With an Economy of $56 million, Kakuma Refugee Camp is More of a Refugee City
Refugees at the Kakuma Refugee Camp celebrated World Refugee Day on June 20 just like in any other refugee center around the world; but with a bustling economy and a spending power running into tens of millions of dollars every year, the story of Kakuma is different.
Deep into the remote thickets of the semi-arid Turkana county in northwest Kenya lies Kakuma refugee camp where approximately 180,000 refugees now call home. Thousands upon thousands of tents and temporary structures meet you when you first step into the vicinity of the camp. And the refugees? They are not just seated hopelessly in idle banter and crying out to governments for assistance, a great majority is engrossed in some form of income generating activities.
The Kakuma Refugee Camp was set up in 1969 by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to accommodate refugees escaping war in Sudan. It borders the volatile South Sudan and Northern Uganda where people who are escaping insecurity have now flooded the camp. Refugees from Congo, Rwanda and Burundi can also be found in the camp.
Due to its unfavorable climate, agriculture does not thrive in Kakuma. The demand for food, as a result, led to the setting up of shops to supply the food including other basic needs such as clothing. A survey conducted by the International Finance Corporation (IFC) in 2017 revealed “buzzing street shops, Internet cafés, restaurants and beauty salons” all totaling to more than 2000. The survey also reported the presence of 14 wholesalers and 10 major markets where more than $56 million per year is spent collectively. So vibrant are these businesses that the locals and inhabitants together refer the camp town of Kakuma as “Hong Kong”.
Raouf Mazou, the Kenyan representative of the UNHCR remarked, “We need to change the mindset that refugees are sitting at the camp, doing nothing but receiving assistance. Many of them are, in fact, running businesses and creating jobs for others. The important thing is to formalize their enterprises.” Mazou has further encouraged the private sector to invest in Kakuma as chances of high returns are many. The IFC survey reported a great willingness to pay for improved services, especially in the finance and consumer goods sectors.
Impressed with the findings, the IFC together with the African Enterprise Challenge Fund is seeking to reward this bold show of entrepreneurship by the refugees at Kakuma. A business competition involving the private sector is expected to be launched in November 2018 where winners will receive business coaching and grants to kick-start business ideas within the camp.
But while Kakuma Refugee Camp is turning around lives for people with painful pasts and physical scars to show for it, the progress has not gone well with the local Turkana community. The location of Kakuma is in one of the poorest areas of Kenya with no amenities at all, but in comparison with the rest of this area, Kakuma has better health and education facilities. This makes the refugees appear better than the locals and has, in turn, caused an ongoing tension. Malnutrition, diseases and poor services are also challenges still facing the camp.