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Kakuma camp revs up Sh6b informal mart in Turkana

Musa Radoli @PeopleDailyKe

The buzz of activity is a real eye-opener into what is involved in the commercial world. After all, for many people the area is meant for long-term refugees, living in hopelesness and desperation.

Welcome to Kakuma refugee camp, one of the world’s largest refugee camps with thriving businesses and an estimated $56 million (Sh5.7 billion) consumer market.

Located in Turkana County and home to 180,000 refugees as of March this year, Kakuma has a vibrant, the camp’s informal economy is thriving, with more than 2,000 businesses, including 14 wholesalers.

Things traded are electronic goods, food and a wide range of consumer goods, kerosene, petrol, diesel, shoes, textile products, essential commodities like salt, sugar, cooking fats, flour and many others.

According to a study by World Bank’s International Finance Corporation businesses tend to meet daily needs for Kakuma residents, providing food, cosmetics, mobile phones, and other sundries.

There are four major markets in sub-camp one, two in sub-camp two, three in sub-camp three, and one in sub-camp four. The town has 232 shops along the main road and adjacent alleys. Nearly seven out of 10 residents own a cell phone, making it a potentially attractive market for mobile banking.

Omar Guled Abdi, Kakuma Traders Association chairman disclosed that the trade in the camp is largely informal and not regulated by any institution. However, he said the trade has bits of formality in terms of employment and cash transfers within and outside the camp.

“First there are four banks and mobile money systems which enable cash and credit to be transferred between relatives and friends within and outside the camp,” Abdi told People Daily. Abdi says refugees can seek employment with relief agencies or traders in the camps.

“Although most refugees have no formal education and competences, the relief agencies provide where possible casual employment opportunities for them including cleaning, construction and security services roles,” he said.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Country Representative Raouf Mazou acknowledged that there is a broad economy thriving in the camp with the relief agencies in the area doing whatever they can to support it.

He said refugees with some education are given incentives to complement service provision.

Incentives come in form of cash, about Sh5,000 a month, some food under food-for-work programme, or non-food items like sacks which they might in turn sell or use at the household level. They also gain incomes through self-employment in dress making, salons, and artworks.

Traders, Mazou said are also entrepreneurial with some refugees generating electricity from small generators or solar for lighting or charging mobile phones. “Some of them borrow money to install solar panels for charging phones and are making a minimum of Sh400 a day and are able to pay  loans they had borrowed within three months,” he said.

The camp has four branches of major commercial banks with giant mobile telecommunication service providers Safaricom and Airtel also present. Some of the residents not only engage in local money transfers, but also global transactions, facilitating receipt of cash from relatives in  Europe, US and other parts of the world.

There are three main sources of finances mainly employment in the camp, both commercial and in relief agencies, remittances and sale of relief food to provide the money for trading purposes.

Employment pays marginally, about $50 to 200 (Sh5,080 to 20,322) a month, depending on whether one works with relief agencies, have an academic qualification or work in commercial enterprises. Remittances provide the bulk of capital for business and sustainability.

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