Kakuma refugees thrive in business as aid funding dips

Mr Abebe Chanako, an Ethiopian businessman, at
Mr Abebe Chanako, an Ethiopian businessman, at his shop in Kakuma refugee camp. PHOTO | KENNEDY KIMANTHI  

Mr Abebe Chanako is a content man. The refugee at Kakuma refugee camp in Turkana County has food for his family and owns one of the largest retail shops at the Ethiopian market in the camp.

Nineteen years ago, Mr Chanako, 55, was living in despair after fleeing the civil war in Ethiopia where many Chanakoy people were killed.

The Business Daily recently visited the camp that is about 850 kilometres northwest of Nairobi and shelters about 185,000 refugees from South Sudan, Burundi, Ethiopia and Congo.

Mr Chanako’s worst times are now behind him as a successful businessman selling sugar, rice, milk powder, customised African attire and jewellery, among other commodities in the overpopulated camp.

“Political instability in 1996 in Ethiopia forced many of my fellow citizens to seek refuge in Kenya,” he said.

His shop, which is about five metres wide, is packed to the roof with sacks of sugar, rice and wheat flour. Tins full of powder milk, glassware, spices, packets of spaghetti and boxes of biscuits are neatly lined on the shelves. 

Outside are mattress, mosquito nets, buckets, basins, clothes and beads. Beads are particularly popular with the host Turkana community. Mr Chanako sources his commodities from Kitale and Lodwar town.

Although he refuses to divulge how much he makes, he discloses that millions of shillings exchange hands at the camp.

“Most people will want to do their shopping here because it is cheaper than Kakuma town market,” said Mr Chanako.

“Our main customers are fellow refugees, staff working for various humanitarian agencies and locals. Business is booming.”

He added that to many people, the mention of a refugee camp stirs thoughts of a wild place, but Kakuma is a place of sharp contrast where business thrives.

His sentiments are echoed by Tahfr Bariso Sunka, a Somali refugee operating a similar business at Mogadishu market. At any given time, he says his shop is stocked with merchandise worth more than Sh300,000.

“We have also embraced barter trade which has turned out to be very helpful to a majority of the people especially the refugees,” said Mr Sunka. “Most of us sell part of our food rations from the humanitarian agencies to make an extra coin.”

Jacinta Abenyo, World Food Programme (WFP) national programme officer in Kakuma, told Enterprise that the refugees in the camp are from 20 countries while the locals are about 100,000.

Many of them have now turned to entrepreneurship in the wake of revelations that some humanitarian agencies are facing funding challenges for the refugee operations in Kenya.

For instance, the UN World Food Programme is introducing ration cuts in order to stretch available resources to cover a longer period. Currently, there is a 30 per cent rations cut since mid-June which is expected to last to December.

Ms Abenyo explained that the WFP is introducing a new electronic food voucher system known as Bamba Chakula that is expected to further spur Kakuma’s economy.

Already, 200 traders have been singled out to participate in the programme while others who have indicated interest are currently being vetted.

Those participating in the programme must be paying business licensing fees, need to pass health and food safety inspections and must allow regular inspections and monitoring by WFP.

The voucher is a joint venture between WFP, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and Safaricom. It will be used to purchase selected food items from selected shops.

“WFP is replacing 10 per cent of the cereals ration with an electronic voucher for the refugees to purchase food of their choice. The value of the voucher will be increased gradually depending on how the local markets respond,” said Ms Abenyo.