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Mlongecha Chondo graduated from Saki Hairdressing and Beauty College in March 2013. The Jesuit Refugee Service Kenya Urban Emergency Program in Nairobi sends refugee students to this school to allow them to gain vocational training and a certificate. (Christian Fuchs — Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)

(Nairobi) January 1, 2014 – Most refugees in Nairobi, like their Kenyans counterparts, work in the informal labor market. Living in poverty, they lack capital and spend most of their household budgets on basic necessities like food and rent. Those who do manage to establish businesses frequently lack technical skills and access to local networks. Operating in an extremely competitive market, they need capital, contacts and stronger business skills.

These were some of the key findings of the report, Living on the Edge, on livelihoods of urban refugees undertaken by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and Danish Refugee Council (DRC) last year. It is within this approach that Jesuit Refugee Service has sought to strengthen our livelihood program in Nairobi. Experience has shown that refugees need more than access to capital, they need help in analyzing the market, designing products and monitoring progress.

Filling in the gaps. In 2013, staff from the JRS Urban Program in Nairobi organized the first in a series of workshops to offer refugees and local Kenyans technical assistance to enhance business and entrepreneurial skills, as well as access to interest-free loans. In cooperation with the International Labour Organization (ILO), JRS staff sought to provide practical tools for refugees who had already participated in vocational courses and who were planning to start or are already engaged in small business.

The three-day JRS residential entrepreneur workshop was well received by the 50 participants, of whom two were Kenyans. The participants started by writing down their expectations of the workshop. The majority indicated a desire to obtain a certificate as a way of establishing some sort of credibility in their country, in some way making up for the lack of a local network.

The first part of the workshop explained the importance of producing quality products and looking beyond appearance, followed by learning to identify business opportunities in a particular market. The following day, participants discussed business ideas and learned about networking techniques as a way of accessing resources and customers. Participants learned how to calculate the cost of products and manage the finances of their business on the third day, particularly the need to separate personal from business finances.

"Many people were not aware of the difference between their business and personal finances. This makes it difficult to monitor the cash flow of a business, and often causes the business in question to fail," said Jeanette, a JRS vocational skill graduate.

This is a common issue faced by refugees as some have to choose between spending their money to feed their families or save for future business necessities, especially when starting new businesses with little built-up capital.

Moreover, Jeanette said, businesses also fail because entrepreneurs are frequently unable to estimate the cost of producing their products.

Ali Elede, a young Congolese refugee who runs a barbershop in Riruta area of Nairobi, hopes he can use the advice given to him at the workshop to overcome these obstacles.

"This type of workshop offers really practical help to refugees. I'll certainly try to put the financial management skills learnt into practice in my business," he said.

Looking forward. Towards the end, the participants made goals to improve the way they have been running their enterprises. Those who have not yet started their businesses promised to take a different approach, incorporating their newly learned skills.

Afterwards participants were assisted to prepare a Back Home Action Plan that will be used to monitor the progress of their businesses. This approach not only helps refugee participants managing new businesses, but also JRS staff as they plan future workshops.

Workshops like these are no quick fix. It is take a long time for many refugees to become self-sufficient. When there is no money to pay for food, it is difficult to speak of not using business finances for personal needs. The reality is many families will continue to need support from NGOs and community groups.

Moreover, an advocacy component will be needed to promote policies that recognize the rights of asylum seekers and refugees to reside and be economically productive in Nairobi with the protection and support of the Kenyan authorities. Offering vulnerable Kenyans support to start their own businesses is key to building community understanding and combating xenophobia.

Training in enterprise development and basic business management skills had been one of the recurring needs among the refugees under the income generating activity program which the retreat sought to address. With business and self-employment as a key JRS approach to offering refugees a sustainable solution to livelihood challenges, the training retreat was a major boost to refugees in their pursuit of competitiveness in business and enterprise. 

by Agnes Asiimwe, Income Generating Activity Coordinator, JRS Nairobi UEP Project

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