Migrant Lives

In Kenya, A Refugee Camp With 2,100 Small Businesses

From individual artisans to prosperous wholesalers, this isolated place has developed a vibrant economy despite numerous obstacles.

A tailoring class at the Kakuma refugee camp
A tailoring class at the Kakuma refugee camp
Marion Douet

KAKUMA — When she was a millinery student at the University of Goma, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Esperance Tabisha didn't think for a second that she would be practicing her trade in a refugee camp. Eight years later, the young Congolese woman works at Kakuma, a refugee camp near where the border of Kenya meets Uganda and South Sudan.

Fleeing the conflict that ravaged her region of North Kivu, she arrived alone at the refugee camp in 2010. A "Congolese mom" quickly took her under her wing.

"In the first week, she borrowed a sewing machine and I began to work," says the 28-year-old seamstress, sitting in the shade in front of what is both her store and the entrance to her home. At her right sits a black, peddle-operated sewing machine (her third); to her left, a large piece of wood mounted on sawhorses takes the place of a counter and serves as both a design table and ironing board.

Here, Tabisha creates custom shirts, dresses and skirts for a clientele of refugees, humanitarians and Kenyans who live in the nearby village, also called Kakuma. Some of her pieces she posts on Facebook and Instagram, on her account "Esperanza Fashion and Designs." Business is going well, she says, at least well enough to give her two children — who were both born in the camp — a "varied diet" and "good education."

"In a good month, I make around 12,000 shillings (100 euros)," she says. "This doesn't go up much because I don't have the time to do more. But now I have people who call me, and I don't even know them! I have to think before I do work for someone."

Kakuma — a series of alleys, tents, and dried mud shelters — is one of the largest refugee camps in the world. It is also a thriving economic zone, with markets, traders, and artisans. The refugees there manage 2,100 different businesses, according to a first-of-its-kind report by the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (HCR) and the International Finance Corporation (IFC, a member of the World Bank).

"This shows the ability of refugees to be positive actors and economically active members of society," says the HCR's Mohamed Shoman, who oversees operations at Kakuma.

"We are not recognized as economic actors."

When it opened in 1992 to house refugees from the war in Sudan, the camp had only a single shop, an Egyptian humanitarian worker explains. The town was a village. In the years since, the suffocating and isolated place, located several hours by road from the nearest large urban area (and 456 km from Juba, the South-Sudanese capital, as a sign at the entrance notes) has welcomed a disparate group of refugees: Ethiopians, Somalians, Congolese, Burundians and, most recently, South-Sudanese.

Today, the camp houses 185,000 people and the town — with its own logistics outpost — has around 50,000 inhabitants. Together, they equal in population the 10th largest Kenyan city, notes the report, and produce 6 billion Kenyan shillings (51 million Euros) — an economy constructed over the course of years to improve a very difficult daily life, make the most of their skills, and prepare for the future.

Not everyone, of course, is a businessperson or employee (about 25%), but most (73%) directly benefit from the regular income. According to the county governor of Turkana, Josphat Nanok, the market has been stimulated for three years by a major innovation.

"Before, each person would receive his or her food rations, but today the majority of refugees receive electronic donations (mobile payment methods are highly developed in Kenya) to run their errands," says Nanok, an imposing man who sees the camp as both a humanitarian and an economic program for the region. "They're spending their money. It's an enormous opportunity for local businesses, whether they're run by refugees or by locals."

Food vendors are especially important. The most common shops are "dukas' (general food shops), followed by clothing stores, hair salons, mechanics, and photo studios. Some small businesses have to stock up. The camp also has its wholesalers, such as Mesfin Getahun, an Ethiopian known as the "millionaire refugee" due to his international press portraits.


Kakuma refugee camp — Photo: Micah Albert/ZUMA

There are service providers too, such as Abdi Safa Omar, a local electricity supplier. Installed in a Somali market — one of the economic hearts of Kakuma — his diesel generators run all day to light the surrounding stores thanks to a jungle of cables. Even though they are not connected to the grid, the shops still need electricity for light, to charge telephones and to run refrigerators.

"If I turn off my generators, there will be a crowd here in five minutes!" he says.

Omar came to Kakuma when he was nine years old. Today, he employs six people and generates a revenue of 360,000 Kenyan shillings (more than 3,000 euros) per month. Rising oil prices have hit him hard, however. He also pays substantial costs to get the oil from Nairobi, which is two days away by road.

"When it's all said and done, my net profit right now is about 10,000 shillings (85 euros) per month," he says matter of factly after doing the calculations on his cellphone.

Nothing is easy, in camp life or in business.

We cannot spread out beyond the camp because we are not supposed to work.

"We are faced with many difficulties. We are even surrounded by them and they're unlikely to go away," says Hassan Adan, an electronics seller who came to the camp in 2010 and built a family there.

Leaning on the bar that blocks access to his incredibly tidy shelves, this former community worker from Mogadishu recounted how he earned a management degree in Kakuma. He's an exception in this regard. Only a third of business owners in Kakuma have earned a secondary degree.

"We are not recognized as economic actors," he says in perfect English. "And we cannot spread out beyond the camp because we are not supposed to work."

The Kenyan government does not authorize, for now, the free movement of refugees, who must possess authorization to move about. It is an uphill battle to obtain a work permit or to register a business, even though both are theoretically possible. Caught in the grip of a hypocritical system, many say that paying county taxes is a prerequisite, even if they do not yet have a national registration number.

"These businesses are in the gray area between the formal and informal sectors," says Michel Botzung of the IFC. "They pay taxes, but they have neither formal contracts nor good relationships. They no longer benefit from the support normally given elsewhere, such as access to loans or letters of credit."

Finances are another large obstacle. There is only one bank in the camp (Equity Bank, one of Kenya's finest), and it can be difficult to get loans "because of uncertainty surrounding the identity and length of stay" of the refugees.

The authors of the HCR/IFC report hope to see the private sector invest in Kakuma, primarily in finances, industry, and consumables. Asked about the competition that these businesses would represent for the refugees, Botzung says, "The wholesalers who come in from the outside could, for example, offer more favorable business conditions to the small businesses that today have to pay everything in cash advances. Certainly some will go out of business but the others will have access to cheaper services."

Omar, the electrician, isn't so sure. Still, he's willing to give it a try — "in whatever sector, as long as it's profitable" — and for however long his U.S. immigration process takes.

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A check operation in Indian-administered Kashmir, following a spate of targeted attacks on the region's Hindu minority

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Здраво!*

Welcome to Friday, where Joe Biden vows to protect Taiwan from China, Alec Baldwin accidentally kills a cinematographer, and can you guess what day it is TODAY? We also have a report from a researcher in San Diego, USA on the sociological dark side of food trucks.

[*Zdravo - Macedonian]


Iran-Saudi Arabia rivalry may be set to ease, or get much worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before, writes Persian-language media Kayhan-London:

The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.



• Biden vows to defend Taiwan: U.S. President Joe Biden said the United States would come to Taiwan's defense if it were attacked and had a commitment to defend the island nation that China claims as its own. The White House clarified for the second time in three months that U.S. policy on the subject has not changed, and declined further comment when asked if Biden had misspoken.

• Call on China to respect Uyghurs: A statement from 43 countries denounced China's human rights record at the United Nations over the reported torture and repression of the mostly Muslim Uyghurs, as well as the existence of "re-education camps" in Xinjiang. The declaration calls on Beijing to allow independent observers immediate access. In response, Cuba issued a rival statement shortly afterwards on behalf of 62 other countries claiming "disinformation".

• Alec Baldwin fires prop gun, kills cinematographer: U.S. actor Alec Baldwin fatally shot cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and injured director Joel Souza after discharging a prop gun on the set of his new movie, near Santa Fe. The accident is being investigated.

• Berlusconi acquitted: Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was acquitted of judicial corruption charges. The 85-year-old media mogul had been accused of seeking to bribe guests present at his infamous "Bunga Bunga" parties to lie about the evenings as part of an underage prostitution case.

• COVID health workers death toll: A new WHO working report estimates that between 80,000 and 180,000 health and care workers may have died from COVID-19 between January 2020 and May 2021. The same report also noted that fewer than 1 in 10 healthcare workers were fully vaccinated in Africa, compared with 9 in 10 in high-income countries, and less than 5% of Africa's population have been vaccinated.

• Seven killed in Russian gunpowder factory blast: An explosion at the Elastik gunpowder and chemicals plant southeast of Moscow killed at least seven people, while nine are still missing.



Dutch daily De Volkskrant pays tribute to "sound master" and renowned classical conductor Bernard Haitink, who died at 92. Born in Amsterdam, Haitink made more than 450 records and led some of the world's top orchestras in the span of his 65-year career.


The food truck, a sign that the white and wealthy are moving in

In San Diego, California, researcher Pascale Joassart-Marcelli tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun. In The Conversation she writes:

🥡 In 2016 in City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice). Just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors — who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets — now face heightened harassment.

🤑 Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation. Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure. It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies.

🏙️ My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44. When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com


€6.65 million

The remains of "Big John," the world's largest triceratops skeleton ever found, were sold at auction for a European record price of 6.65 millions euros in Paris to a private anonymous collector from the U.S. The 200 pieces of the skeleton were unearthed in 2014 in South Dakota and reassembled by specialists in Italy.


Police bust Mexican drug gang recruiting boys via online video games

Police in Mexico have intervened to rescue three minors, aged 11 to 14, from recruitment into a drug gang that had enticed them through online gaming.

A top Mexican police agency official Ricardo Mejía Berdeja, said the gang had contacted the youths in the south-central city of Oaxaca, chatting through a free-to-download game called Free Fire, which involves shooting at rivals with virtual firearms.

Calling himself "Rafael," another player of the same age, the suspected gang member offered one of the youths work "checking radio frequencies and watching out for police presence" in Monterrey, northern Mexico, reported national daily El Heraldo de México. The pay was unusually good — 8,000 pesos (almost $400) every two weeks — and the youth called two friends who also wanted to get in.

The three boys were set to take the bait, but an anonymous Mexican intelligence agent following the exchange while also posing as youth playing Free Fire, ultimately led police to a safe house in Santa Lucía del Camino, outside Oaxaca.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com


"I just want to make China understand that we are not going to step back."

— U.S. President Joe Biden vowed to defend Taiwan if it came under attack from China, an assertion that seems to move away from the U.S. stated policy of "strategic ambiguity." His administration is now facing calls to clarify this stance on the island.


Paramilitary soldiers are conducting a check operation in Indian-administered Kashmir, following a spate of targeted attacks on the region's Hindu minority that have left at least 33 dead since early October. The region, claimed in full by both India and Pakistan, has been the site of a bloody armed rebellion against India since the 1990s — Photo: Adil Abbas/ZUMA

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

DO YOU FIND PEOPLE WHO WRITE IN ALL CAPS PARTICULARLY ANNOYING? Feel free to COMPLAIN, or otherwise let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world!

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