EDINBURGH, United Kingdom — The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) introduced Kakuma and Kalobeyei settlement projects in 2016 with the aim of creating a self-reliant refugee settlement. The region amassed a total of 200,000 displaced persons in June 2022. Research that the SNV Netherlands Development Organisation conducted in the same year accounted for over 2,500 micro-businesses dispersed across the two regions. Certain measures are already in place and further investment into the development of connectivity and transport links between the two areas could be instrumental in reshaping the prospects and livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of displaced peoples, igniting trade and economically revitalizing the region.
Located in Turkana county, North-Western Kenya, Kakuma camp hosts a population of some 180,000 refugees fleeing from conflict. The area was dubbed a “vibrant informal economy” by the World Bank and International Finance Corporation (IFC) in 2018 due to the thriving market sector. The report found Kakuma to have a local economy worth $56 million per year based on household consumption. The economic activity of the camp spread throughout the region, creating opportunities across the private sector in neighboring villages and towns.
COVID-19 forced a halt to most enterprises, and the region’s economy took a sharp hit. The employment rate in camps fell to 6%, with only 8% of refugee businesses maintaining their pre-pandemic revenue and output.
Despite this, the resourceful spirit of the camp residents endures. Burdened with an unsteady supply of access to sustainable energy, what is available is typically generated through unreliable diesel-powered mini-grids or generators.
The work of Vasco Hamisi, a Congolese refugee who established and runs Okapi Green Energy Ltd is a testament to the resourcefulness within the camp and can be a framework for a transition to green energy across the region in the coming years. Initially running a community-based organization targeting the energy needs of the area, in 2017 he established Okapi Green Energy and received $28,000 from International donors. Equipped with a 20-kilowatt solar mini-grid, he supplies households and businesses across the camp and surrounding regions with clean energy. His success can set a precedent for future investment and the development of clean energy solutions across the region.
An appeal was granted by the central government to a UNHCR request for additional land for resettlement purposes in 2015 following a large influx of South Sudanese refugees into the North-Western region of Turkana. A site was near Kalobeyei, 40 kilometers from Kakuma which had by this point exceeded its intended capacity by over 100,000 individuals.
The Kalobeyei settlement offered a new approach, engineered to promote the self-reliance of refugees and host communities, gradually aiming to eliminate dependence on humanitarian aid. Kalobeyei Integrated Social and Economic Development Programme (KISEDP) shaped the implementation of this model, targeting specific areas of assistance for host communities and refugees, according to UNHCR. These include sustainable urban development, improved infrastructure and social services, livestock management, integration and social harmony, greater economic connectivity and private sector engagement across the community.
Aside from their pivotal contribution to the economy of the region and enabling the exchange of goods, services and currency, business owners’ impact on local groups are much more holistic, deeply affecting the welfare of many within and external to the organization. The establishment of cooperatives such as the Hand Craft Coop offers a refuge for victims of domestic violence and abuse, helping to restore dignity and confidence by giving women who face these challenges a safe place and a sense of purpose.
These knock-on effects are particularly significant across refugee camps and settlements, where living conditions are strenuous, and a sense of stability and belonging may be difficult to come by.
Integration and Talks of Municipality
Sustainable Economic Development Along the Turkana West Development Corridor is a project helmed by Cities Alliance. Aiming to enhance connectivity between businesses and communities of Kakuma refugee camps and Kalobeyei settlement through developing transport links, strengthening supply chains and establishing marketplaces. This provides individuals and organizations across the area access to a greater variety of goods, business opportunities and points of the trade.
Establishing central areas for business improves regional living standards and levels of employment, in addition to helping foster an atmosphere of inclusivity and integration by offering a central location for a trade where refugees and host residents can interact, buy and sell.
The developments in infrastructure systems and transportation routes and subsequent improvements to the regional economy, livelihoods and interconnectivity of Kakuma camp and Kalobeyei settlement have prompted the Turkana county government to initiate plans for the formal recognition of both regions through an established municipality.
This would be a monumental step toward self-sufficiency, potentially giving refugees in the area access to more opportunities and greater economic inclusivity. The legal benefits of recognition as a municipality could attract greater investment from abroad, offering even better prospects for future generations.
– Bojan Ivancic