This article was written by Olive Ashimwe, Regional Refugee Director for the African Entrepreneur Collective (AEC). The AEC pledged in 2019 to accelerate their support to refugees and host communities by providing relevant and practical skills and resources to help entrepreneurs grow their business, achieve financial stability, and create jobs.
“I was just hoping for something to allow me to put food on the table and push through life,” recalls Angelique Rusaku on why she opened a grocery store upon arriving in Rwanda’s Kigeme Refugee Camp eight years ago. Fleeing violence in neighboring Congo with $150 USD in savings and a young family to feed, Angelique started small and worked hard.
Angelique grew her business slowly, and in 2017 she enrolled in African Entrepreneur Collective’s 6-month training and consulting program to learn better financial management and inventory tracking, and because she heard AEC was the only organization in the camp giving loans to refugees.
Starting with a small first-time loan and growing to a loan of $8,000 USD, Angelique has used this capital to build her first shop into one of the largest businesses in the camp, hire a team of employees, and open a second location in a neighboring camp.
At home, Angelique has purchased a small plot of land and can afford to send her children to private school. “As a wife and mother, being self-reliant and financially independent allows me to better plan for the future of my family. I couldn’t be prouder to be at a stage where I can afford what I want without being a burden or relying on the refugee monthly stipend.”
As Angelique’s businesses grew and she was better able to provide for her family, so too did her confidence and desire to contribute to her community. “Running two successful businesses in two different camps and being able to create jobs has made me feel worthy again. As refugees, it is vital for us to feel part of a community again, a sense of belonging that we lose when we leave our native countries. Providing necessary items to my community also gives me a sense of usefulness.”
While Angelique’s story is impressive, she is not an outlier. Over the last 5 years, AEC has worked with more than 14,000 entrepreneurs like Angelique. This project aims to meet the objectives of the Global Compact on Refugees to ease pressure on host countries and enhance refugee self-reliance. These women are driving economic growth, improving livelihoods, and creating jobs in refugee communities. By our estimates, 25% of these women run businesses stable enough to afford to live self-sufficiently.
Natacha Murekezi worked as a commercial banker for seven years prior to joining AEC as a Loan Manager. “I never thought about lending to refugees. I didn’t know they had viable businesses, so how would refugees even be able to repay a loan?” Today, Natacha oversees a portfolio of nearly 500 active refugee borrowers, the largest in Rwanda, and Angelique is one of her clients.
Stories like Angelique’s motivates Natacha to continue demonstrating that refugee entrepreneurs, especially women, represent an untapped and commercially-viable market for financial institutions, and to use the economic development generated by refugee entrepreneurs to advocate for more inclusive policies with host governments.
“Over the years, AEC has lent to over 1,500 refugees, and with a 98% repayment rate, we are proving that businesses in refugee communities are just as investable as any other. And the impact that we are having on peoples’ lives, in some of the most vulnerable circumstances, increases our financial return ten-fold. On International Women’s Day, I #ChoosetoChallenge financial institutions to join us in lending to refugee women. These entrepreneurs are great investments."
In order to support more women with Angelique’s determination and Natacha’s conviction, AEC pledged at the Global Refugee Forum to accelerate their support of entrepreneurs in refugee communities. By 2024, they plan to support 35,000 entrepreneurs in Rwanda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Lebanon and Jordan with business development services and low-cost debt financing so that at least 50% will be able to live self-reliantly. So far, they are two-thirds of the way there.
According to Angelique, “many people think that being a refugee means the end of life, but for me, it was the beginning of a new journey.” For AEC, the journey continues, too.