Entrepreneurship enables refugees to positively interact with locals while being economically active

By: Vicki McKenna


As part of Oxfam’s livelihood programme, some 130 women have been trained in sewing techniques over the past two months, learning how to design practical handbags (Photo by Camille Dupire)

Migrants face a range of challenges when setting up entrepreneurial activities, which in many cases are interlinked and can stem from difficulties in accessing local business networks, lack of familiarity with the functioning of local labour markets and limited host-country specific human capital.

A study produced by Joint Institute for Innovation Policy (JIIP) and VVA Consulting “Evaluation and Analysis of Good Practices in Promoting and Supporting Migrant Entrepreneurship” found that socio-cultural and administrative difficulties could hamper the potential of migrant entrepreneurs and impact on the sustainability and growth potential of the businesses they set up. Consequently, the study emphasised the necessity for effective and targeted business support schemes supporting migrant entrepreneurs.

Among key recommendations, the study underlined that when designing migrant entrepreneurship support measures service providers and funders should take into account the existing instruments of support available in a given region or country that might help to address some of the specific obstacles faced by migrant entrepreneurs.

“Bridging to mainstream support schemes may foster migrant integration, provide entrepreneurs with access to a wide range of services, and benefit from non-targeted support measures. The offer of networking measures tasked with helping migrants to access local networks of entrepreneurs, service providers (including, crucially, credit institutions) and clients can provide opportunities for the migrant entrepreneurs and contribute to the success of their businesses,” the study concluded.

Yannick du Pont Director of Spark further underlines the key difficulties for refugees when setting up businesses. The main barrier mentioned was the problem with regulations and the obstacles that refugees with temporary protection status in the MENA region face in obtaining the right work permits.

Mr Du Pont explains how his organisation focuses on developing higher education and entrepreneurship in 17 conflict-affected or fragile countries. He further points to the background of Spark, noting how it began in 1994 supporting universities in conflict, Bosnia, and later Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya. While SPARK worked a lot on the quality of higher education at this time, the focus shifted 12 years ago to focusing on jobs creation, entrepreneurship development and assisting SMEs to grow.

“Our motivation was very much based on the request we received, from the youth we worked with. Youth unemployment in the countries we work in is extremely high. In most of these countries it’s over 40%, amongst refugees it’s even higher, so we shifted our attention to entrepreneurship about 12 years ago and also the support we provide in the field of  higher education is now always related to economic growth and the labour market, so how to make the education more relevant to the job market, or how to integrate entrepreneurship into the curriculum,” said Mr Du Pont.

The rapid scaling in Spark’s activities was linked to the surge in migrant flows to Europe, as policy makers then put more resources into stemming migrant flows, while the interest rose in funding initiatives that created opportunity for people in the regions around Syria, Mr Du Pont added.

“Our motivation was the same, we started four or five years ago when there was little attention for higher education and entrepreneurship for Syrian refugees in the region. It was very meagre I would say, it was quite hard to find support for those kind of activities, it was mostly humanitarian, so we had a really hard time finding support.”

Promoting refugee entrepreneurship can have wide-ranging benefits, not only empowering individuals, but also helping to combat discrimination and social exclusion. In this regard, Mr Du Pont emphasised that entrepreneurship enables refugees to be “economically active’ thereby allowing them to interact in a positive way with people from the local community. Secondly entrepreneurship can reduce the reliability on benefits and also reduce the cost to the community which in turn can create a better atmosphere, Mr Du Pont argued.

Spark’s role in showcasing good examples of refugee entrepreneurship was further stressed, particularly relating to refugees’ economic contribution, as well as their creation of jobs in the local community. “I think work is the number one factor in promoting integration across the board. In order to succeed as an entrepreneur, it’s often a necessity that you do so with local entrepreneurs, that you do so with people from the local environment that can help you succeed in your business.”

Also, if people “start interacting with setting up a business or doing business with the host community, then the host community actually sees them as a positive contributing factor instead of just being there and drawing on social and financial resources of the country.”

The role of governments and NGOs in supporting refugee entrepreneurship was further emphasised. Specifically, Mr Du Pont drew attention to the need for policies that approach migrants and refugees in a positive way, and not just as a social case, but rather as an individual who has a certain skill set and ambition level, that can be built on.

“A lot of programming is about protecting this person, you need to shield this person, you need to build a social buffer. Again, we need to have this protection, but we need to look at it in a different way, build a database on arrival on prior study level, ambition level what they want to become, what are their dreams. It’s just not there, it’s not part of the intake, we know about their traumatic experiences, we know about why they fled, but we should also be asking about what they want to become and how we can help them in that,” Mr Du Pont concluded.

Lara Shahin is a Damascus-born Syrian who started relief work with Syrian refugees in Jordan in the middle of 2012, specifically helping to distribute food and money. However, she explains that after a year she realised that she could do more to help the refugees in Jordan to support themselves. It was with this in mind that she decided to set up her handicraft company, Syrian Jasmine in Amman in 2014.

Jasmine Syria. Photo Lara Shahin

Jasmine sells handmade soap, baby clothes, toys, creams, jewellery and other products. While 90% of the employees are Syrian women, the rest are Jordanian, Palestinian and Iraqis. The Iraqis work in Jordan and they take the Jasmine products, like soap or crochet to Iraq and sell them in Iraq.  Furthermore, the Jordanians and Palestinians make the clothes, while the Syrians being good at sewing finish them, Shahin explains.

“I got my idea for Jasmine from refugees who I previously helped who were working at home, making a chair or some clothes, or something for the home. I thought I could use these skills to develop training which could be used to make amazing products to sell inside Jordan or outside Jordan.

I started with handmade products, like crochet, or wool, embroidery and sewing and started to sell on our web page and Facebook. After that when the Syrians saw what we were selling and what we were doing, lots of Syrian women came to me. Sometimes the ladies work with food, some ladies design clothes, some of them make candles, a lot of beautiful things.”

Shahin’s focus for this business has been very much directed towards women. She explains that 70% of refugees in Jordan are women and children, because a lot of them left their husband or son in Syria to flee to the neighbouring country. Consequently, they are often trying to support both their husband in Syria and their children in Jordan. Shahin further emphasises that all of Jasmine’s products are made at home, so it’s easier for the ladies who want to work at home, while also helping their children, it’s easy for them.

While Shahin originally started with five ladies in 2014, there are now 70 women working with Jasmine. Pointing to a key success, Shahin underlines how Jasmine provided training for more than 1.000 women over 1 and half years between the middle of 2015, and the end of 2017. Out of this number, 200 started their own business at home and further support Shahin at Jasmine.

“The training doesn’t just develop the women’s skills, it also makes the women stronger for life in general, she can go out and buy her products, or buy her materials from the market and deal with people, she will be stronger to help others.

She learns more about how to make the products, a lot of women work on hand products, however, they’re not good enough to sell externally, so we teach them, give the women more experience on how to improve the product.”

The specific difficulties in setting up the company were stressed. Firstly, Shahin emphasises the challenges she faced being a female entrepreneur in Jordan. In this regard, she pointed to the difficulties she had as a woman when trying to register her business in government circles. Faced with serious delays in registering her company, she notes how she thought about closing her company in 2016. However, she stresses that thoughts of the 70 women working for Jasmine gave her the strength to continue.

Stressing the importance of this company, Shahin notes how it is helping to rebuild Syrian skills inside Jordan, in Germany and in Turkey. Training Syrians and developing their skills will help Syria when these individuals return. Furthermore, they will know how to start their business or how to make money, Shahin adds.

A young woman, with ambitious plans to have 1,000 people in her company with “branches of Jasmine throughout the world.” She further aims to “reach the global market” with her “interesting and amazing products” to “prove what Syrians can do.”

“My first goal to ensure all people get the opportunity to work, my target is to make these people stronger, because we need to be strong to go back to Syria and to rebuild Syria.”

She notes that the best part about setting up this company was the opportunity to help these women support themselves and pay for the rent of the house. Dedicated to her role, she adds that she works 16 hours a day, to create work opportunities and ensure that these women can work alongside her and have sufficient money.

“People don’t know I found my ladies in camps, very poor and weak. They looked like they had no future, they were broken, but when I brought these ladies into my company, they changed, so now they are empowered, they are strong and they say they must work hard they must learn more because they want to make money because they want to go back to Syria and buy a new home,” she concludes.

Burundian national Ange Muyubira has very varied experience. Although she notes that her background is in interpreting, she has the heart of an entrepreneur, having started selling hamburgers in her neighbourhood at the age of 16.

She explains that she loves to be financially independent and that from an early age she was able “to identify the needs that people had” and if there was any solution that she could bring. “From that young age, I lost my timidity of being an entrepreneur, interacting with people who were not of my age,” she says.

When the Burundian Civil War broke out in 1993 as a result of divisions between the Hutu and the Tutsi ethnic groups, Ange was forced to flee to Niger. She adds that she moved to Kenya in 1997 and then to England in 1999, where she stayed until 2009.

Having always loved fashion, art and craft, she gained some formal experience in fashion houses such as Bobbi Brown and Channel in England. She stresses that it was here that she realised how from humble beginnings hard work determination and focus could be used to form an international brand. She notes how she appreciated the diversity in London, adding that she was really encouraged during this period in England.

In 2008, Ange returned to Burundi in order to incorporate the entrepreneurial skills that she had gained in England. She explains that she officially set up her company Kaz’O’zah as a means of supporting artisans on 3 July 2012. She notes that she started with 5 women, who were only doing beads and jewellery, but adds that there are now 730 artisans on the database in Burundi and also 138 in Uganda.

Although the company started out as a small enterprise it is growing into a medium enterprise, with further assurances that it will move out of the SME category. Ange explains that she works with refugees in Uganda, adding that having been a refugee she always has that “sensitivity towards that lack of opportunity,” especially in Africa.

“My motivation was definitely to provide opportunities for artisans. I don’t like being broke, I don’t like people around me being broke, especially when I see that they work hard. It didn’t start with a business plan, but was something that came from a desire to help.

I saw that artisans were not making good income or even having consistent jobs because they were making out-dated products, not making things that responded to the needs of the market, or things that are useful and essential.”

Kaz’O’zah means ‘future’ in Kirundi, one of the principal languages in Burundi. Its goal is to create a future for Burundian artist by providing them with the necessary skills and support they require to achieve their full potential.

This company has really contributed to promoting sustainable development in Burundi, Ange notes. In the first instance, she explains how the artisanal sector is typically considered as an informal sector across Africa. However, she counters that Kaz’O’zah has contributed to making it formal, in terms of having a proper structure in the organisation, having financing in order and having products registered.

Ange notes that the meaning of artisanal in her language means ‘joke.’ On the other hand, though, she explains that socially, the value of an artisan has grown, as the company has helped formalise the sector. Likewise, she explains how her company has really supported the local economy.

The artisans who work for Kaz’O’zah have been able to “support their families on a consistent basis, their livelihoods are way better, from where they live to how they put their kids to school to their medical care, all that is quite well-tracked. It’s a great joy and pride to see that Burundians have learnt to consume local and being proud to use local products. They see that the products that we make are competitive.”

Kaz’O’zah’s promotion of sustainable practices is also evident in the use of locally sourced material. For instance, the jewellery makers specialize in creating items made out of vegetable ivory, a nut seed which derives from the native Burundian Umukoko plant (Hyphaene Ventricosa) Likewise, the woodworkers who carve different objects such as business card holders, key chains, candle holders, and mirror frames. These woodworkers source all of their wood from Burundi, with the primary sources being cedar and eucalyptus.

Photo: Spark

The focus of this company is on communities. In the first instance, Ange points to the need to support mothers living in extreme poverty who need income. Kaz’O’zah also supports male artisans, youth and young graduates who finish their education but are not market ready. In this manner, Kaz’O’zah aims to absorb them in the entrepreneurial business and equip them with the necessary skills to manage the fashion cooperatives.

“My love for recycling is to put value on what’s already existing, so we recycle not only products, but also techniques. There’s the old artisanal techniques that we have in our culture that used to make traditional products, which are out-dated, but then if you use that technique and recycle it and do something that’s modern, then it’s interesting.

We recycle left-over fabric, we recycle it for something else, but also it adds value. Then, the other parts of recycling which goes to recycling techniques and that goes into adding value to the Burundian artisanal culture, which was being completely forgotten,” Ange concludes.