Ideas & Debate

How to change refugee mindsets in Kakuma

Refugees in a tailoring class at Kakuma. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Earlier this year, after spending some time in Lodwar, I wrote an article enthusing about Turkana County’s enlightened approach to integrating the nearly 190,000 population of the Kakuma Refugee Camp with their host community. “They should become a global role model for constructive coexistence between a host and a refugee community,” I wrote then, promising that I would follow their progress closely.

Recently I was able to see how this noble initiative is progressing, as I was invited by GIZ to moderate a workshop in Kakuma that brought together key stakeholders to identify which services the planned Biashara/Huduma Centre one-stop shop should provide to the refugee and host community businesspeople. In the room were enthusiastic senior officers from the Turkana County Government; development partners including UNHCR, IFC, GIZ and various bilateral donors; NGOs; private sector players such as Equity Bank; and representatives of the refugee entrepreneurs.

Thanks to the high calibre of the participants, consensus readily emerged on which services would best support the vision of “creating a conducive environment within which businesses can flourish”. The following values for the Biashara Centre were also evolved: non-discriminating inclusivity; impartiality, providing quality services to all; value for money; enhancing transparency and accountability; partnerships; and sustainability.

Later, I was taken on a tour of the camp that is located adjacent to Kakuma town, the headquarters of Turkana West Sub-County. Here I saw the numerous shops alongside the central untarmacked but largely even roads, selling pretty much what one would see in say Kibera or Mathare. There are around 2,500 businesses in the camp, and it is estimated that the amount circulating among them is around $56 million a year.

Increasingly, and more so in the associated nearby Kalobeyei Settlement, some of the residents acquire a proportion of their food through vouchers rather than actual food handouts (30% in the camps and 100% in the settlement). This enables them to exercise choices, and is a step towards leading more dignified lives.


It was good to see the progress that has been made from having the refugees be mere passive recipients of day-to-day humanitarian support. But there is still a way to go in having them accept that they should pay for some of the goods and services they receive, given that some increasingly have the means with which to do so.

As I was being told about this challenge my mind turned to my most recent article, about the book Out of the Maze, a fable which urges us to let go of old beliefs that hold us back from embracing new and more helpful ones. To emerge from their “maze”, the refugees must evolve their thinking to become self-sufficient members of the broader Kakuma community.

Meanwhile the host community too needs to re-evaluate its beliefs. For as pastoralists their livelihoods are at constant risk of disruption, not least thanks to the periodic droughts. How can they, while not abandoning their traditional culture, adopt more sustainable approaches to benefitting from their livestock while also diversifying their sources of wealth and income?

It’s clear that there’s plenty more to be done in the arid lands around Kakuma. But we must acknowledge that since the first refugees arrived here – the “Lost Boys of Sudan”, in 1992 – so much has been learned about how to cope with the challenges of migration. Refugees from 22 nationalities, some merely in search of enhanced economic opportunities, are now being enabled in ways that were unthinkable until recently.

For those interested in learning more I recommend browsing through UNHCR’s Kalobeyei Integrated Socio-Economic Development Plan (KISEDP) for Turkana West.

There’s so much more I would like to share about the breakthrough thinking taking place in and around Kakuma. The challenges to progress are obvious. But as one participant in our workshop put it, one must “think big, start small”. Let us applaud those who are dedicating their lives to transforming how the thousands who have fled from their homes are being supported, while also enhancing the wellbeing of those who host them in their communities.

Mike Eldon is chairman of management consultancy The DEPOT, and is a coach and a director of various companies, as well as being chairman of the KCA University Council. [email protected]