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Refugee Entrepreneurs Creating Jobs for Host Community Members

Supporting refugee entrepreneurs to grow businesses to improve self-reliance and to create jobs for their refugee and non-refugee neighbors.

Photo of Julienne Oyler
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Explain your project idea (2,000 characters)

In summary, AEC’s project is to support and invest in refugee entrepreneurs to drive economic development in refugee camps and neighboring host communities in Rwanda and Uganda. Through integrated business support consisting of business training, individual consulting, and access to low-cost financing, refugee entrepreneurs and their non-refugee neighbors will learn together, build business connections, create jobs for refugees and non-refugees that will drive peace and prosperity throughout the communities. In 2012, AEC was founded on the belief that local entrepreneurs drive economic development across their communities and countries. Over the past 5 years, AEC has worked with 500 local entrepreneurs who have brought to market meaningful products and services while creating more than 2,800 jobs for others in their communities. Our results over the past 5 years have demonstrated that African entrepreneurs are best suited for creating solutions to their communities’ most pressing needs, these entrepreneurs, though, are rarely engaged to address humanitarian needs on the continent or build peace. In 2016, AEC brought our flagship business development program and low-cost debt fund to refugee entrepreneurs living in refugee camps and urban areas in Rwanda. We piloted a program in partnership with UNHCR that provided refugees with 30 hours of business training. In addition, these participants received an average of 20 hours of one-on-one consulting with a business development advisor and access to our in-house, low-cost debt fund. Since the pilot, we have expanded our refugee entrepreneur program to 2,500 participants (including 1,700 participants this year) across 5 refugee camps and 3 urban areas in Rwanda. What is remarkable is that the 800 refugees in our 2017 cohort created a total of 2,600 jobs; 800 jobs were filled by refugees and 1,600 were filled by Rwandan nationals. Through this opportunity, we want to expand these services to refugees in Uganda.

Who are the beneficiaries? (1,000 characters)

AEC identifies two types of beneficiaries: refugee entrepreneurs and host community entrepreneurs. Refugee entrepreneurs have fled violence and persecution in DRC or Burundi. Some Congolese refugees fled as long as 20 years ago, while others are still crossing the border every day from continuous violence in DRC. Most of the Burundian refugees fled in 2016. Some of these refugees were small business owners in their home countries, so they are bringing their entrepreneurial spirit and talents to their host countries. Others were farmers, and are new to running a business. All refugees, regardless of time or background know that they cannot thrive on donor subsistence alone. These refugees know that entrepreneurship is a pathway to more dignified and self-reliant lives. Host community entrepreneurs in our program live within 10 kilometers of a refugee camp. Since most camps are in rural areas, host communities are also isolated economies and could benefit from development opportunities.

How is your idea unique? (1,000 characters)

AEC didn’t start out working with refugee entrepreneurs. Our belief is that local entrepreneurs are best positioned to drive economic development and job creation in their communities as a way to end poverty. When AEC started working with refugees, we did so because there was a gap serving refugees with the same kind of self-reliance programming that we were seeing create economic growth for those in our “mainstream” program. Our idea is unique is because of our initial orientation: we didn’t see refugees as humanitarian beneficiaries, but we saw refugees as potential entrepreneurs who, like local entrepreneurs, could grow their businesses, have dignity, and create jobs. By treating refugees with the same sense of potential as any other entrepreneur, we are able to focus on the practical solutions to business needs. Leveraging the local knowledge that we have in working with hundreds of other entrepreneurs, we were able to tailor the program to meet refugee particularities.

Idea Proposal Stage (choose one)

  • Majority Adoption: I have expanded the pilot significantly and the program product or service has been adopted by the majority of our intended user base.

Tell us more about your organization/company (1 sentence and website URL)

AEC combats unemployment in Africa by supporting and investing in local entrepreneurs to grow their businesses and create jobs for others in their communities.

Expertise in sector

  • 1-2 years

Organization Filing Status

  • Yes, we are a registered non-profit.
  • Yes, we are a registered company.

In 3-4 sentences, tell us the inspiration or story that encouraged you to start this project.

It was a hands-down 100% vote from across our Rwanda staff to start working with other East African refugees. Many of AEC's 60 staff are just one family story away from a refugee experience themselves, so when aid funding started to run out in Rwanda and Uganda for refugees, it was the compassion of our team pushed us to respond to the call for new models of self-sufficiency. A new "cash transfer" program opens a unique economic moment to prove what's possible when you invest in people.

Please explain how your selected topic areas are influenced, in the local context of your project (1,000 characters).

When the Rwandan genocide started, it was after entrenched divisions of class, not ethnicity. The difference of classifications in Rwanda was based on the number of cows that one family had. When we look at the major factors of peace, it is indeed prosperity that prevents atrocities against one another. For refugees, who are displaced into a new community, they are often seen as a drain on local resources, and demonized for what they “take” rather than what they can give. We have seen through engaging refugees as business owners that they can not only create jobs for themselves, but they can also create economic prosperity and jobs for their host communities, thus changing the narrative about what it means to be a stranger in a strange land. Refugees are not only displaced by violence and political unrest in their home communities, but increasingly, we see the effects of climate change in displacing people across nations and borders.

Who will work alongside your organization in the project idea? (1,000 characters)

AEC engages a number of different stakeholders in this project. We work with the Rwandan government, UNHCR, donors agencies, and other NGOs. We also work with the local governments in the host communities, as well as the elected leadership in refugee camps and urban areas.

Please share some of the top strengths identified in the community which your project will serve (500 characters)

Refugee communities are resilient and resourceful. Refugees want to live with dignity. They want to strive for self-reliance. Refugees already demonstrate that when given the power to make their own decisions, they make better ones than aid orgs. And when the political environment allows and there are practical business service providers, magic can happen. Host communities are welcoming, for the most part. They are even more so when they see a win-win from integrating with refugee communities

Geographic Focus

East Africa

How many months are required for the project idea? (500 characters)

20 months

Did you submit this idea to our 2017 BridgeBuilder Challenge? (Y/N)

  • No


Join the conversation:

Photo of Bagalana Ali

Hi Juliene, this sounds a great idea especially with the increasing numbers of refugees in East and central Africa due to instability in the different countries such as DRC, Burundi, South Sudan e.t.c

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