Tapping the Economic Potential of Refugees for Improved Livelihoods

By Paul Kalyesubula


In the densely populated section of Walukuba, Jinja municipality, is a striking row of makeshift carpentry workshops. They are well-adorned with sculptures, paintings and a range of other artistic articles. As one approaches closer the sound of hammers, hand-held saws and drillers is only being rivalled by loud voices in a blend of Lingala and Swahili. As soon as a visitor is noticed the carpenters will immediately usher you in and enthusiastically walk-you around the workshop-in anticipation that you’re a prospective buyer.
This scene is typical with the carpentry, art and design sector where the footprint of the Congolese refugee community has taken a strong hold-and yet continues to grow.
As the world grapples with an unprecedented refugee crisis, countries are getting increasing repellant and skeptical towards accommodating receiving refugees-mainly due to the economic implications associated with hosting refugees. Conversely, refugees can make significant economic impact if their talents and passions are tapped into.
Pursuing a Livelihood-Based Approach in Refugee Integration 
Naturally the Congolese are inclined towards both visual and performing art. It is against this background that they have made a tremendous mark on the furniture, sculpture and painting sector. Analogously, their female colleagues are prominently featuring on the fashion, beauty and design industry. Indeed, salons and other beauticians are increasingly taking on Congolese women for hair plaiting, pedicure and cosmetology. In the same breadth, tailoring shops are opting for Congolese tailors. Before the cordid-19 lockdown, city complex in downtown Kampala was a beehive of activity with Congolese making various attires, for women, men and children alike, from bitenge-a local fabric.
Therefore, the aforementioned engagements of refugees in various sectors of the economy can be leveraged to tap into multi-stakeholder benefits for business entities, refugees and host communities.
Business Opportunities in Integrating Refugees in the Production Chains
Businesses can make unique and valuable contributions to the refugee response by engaging refugees not only as recipients of charity but also as employees, suppliers, investees and customers. Indeed, businesses stand to reap from various advantages by engaging refugees in the various stages along their production chains. This will give them a good standing, financial and business returns and possibility of securing business from refugee agencies whilst transforming the livelihoods of refugees.
Mainstreaming refugees in hiring and supply chains can improve refugees’ capacity for self-reliance by sourcing from firms that engage refugees in their forward and backward linkages, or, better still, are refugee-owned.
Impact investing for refugee livelihoods by considering refugee employees or contractors.
Developing goods and services to meet refugee needs through adapting their product lines towards the refugee clientele.
By including refugees in their core business activities, business entities can achieve social impact, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), gain reputational benefits, and build brand loyalty while enhancing prospects of securing business opportunities from humanitarian, relief agencies.
By and large, the position of business enterprises as market leaders, policy influencers, and innovators gives them distinctive capacities to shape the refugee response and propagate advocacy thereof.
Paul Kalyesubula, Organizing Secretary, Civil Coalition on Reproductive, Neo-Natal, Child & Adolescent Health (RMNCAH)
PAUL KALYESUBULA is an Advocacy Ofiicer with National Community of Women Living with Hiv/Aids (NACWOLA), Organising Secretary Civil Society Coalition on Reproductive, Maternal, Neonatal, Child & Adolescent Health (RMNCAH) and Mobiliser Civil Society Coalition on Access to Essential Medicines (UCAEM)

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