design workshop. We held the workshops in the community in which we plan to pilot and ended up spending the entire day getting rich feedback on our idea. We spoke with strategic partner Xavier Project about helping us turn the alumni association into a community-based organization (CBO), and with Cisco about supporting us to establish the IT center in the RCBI. Cisco is very enthusiastic about the center and is ready to provide full spectrum IT training to staff members so they can train alumni and community members. Cisco shared with us their experience on a similar program in Uganda and came to our campus to evaluate the possibility of starting a pilot IT center on our campus until the RCBI is established. We had a conversation with UNHCR about the RCBI, and they’re interested in donating IT equipment. Refining and reformulating our concept during the BridgeBuilder Improve Phase has spurred these conversations; with a clearer idea, we’re able to speak more concisely about what we plan to do and achieve.

In what ways would potential BridgeBuilder funds allow you to pursue your idea that other funding opportunities have not? (1000 characters)

Most donors prefer to fund our foundational programming of protection and education of female refugee minors: work we have done well for 10 yrs that produces quick, tangible results. Supporting young women to become economically empowered is difficult and we’ll need a proven model for success to entice new donors to fund this adaptation to our model. We don’t have all the answers and can’t guarantee quick results - difficult for the traditional donor system to support. We’ll need to build an agile pilot to navigate the challenging enabling environment for refugees in Kenya. We expect that as we find a solution to one barrier we’ll learn of another and we’ll need to continually learn, re-listen to users, and adapt the model. Our long-term donors are interested in funding the RCBI, so seed funding from BB will allow us to start building, testing, and sharing learnings so that traditional funders know we’re serious and capable of doing this

What aspects or proportion of the overall idea would potential BridgeBuilder funds primarily support? (1000 characters)

BB will fund initial staff, rent, equipment, and materials for Phase 1 of our pilot, estimated at $250,000. In Phase 1 we’ll convert the Alumni Association (AA) to a CBO with the help of partner Xavier Project so they can manage a small loan scheme and access capital for their businesses. We’ll establish the business advisory / mentoring component as wraparound, mandatory services for loan recipients. We’ll extend the lease on our current space in Eastleigh to create the tailoring workshop and the IT center, and begin mobilizing community tailors to rent sewing machines and train RefuSHE alumni. We’ve begun leveraging other resources to cover full pilot costs. Cisco has verbally agreed to provide the IT training curriculum at the RCBI, train our trainers, and help us find donated equipment. Two of our established donors are also interested in funding the RCBI.

What are the key steps or activities for your idea for implementation in the next 1-3 years? (1000 characters)

In year 1 we will focus on building, testing, and improving Phase 1 of our the RCBI, as detailed above. Phase 1 will focus on ensuring the model works for our alumni and refugee women in the community that are already in our network. We will slowly build the incentive structure to bring in host community members. In year/phase 2, we will expand the RCBI to include more diverse vocational training and income-generating spaces based on demand we learn of in year 1, e.g. beauty services, retail space, catering workshop. We will begin hiring community entrepreneurs to lead trainings and workshops on high-demand vocational skills. During phase 2, we will focus on integrating the host community into RCBI activities, testing our incentives and our hypothesis that livelihoods-based activities can be a link to greater social cohesion among refugees and host community. Year 3 we will focus on the social cohesion piece and how to provide value add to the community at large

What will community-level impact look like over the timeframe of your idea? How will you determine whether or not you have achieved that impact? And what outstanding questions do you still have? (1000 characters)

The RCBI has 2 goals 1) Refugee women experience improved economic and social well-being and 2) Demonstrate that social and economic integration of refugees is beneficial for both refugees and the host community in Kenya. We’ll know we’re progressing toward goal 1 when refugees in the RCBI earn more income, have more skill sets, have expanded social / economic networks and no longer need the support of RefuSHE or other orgs to economically survive. Goal 2 is ambitious and aims to influence the enabling environment in Kenya. We’ll know we’re progressing when the RCBI is a hub of activity for both host community and refugees, when host community members also see increased incomes, skill sets, and social networks as a result of the RCBI, and when host community and refugee participants are uniting for economic relationships: business partners, employer/employee, mentor/apprentice.

Describe the individual or team that will implement this idea (if a partnership, please explain breakdown of roles and responsibilities for each entity). (1000 characters)

Our current Livelihoods Manager, Joseph, will oversee technical management of the RCBI under the supervision of RefuSHE’s executive team which will guide strategy. Our Head of Growth & Impact will support Joseph with monitoring, evaluation, and reporting. Joseph will supervise a full-time Program Coordinator who will oversee daily operations of the center; a Business Advisor who will sit on the steering committee of the Alumni Association, guide business development services, and oversee the loaning mechanism; and an IT trainer. Finally, we will hire a part-time counselor/social worker, business trainer, and tailoring trainer. 

Lastly, how did you apply new learnings to your idea? (1000 characters)

We received rich feedback from users. We assumed alumni had tailoring skills that were close to ready to take to market, but, based on feedback from community tailors, learned they’ll require significant upskilling to be competitive. We learned that current alumni view access to capital as the biggest impediment to their economic success, so shifted our model to create and prioritize a loaning structure. We learned that we need to segment our alumni to cater to their differing needs. Our current alumni have small businesses that they want help expanding, so they’ll come to the center for business advisory and expansion services whereas future alumni cohorts desire to continue sharpening their tailoring skills while starting their business. We learned we need to slowly build to the full model in order to be realistic about financial viability and to test and adapt before we build another layer, and have created phases for activities and target groups.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Brittany Boettcher

Hi Jessi, I wanted to respond to your expert questions.
1) Is one year realistic for a pilot and to know whether our idea will work? Are there any components of our model that we should hold off on or add later into the pilot?
Yes – one year is a lot of time! You can learn a lot about which parts of the model work for your clients, but you may not know if the whole model will work as these solutions can take time. Instead of focusing on all vocational training, computer classes, modern tailoring, try one program area to start with. You can test and build from there.

2) The fee structure (for workshop space, trainings, sewing machine rental, etc) - do we introduce this slowly or start from the beginning? Can we change the fee structure as we go (as we learn) or do we need to keep it the same for the year and adjust after?
I would not change with the same group/participant. You could perhaps pilot different process points within different community groups, or try pricing out different components with the model (ie a price for training, price for using the equipment). I would not change the price with the same client in the midst of the pilot. You may also consider loans, similar to what some organizations that focus on smallholder agriculture (ie One Acre Fund?). You might also look at other orgs in the community that are charging fees to see what models are realistic for your setting.

3) If we get real time feedback on major components of the model, what’s the best way to adapt as we go?
Make sure you have a light enough implementation that you can pivot in real time, this will keep you clients happy when they see changes made quickly. If you do a weekly or bi-weekly upgrade to the model, you can make small tweaks along the way so by the end of the year you are in a good place with a model that could be expanded upon for other types of training/services. Look into Agile methodologies that can be adopted to your, we've found this helpful for programs in our office.

Photo of Jessi Wolz

Brittany Boettcher Thank you so much! This is very helpful feedback.

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