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Refugee entrepreneurs creating jobs & dignity

Providing loans, consulting, and training to refugee entrepreneurs so they can improve their livelihoods, create jobs and have more choice.

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

AEC is helping build businesses that transform the lives of refugees in East Africa. Leveraging our proven model in Rwanda, AEC is launching a refugee livelihoods program in Kenya to serve 2500 refugee entrepreneurs in the next 3 years to create lasting economic impact. More than 180,000 refugees live in Northern Kenya in the Kakuma Refugee Camp and Kalobeyei Settlement. Kakuma (which means "nowhere" in Swahili) ironically has a vibrant community of refugee vendors and trades-people from across Eastern and Central Africa. But far outnumbering the shops, are the thousands of young people who have no job, no means of economic choice, and no access to capital to start and grow a business. For years, big donors have supplied food and goods to refugees, and in the process, have limited the chance for the refugee economy to grow on its own. Today, with a global refugee crisis of 65 million, funds for aid are diminishing, and refugees - particularly in East Africa which is often overlooked - need innovative solutions to take care of their families. AEC has tested a solution to this problem by helping refugees start and grow businesses. We provide skills-building trainings, followed by tailored consulting to put new knowledge into practice, and supplement skills with access to finance. In a 6-month program, refugees entrepreneurs: - START WITH A BOOTCAMP comprised of sales/marketing lessons, bookkeeping, and operations; - APPLY LEARNING WITH CONSULTING with advisors who provide direct support to business owners. Our advisors can surface issues, problem solve, and create market linkages; and - ACCESS AFFORDABLE LOANS as we are the only lender to refugees in Kenya, and the largest refugee lender in Sub-Saharan Africa. With Kiva, we charge affordable rates so refugees can use funds to grow, not get saddled with debt. As a result, refugees will create jobs to benefit their families, other refugees, and the host community at large.

Geography of focus (500 characters)

Kakuma Refugee Camp in Northern Kenya, one of the world's largest refugee camps, is an isolated, desolate place where opportunities and resources are scant. But this community, home to 180,000 refugees from South Sudan, Ethiopia, Sudan, DR Congo, and 15 other countries and 60,000 Kenyans is also a bustling hub of economic activity. According to a 2018 IFC report, Kakuma residents spend $56 million annually on goods/services, but the camp doesn't have enough businesses to meet consumer demands.

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)

The world is more peaceful and stable when people have the opportunity to work, support their family, live self-reliantly, and to contribute to their community. We promote peace and prosperity through business partnerships. When refugee and host neighbors see each other as competitors, everyone loses. But businesses can grow when refugees and locals work together. Refugees need host businesses to expand their supply chains, and host businesses need refugees to reach thousands more customers.

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

At AEC we offer refugees two simple but equally important things: the tools to succeed and the belief that they can. Most people who arrive in refugee camps were pastoralists or farmers in their home countries, so they often need basic business education and resources to actually run a business. But they also need to be believed in and trusted. For instance, institutional lenders won't give money to refugees because they are seen as "flight risks" and "don't know the difference between a grant and a loan." This attitude is pervasive, paternalistic, and misunderstands the refugee experience. Instead, we give loans to refugees by evaluating their business based on the product-market fit, their character, cash flow analysis, etc. By treating a refugee business like any other, we show that we see beyond their status, bringing dignity and respect to every interaction. Refugees can be tremendous contributors to their communities if given access. And contributing brings joy and hope.

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

AEC offers refugee clients very practical and hands-on business development solutions that drive growth. In Rwanda, our participants created significant positive change within their communities. Over the last 3 years, AEC's refugee entrepreneurs created more than 2,400 new jobs and generated $2.9 million USD in new revenues circulating in the refugee camp/local economy. 85% of participants reported that because of their business growth, they had more money for household expenses and savings. While we have only recently launched in Kenya, we expect that our results will be similar to those we've created in Rwanda. AEC collects data on entrepreneurs at three main points: 1) Baseline Survey; 2) Endline Survey; and 3) Annual Follow-up for three years after the program ends. We use a sampling method with a 95% confidence level. We also host Focus Groups every 3 months for real-time feedback where we solicit participant suggestions for improvement.

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

Globally, 85% of refugees flee from their homes to a neighboring country. These host countries are most often low-income hosts with limited resources themselves, yet they offer refugees safe haven and protection. But in order to protect refugees with little funding, often host countries restrict refugees to camps, limiting their movement and access to social services. Refugees sit idly, waiting for home to become safe again or for them to be among a rare few to be resettled in Europe or North America. This year, there are 70+million refugees, IDPs, and asylum-seekers. 70 million people with hopes, dreams, ideas, and skills. Our goal is to showcase the drive and talents of refugees. We will change the narrative from refugees are "burdens" to refugees as assets. The best way to do this is by supporting refugee entrepreneurs, people with ideas and ambitions to bring much-needed goods/services into low-resourced camps, and support them to create jobs and innovation in their communities

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

When flying into Kakuma Refugee Camp, visitors are often struck by how vast and dry the area is, and how dramatic it is to see thousands of shack and make-shift structures housing 180,000 refugees; 85% arriving in the last 10 years, and 50% in the last 5 years. But once on the ground, opinions quickly change. Amidst endless poverty, Kakuma is buzzing with activity. Divided into 4 sub-camps, there are more than 2,000 businesses in the camp offering residents daily access to food, restaurants, phone credits, mobile money, groceries, and other supplies. Most of these business owners have no or very little formal schooling, and even less financial literacy. According to a 2018 IFC report, 73% of camp respondents have "no information on financial matters" and almost no refugee business can access formal capital to start or grow a business. Kakuma is a perfect place for AEC to create impact: strong business potential, but low skills and access to capital to grow.

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

When we first decided to work with refugees, we put the idea to a vote with our staff. 100% unanimously, we decided to launch business services for refugee entrepreneurs. One colleague summed it up: we are the refugee experience ourselves. AEC has a data-backed program, but more importantly, this work comes from the lived experiences of our team. Our families are impacted. Our communities are impacted. Developing this program, we started with what lived, and then we interviewed dozens of refugees to check our assumptions. And then we tested the results - again and again. We have anonymous forms and hotlines and comment boxes. We've worked with youth, women, people with disabilities, single moms, single dads, people who speak our language, people who don't, people we share food with, share history with, share futures with. What makes us successful is that we build trust as we offer a new model that is imbued with dignity and self-determination.

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

At AEC, we believe in the value of partnership; this work is too hard to do alone, and we have much to learn from others. Therefore, we rely on key partners and other stakeholder to ensure that we are able to work effectively and efficiently to deliver our expected results. These are some of our early partners: • Vitol Foundation & Ikea Foundation to provide start-up capital • Kiva is our financing partner • Jesuit Refugee Services (JRS) is providing training facilities and office space • UNCHR & Kenyan Refugee Affairs Secretariat for facilitating our access to camps We also work with several community-based organizations, and within the leadership structure of the refugee camp. At each market within the camp, there is a president, vice president, etc, that presides over the administration of the market. We work closely with these community leaders for outreach and to make sure our services are in line with community needs.

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

  • Service: A new or enhanced service that creates value for end beneficiaries

Idea Proposal Stage

  • Early Adoption: We have completed a pilot and analyzed the impact of that pilot on the intended users of the idea. I have proof of user uptake (i.e. 16% to 49% of the target population or 1,000 to 50,000 users).

Group or Organization Name

African Entrepreneur Collective

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

AEC has supported more than 2,900 entrepreneurs across six refugee camps and three urban areas in Rwanda. These entrepreneurs have generated $2.9M in new revenues and have created more than 2,400 jobs, two-thirds of which went to Rwandans in the host community. African Entrepreneur Collective, a US 501c3 nonprofit organization, has the mission to create jobs through private sector development in Africa and beyond. We are guided by a strong international board of directors, including members from the communities we serve. AEC has a diverse staff of nearly 100 full time employees across East Africa, most with 5+ years of business development experience and advanced degrees (MBAs, CPAs). But more important than our qualifications are our deep personal connections to the refugee experience. Of our 100 full time employees, 10 are currently refugees, 21 once lived as refugees fleeing violence during the genocide in Rwanda, and 37 were born abroad to refugee parents.

Website URL: (Localized for Kenya at

Type of submitter

  • We are a registered Non-Profit Organization

Organization Headquarters: Country


Organization Headquarters: City / State


1 comment

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Photo of Zulfiqar Deo

Julienne Oyler  Thanks for sharing this. Have a look at our project Business financing for refugee entrepreneurs - be great to knowledge share.