Kenya/Covid-19: The life-saving refugee in one of the world's largest camps

Published on 25/12/2020 | La rédaction


When Innocent Havyarimana started his soap-making business in Kenya's Kakuma refugee camp in early 2015, he was trying to overcome the traumatic events that had caused him to flee his home country, Burundi, a year earlier.

Little did he know that his craft business would become a major battlefront in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic in one of the largest camps of its kind in the world - Kakuma is home to nearly 200,000 people.

As soon as Innocent realized the importance of handwashing in the fight against the spread of Covid-19, he lowered prices and began offering the soaps in smaller quantities and sizes, making them more affordable to his peers.

"Everyone needs soap, but not everyone can afford it. So I lowered the prices because it was more important to protect people than to think about profit," the 35-year-old told the BBC.

"I had to increase my production by 75 per cent to meet demand when the pandemic started, so Covid-19 was good for my business.

"But I made sure I gave free soap to vulnerable people like the elderly and disabled.

Innocent's initiative has been praised by UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, which often highlights the contribution of refugee entrepreneurs to their host communities.

"Refugees play a vital role in helping to contain the spread of Covid-19 in Kakuma," Eujin Byun, UNHCR spokesperson in Kenya, told the BBC.

"They have helped in many ways, from disseminating information about the virus to helping people take the necessary steps.

Byun said she was not surprised by Innocent's decision to lower prices.

"Refugees are very community oriented and they will look after each other. They have already helped us to do our work in situations like this.

She mentions another case of Kakuma, that of Maombi Samil, a 24-year-old refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who changed her tailoring business to focus on face masks during the pandemic. Her masks are now worn by UN staff.

Creating jobs

Innocent currently employs 42 people in its workshop, called GLAP Industries, which stands for God Loves All People.

Eighteen of its employees are actually Kenyans from the town of Kakuma.

GLAP supplies local businesses and institutions outside the camp and even relief agencies.

"Agencies buy my soaps to give them to refugees who cannot afford to buy them and for their own staff too," the Burundian proudly notes.

Innocent is not the only local soap merchant, but he is not afraid of competition, and even offers courses to teach people how to make cleaning products.

"I want to mentor women and young people so that they have the opportunity to become independent and improve their lives as I did," he says.

"I want to help the community in any way I can".

Efforts like his have helped keep Covid-19 at bay in Kakuma.

UNHCR's latest figures, as of December 9, show that there have been 318 confirmed cases but only eight of them are still under medical treatment. There have been nine deaths.

Kenya, as of 13 December, had registered about 91,900 cases nationwide, with 1,587 deaths, according to Ministry of Health figures.

Fleeing Burundi

Political instability and violence have forced more than 300,000 people to flee Burundi to neighbouring African countries in the past decade, according to UNHCR.

Innocent was in the midst of studying chemistry at the University of Burundi when he left. He says his life was in danger and that he was receiving death threats from relatives of his late mother, who also took over his house.

After arriving in Kakuma, he wanted to earn money for himself, rather than rely on humanitarian aid.

The camp is located in a remote and arid area where the provision of basic services is a challenge for relief agencies.

While exploring the area, Innocent noticed that there is no soap factory, which means that cleaning supplies have to be brought in from outside.

"I had no idea how to make soap, so I started surfing the web to gain knowledge," he explains.

He then enrolled in a soap-making course offered by the NGO World Lutheran Federation, and thanks to a loan from a former classmate in Burundi, he started the business with two assistants.

He has also received grants from humanitarian aid agencies, including UNHCR, and NGOs such as the African Entrepreneur Collective (AEC), which claims to have supported more than 18,000 refugee entrepreneurs.

Thriving businesses for refugees

"Innocent's story shows how refugees can contribute to their host communities in many ways," AEC President Julienne Oyler told the BBC.

"Camps like Kakuma are so isolated that entrepreneurs like him are a lifeline for basic goods and services at a time of blockades and other restrictions.

A 2018 World Bank study identified more than 2,000 businesses in Kakuma and estimated that they contribute more than 26 billion CFA francs ($50 million) to the local economy each year.

"Business in these communities is fascinating. Entrepreneurs like Innocent end up creating jobs for local people and making a difference outside their camps," said Ms. Oyler.

Michelle Richey, a professor of technology and entrepreneurship at Loughborough University who specializes in business ventures for refugees, says people like Innocent play a very important role in changing the general perception of refugees.

"The human potential of refugees is shown when we give them the opportunity to work instead of focusing solely on humanitarian issues," she says.

"We can help these people regain some control over their lives after all they've been through.

Building a successful business is not the only change in Havyarimana's life since he arrived in Kakuma; in 2017, he married Aline, another Burundian refugee he met in the camp.

They have two boys, and the youngest, Prince, was born at the end of November.

Havyarimana speaks fondly about life in Kakuma, but he dreams of being resettled in Australia or Canada.

"I love Kakuma very much, but I want to give my wife and children a better life," he says.

In the meantime, Innocent is working to expand his means of helping the community. In addition to offering 21 kinds of soap and cleaning products, he has developed a hand sanitizer made from aloe vera grown in a field just outside his workshop.

"The coronavirus has affected the whole world, but for us here in Kakuma it is even more important to wash our hands as much as possible," he says.


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