New Internationalist

We mean business!

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Refugees in a Rwandian camp are finding enterprising ways to make a living, discovers Wil Morat.

He was an 18-year-old orphan when he crossed the border into Rwanda as a refugee, fleeing the violence that had overtaken the Congo.

But no one could guess it watching Dieudonne Tuyisenge work from behind his sewing machine. In 1996, he arrived at a refugee camp near the Rwandan town of Kibuye, sitting across a lake that borders the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). A refugee given sanctuary by a country still recovering from the 1994 genocide, Tuyisenge had to subsist on meagre food rations from the United Nations.

Yet today, his shop is stocked with food, cookware, soap, handbags, clothing and other miscellaneous items for sale.

He has no higher education, no access to a formal banking system and no transportation. Nevertheless, Tuyisenge has an entrepreneur’s acumen, importing supplies from Kibuye to sell in the camp and reinvesting profit to purchase another sewing machine.

Photo by: Serenity Clerk
Dieudonne Tuyisenge, who started his tailoring business in 2004, works on a dress for a customer in his shop. Photo by: Serenity Clerk

All this he built from a single $22 grant in 2003. Tuyisenge is one of 18,000 refugees at Kiziba Refugee Camp, and is similar to many more displaced people across Africa that prove the best way to help refugees isn’t just by dropping food from airplanes. Many refugees have, with the right resources, taken control in the one way that comes natural to every human being – by earning a living.

The kind of micro-grant that Tuyisenge turned into a steady income was made possible by the American Refugee Committee. Funded through the US State Department, as well as private donations, the ARC manages three Congolese refugee camps in Rwanda for the UN High Commission for Refugees.

After the 1994 Rwandan genocide that took nearly one million lives, many perpetrators fled to the DRC (formerly Zaire). Over the last 13 years, various militias have tried to root out the genocidaires, while also fighting for power in the new government after the fall of the Zairian dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko. Conservative estimates claim that since 1996, the conflict and associated violence, rape, human rights abuses and disease have caused the deaths of nearly four million Congolese. Many have fled their homeland to neighbouring countries; many more are internally displaced.

Finding solutions

Since thousands of Congolese have been in Rwanda for at least a decade, the ARC is trying to find solutions for long-term displacement. Their Income Generation Programme plans for the future by focusing on skills training that creates self-sustaining communities who can share with others what they’ve learned. The ARC assembles groups of people with similar interests – sewing, farming, selling food – and teaches them how to write a business plan before providing the start-up capital to get the business rolling. These projects primarily target vulnerable refugees, such as orphans, widows, the disabled, child-headed households or HIV/AIDS patients. Nothing is individual – all of the income projects are only funded as a group. When working with a displaced population, re-establishing trust among neighbours is critical to give people back the sense of community they lost when they fled their homes.

The ARC may have an American name, but its 193 Rwandan and Congolese employees are better suited to tackle the reality of day-to-day life in East Africa and the challenges of being a refugee.

The best way to help refugees isn’t just by dropping food from airplanes. Many refugees have, with the right resources, taken control in the one way that comes natural to every human being – by earning a living

Gervais Baziga, a native Congolese who grew up in Rwanda, has been the manager of Kiziba Camp for two years. His smile and affable personality puts residents at ease, and he isn’t deterred by the logistics of co-ordinating with the UN bureaucracy. Baziga still finds time to joke with camp residents: grabbing a photo opportunity, he sits at one of Tuyisenge’s sewing machines and pretends he knows what he’s doing – much to the amusement of the other tailors.

After a dozen years, and now as one of 13 partners in a tailoring business, Tuyisenge seems settled in Kiziba. Last year, the group voted him manager of the store that supplements their sewing income.

The Jesuit Refugee Service initially trained the tailors in 2003, but without seed capital and a market, their sewing skills couldn’t be put to use. After learning how to write a business plan with some help from the ARC, Tuyisenge and two partners submitted their proposal in 2004, and the ARC then funded each of the three tailors the $22 necessary to make their plan a reality. ‘Everything is decided as a group,’ Tuyisenge says, too engaged to look up from the dress he is working on at his machine. ‘All the money goes back into the business. If we have enough, we will buy another machine so we don’t have to rent so many.’

A new trade

Whether they remain tailors once they return to the DRC, or use their business knowledge to start a new trade, Tuyisenge and his fellow haberdashers are equipped to earn a living. Kiziba has plenty of similar refugees that have refused to put their life on hold: residents operate their own bakery, restaurant, central market and even a savings and loan institution.

Unlike the tailors, some residents don’t automatically reinvest their profit, and instead want to save their money to buy clothes, extra food or help with some of their children’s school expenses. To provide an option, the ARC initiated the Voluntary Savings & Lending Association, which goes by the French acronym AVEP.

Camp residents hired to organize and facilitate different projects, known around Kiziba as ‘animators’, form groups of 15 to 30 people. AVEP members can buy ‘shares’ at a pre-determined amount (about $1-2) and earn 10 per cent on their investment. They can also take out individual loans at 10 per cent interest, assuming all group members approve through a vote. Ernest Kanaume, one of the AVEP animators, says most members sell unused rations from the UNHCR, such as cooking oil, to generate money they can save. ‘Each person that saves gets a benefit: they can buy extra clothes or better food. Then others in the camp see that benefit and they come to us asking to join an [AVEP] group,’ Kanaume explains.

The groups mandate that each member must donate a specific portion each month to a ‘social fund’. The group can decide, through a vote, to use that donation to help fellow members in need. Without a government and taxes, the groups have essentially formed a social security system to make sure their neighbours don’t slip through the cracks. And it’s the kind of system they can transplant back in their own communities when they return home to the DRC.

The camp functions just like any other community in the world. There are schools for residents and medical facilities for both refugees and local Rwandans. There is even an elected camp president, who likes to flag down the UNHCR vehicles for the kind of leisurely chats one might expect on a Sunday afternoon on Main Street.

Overcoming obstacles

The key resource that is missing in Kiziba is land. The population pressures in Rwanda mean unfarmed land is scarce, especially for refugees. Yet like all entrepreneurs, Kiziba residents find ways to overcome obstacles. Last spring, ARC animators formed a group of six residents that were interested in farming, who then negotiated a lease – on their own – with a local landowner. It’s a small plot of land, situated on a steep hillside, but with some seed money (literally) from the ARC, the group is now supplementing their families’ UNHCR rations by growing fresh potatoes and kidney beans.

Despite there being older male group members, Jeanette Ngabuyeka, a young woman who isn’t as shy as her smile suggests, is the natural leader. She says the first crop also generated enough for them to save seeds for the next season.

Without a government and taxes, the groups have essentially formed a social security system to make sure their neighbours don’t slip through the cracks. And it’s the kind of system they can transplant back in their own communities when they return home to the DRC

‘It takes about three months to harvest a crop,’ Ngabuyeka says. Despite not having great rains the first season, the farmers aren’t discouraged. ‘We want more land, eventually to have enough to sell part of the crop and make money. But land is hard to get.’

The ARC is helping address the land problem with a new kitchen-garden project. Eight small plots inside the camp have been designated to groups of 15 to 20 members. Each group will simultaneously raise chickens and rabbits to provide fertilizer for the garden, in addition to being able to sell the eggs and meat in Kibuye. A one-time grant of about $7,000 provided the necessary seeds, animals, feed, medicine and training for the first three months. After that, the project will be self-sustaining.

Photo by: Serenity Clerk
Jeanette Ngabuyeka says the beans, potatoes, and bananas that grow on their plot of land supplement the UNHCR food rations. Photo by: Serenity Clerk

Jean De Dieu, a camp animator overseeing the project, disagrees with the ARC’s policy of only funding projects that use resources native to the area. He says he wants ‘improved’ chickens – genetically-bred birds that provide bigger eggs and more meat.

But similar to every other ARC project, the goal is only to help refugees reach that first rung on the ladder; the rest is up to them. Once profitable, the groups can decide for themselves if they want to purchase the ‘improved’ chickens. After all, it’s their business – and business decisions are up to the group – not the ARC.

Of course, not all projects are entirely successful. Through the ARC, some residents acquired the skills and raw materials to make traditional baskets and tie-dyed clothing. A small building near the camp entrance displays their finished products – the kind of crafts popular in souvenir shops throughout East Africa.

The tie-dyed fabric, baskets and wood-carved masks lining the shelves are made by several residents, and are their only source of income. But the oft-locked display room at the camp is miles away from the tourist areas. Finding a market and customers for speciality goods isn’t easy, even for the high-quality crafts handmade by camp residents. The camp’s isolation and tight government regulation means visitors are rare.

A logical step

Unfortunately, residents are only allowed to participate and receive ARC start-up capital once. The residents that joined the basket-making or tie-dying group two years ago now have the skill – but geography (and politics) prevents them from utilizing their talent.

Supplying a souvenir store with traditional crafts is an enviable position, and Rwandans would be forgiven for trying to minimize competition in a country where the average yearly income is $370. Yet the camp’s presence also creates jobs and income for many Rwandans. Transport drivers haul in food, firewood and fertilizer. Farmers and shops in local areas sell food and supplies to the UNHCR and the ARC. Given how long the refugees have already been displaced, allowing them to contribute and participate in the economy seems a logical step for host governments.

A few hundred miles away in Uganda, presidents and ministers from African nations gathered last October near the shores of Lake Victoria for an African Union Summit on Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). Despite public statements by UN and AU officials that many of the attending African leaders were once refugees or IDPs themselves, the newly-signed Kampala Convention has nothing to say about helping refugees build independent lives through jobs or income generation.

The chief of the UNHCR, António Guterres, privately says that many countries ‘attach exceptions on the right [of refugees] to work,’ and that it has always been one of the sticking points in international negotiations. No government wants to give jobs to non-citizens who don’t vote.

The camp functions just like any other community in the world. There are schools for residents and medical facilities for both refugees and local Rwandans. There is even an elected camp president, who likes to flag down the UNHCR vehicles for the kind of leisurely chats one might expect on a Sunday afternoon on Main Street

If refugees are unable to work outside the camps, then politically-neutral technology may be the answer to stretching the resources they do have available. Energy-efficient cooking stoves, easily made at no cost with local clay and grass, minimize firewood use. The stoves are useful not only in Kiziba, but anywhere people rely on wood for fuel.

Crouching in her kitchen, with a blanket draped over a sleeping toddler perched on her back, Sijaona Mujawaka says she learned how to make her new specially designed cooking stove from the ARC.

‘It saves money because I don’t need to buy extra firewood anymore,’ she enthuses, ‘and I can teach others how to make the same stove.’

Like the tailors with their business skills, Mujawaka may train others in Kiziba or, maybe one day, share the knowledge with neighbours around her own village when she returns home to the DRC.

But sometimes repatriation feels a long way off. Many refugees in Kiziba seem permanent, having spent more than a decade at the crowded camp. The older residents harbour nightmares of the violence that forced them from their homes. Most of the children are spared the horrific memories, yet don’t know any other life than that of a refugee.

In spite of this, there are things to smile about, and it shows in the people. A natural spring on the hill provides enough water for the camp. The altitude and frequent rain makes for a pleasant climate. The UNHCR and ARC provide medical care, sanitation, schools and basic food rations. The sense of community that was lost is slowly being forged, through groups of people with common interests who share ideas, training and skills, helping to establish new bonds of trust. A few dollars – from US taxpayers, private donations, or micro-grants – allows people the chance to build independence and do what comes naturally to all humans: earn some money, provide for their family and live for the future.

Wil Morat is an American freelance writer living and teaching in Mumbai, India. He welcomes any comments, criticisms, or questions at wjmorat@gmail.com

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