Melssaw Gessesse and Elebat Solutions contributed to this article. 

Nyagun Reath has lived with her husband and children in the Jewi Refugee Settlement in the Gambella region of Ethiopia for the past nine years. She was displaced from her home in South Sudan nine years ago due to conflict. In that time, she started a business selling wheat and sorghum within the camp and became the primary income earner and decision-maker for her household. Nyagun’s business has provided a supplementary income stream, in addition to the food and hygiene aid that she receives, which has proved critical in funding the building of a new house for her family — an expense not covered by humanitarian assistance. To stay on top of these additional expenses and the rising price of food and retail goods within the camp, Nyagun is hoping to scale her business. However, cash flow constraints, lack of options for formal financial services, and her own limited exposure to financial services, continue to impede her growth as an entrepreneur. 

Ethiopia — the second largest refugee-hosting country in Africa — currently has almost 200,000 refugee women facing similar challenges to those that Nyagun experiences, yet only a fraction of refugee initiatives are focused on developing sustainable livelihoods. Given the inherent constraints to long-term humanitarian aid, Accion and local partner Elebat Solutions, with support from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, conducted a study across the Jewi and Tierkedi refugee camps in Gambella to evaluate the current needs of refugee women and explore opportunities for market-led initiatives that can build resilient refugee and host communities.  

The research yielded four key learnings that highlight latent opportunities for sustainably serving these and similar communities: 

1. There is a significant appetite for self-reliance among refugee women.

Women are the primary decision-makers in 79 percent of respondent households, with 64 percent also being the main income earners, much like Nyagun. Additionally, 82 percent of women have had some experience operating in-camp businesses, and 70 percent of respondents stated that starting or expanding their business was their primary long-term goal.  

2. The community and operating contexts are conducive to refugee entrepreneurship. 

Cultural homogeneity within the camps (a large majority are from the Nuer tribe), coupled with an inclusive regulatory framework for starting a business, offers a simpler route to entrepreneurship than that faced by refugees in many other contexts.  

3. Varying levels of entrepreneurial preparedness will require tailored capacity building and other non-financial support.  

Even though most refugees in Gambella are from neighboring South Sudan, there is significant variance in their level of education, business experience, and financial literacy. Only 30 percent have prior experience with banks, and just three percent have received a loan from a formal institution.  

4. There is significant market demand for affordable consumer goods. 

While respondents reported that the affordability of consumable goods was an important consideration, as it makes up 54 percent of household expenditure, their primary concern was scarcity, with 84 percent of respondents stating that consumer goods were difficult to access within the camps. The clear demand for affordable, accessible goods demonstrates an area of opportunity for women entrepreneurs to meet that need in their new communities.  

Jewi Refugee Settlement in Ethiopia
Jewi Refugee Settlement in Ethiopia

These findings indicate the need to help refugee women enhance their entrepreneurial skills, boost access to formal financial services, and facilitate more non-aid income-generating opportunities, thus accelerating their participation in formal ecosystems and value chains within their communities.  

Although the refugee women in Jewi and Tierkedi face unique circumstances and constraints due to their status as refugees, their appetite for self-sufficiency and their financial and livelihood needs are similar to those of other rural women. Could existing market-led programs and value chains that promote resilience and access to formal services for rural women offer an accelerated path to sustainable livelihood opportunities for refugee women? 

To answer that question, Accion and Elebat Solutions, again with support from the Hilton Foundation, are partnering with Unilever to expand the Shakti program to refugee communities. Shakti is a Unilever initiative that began in India but has since expanded to several other markets, including Ethiopia. The program offers rural women new income sources as last-mile distributors and resellers of quality consumer goods within their communities, where these common household items are often scarce or relatively expensive.  

Leveraging an existing initiative like Shakti also creates an opportunity to build the appetite and capacity of other service providers in the value chain, such as Unilever and its key distributors, financial institutions that provide services like inventory financing, and business support organizations that provide capacity building and other non-financial services to participating women. Regulatory bodies and support organizations, such as UNHCR and the Ethiopian government’s Refugee & Returnee Service (RRS), will also prove crucial in helping to address, resolve, and otherwise mitigate regulatory or social barriers during the pilot, which will, in turn, provide key learnings for replication and scale. This multi-partner approach can serve as a demonstration model that showcases refugee communities as a viable customer segment, thus catalyzing services, solutions, and providers to serve and benefit them, while potentially also positively impacting host communities in the process.  

June 20 is World Refugee Day, and this year’s theme of “Hope Away from Home” is especially pertinent given the sharp increase in displaced people around the world in recent years. The limitations of aid programs to address the needs of refugees and build long-term resilience for them and their host communities are clearer than ever. Refugees are no less deserving of stable, resilient futures. The need has never been greater, nor the opportunities to act, more urgent.  

Contact us to learn more about our approach to cultivating partnerships and developing supportive ecosystems to benefit underserved people and businesses. 

Explore More