Skills, Tools & Markets: Making Income-generating Projects Work

According to UNHCR, almost 350’000 refugees live in the Dadaab refugee camps of Kenya, many of whom have been there for decades. Approximately 95% of the refugees have come from Somalia, while the remaining 5% originate from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Burundi, Congo, Rwanda, South Sudan, Sudan, Uganda, Tanzania or Yemen. Given the Government of Kenya’s encampment policy, which was initiated in 2006, mobility is a big issue, thus limiting refugees’ access to markets. Economic opportunities are, therefore rare, which is especially detrimental to young people who represent more than half the camps’ population. They do not wish to be dependent on humanitarian aid and long for the sense of identity and purpose that comes as a result of achievement that comes with productive activities.

Therefore, since 2012, RET set out to create livelihood interventions that not only train young people and provide tools, but also give them durable access to markets, both inside and outside the camps. The secret to efficiently circumventing the mobility barrier is simple, yet challenging. It requires investing a lot of time and effort in carefully identifying and developing market linkages and public-private partnerships. Our RET team wish to share here 3 telling examples of such productive activities: digital work, greenhouse farming, and beadwork.

The Digital Work Initiative is unique to RET in the camps. The project has leveraged the digital skills of 120 youth in transcription, translation, electronic record management and optical character recognition. These are services that can be provided remotely through the Internet and for which there is an existing market. The connectivity necessary to provide these services directly from the camps is provided through RET’s 2 digital centres, where participants receive training and have a safe space from which to work. Our RET team in Kenya, then, searched for international sourcing companies, who would be seeking such services and selected those with whom to partner. This type of borderless work is a perfect fit for camp settings where mobility is restricted, but talent is plentiful. Between October, 2014 and August, 2015, 42 of the RET’s digital programme participants earned an average of USD 100 to 600 per month per participant.

Mohamed Abdi Hassan, one of the youth who participates in the initiative, and among the top earners, has been able to use his savings to repair his house and install a solar panel to provide electricity for his family. This has, further, enabled him to gain extra revenue, by charging phone batteries for people in the camps. He is a great example of positive knock-on effects of successful livelihood projects.

Much like with the Digital Work Initiative, RET has also engaged in a Greenhouse Project. Our RET team in Dadaab had identified that many of the Somali Bantu refugees, who are traditionally farmers, were not able to find agricultural work in the camps. Their skills and passion for farming were, therefore, dormant and as time passed, wasted. RET, therefore, sought a solution through partnering with agronomists from the Government of Kenya’s Ministry of Agriculture, who train the farmers on nursery seedling preparation, transplanting, use of agrochemicals and caring plants to maturity. RET, then, joined forces with the World Food Programme (WFP), which had recently introduced the fresh food voucher system, through which refugees are able to sell their products to identified retailers. Subsequent to identifying a solution and access to markets, RET provided further training and tools to the programme participants in order to ensure that the productive projects be sustainable.

A total of 23 youth, including 16 young mothers, have now joined the Greenhouse Project through their group called the Wagosha Farming Group. Wagosha has been officially registered and then contracted by the WFP to provide fresh food to the population in the Dagahaley refugee camp. Each member of the group puts in about 2 hours of work every week and the first results are encouraging. As of October 2015, 2’000 tomatoes where harvested, generating USD 330 and a surplus to be consumed by their households.

This farming community has a real opportunity to use their skills and expand their sources of income, something that is especially empowering for the women who never imagined they could gain some measure of economic independence.

Finally, RET also identified a market for Ethiopian refugees in the camp who traditionally have strong skills in beadwork. We identified and then, partnered with the Ethical Fashion Initiative (, which connects talented artisans, who are mostly vulnerable, marginalised women, to the international fashion industry. This partnership not only provides trainings to further develop skills and tools to produce marketable products, it also crucially gives young women access to international markets.

The 23 young Gamballa women presently participating in the RET project are trained on how to create specific custom designed necklaces, wristbands and other products after which they are able to sell them through the Ethical Fashions Initiative. Similarly to the Greenhouse Project, participants sell their production through officially registered groups. In the case of these young women, their group is called Kutto Bear Self-help, which is formally registered with the Department of Social Services in Kenya. This process has been further enhanced through RET trainings on how to manage savings and invest in future projects.

These examples of Digital Work, Greenhouse Farming and Beadwork demonstrate that creating innovative livelihood projects is not only about skills and tools, but mainly about providing the programme participants with essential solutions, which include access to markets, where they can sell their products and services.

The strong and diversified partnerships and market linkages that RET has built allow the youth in Dadaab to take part in durable livelihood solutions. Real incomes are created, the limits of the camps are eliminated by working virtually or in markets which they can access, and perhaps, most importantly, young people find a sense of purpose, pride and hope through productive activities. For young people who have spent a large part of their lives in refugee camps, the self-esteem provided by meaningful work and economic autonomy is truly transformational.