Around the world, more than 117 million people have been displaced from their homes and forced to seek refuge in a new country due to violence, conflict, famine, and human rights violations, according to the UN Refugee Agency. Three-fourths of forcibly displaced people are hosted by low- or middle-income countries, including Uganda and Ethiopia. More than 1.6 million refugees and asylum-seekers have resettled in Uganda, and more than one million have resettled in Ethiopia — a growing population seeking peace, stability, and the opportunity to build a better future for their families.

Conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) forced Edwige Bushunde and her family to flee their home and resettle in Uganda in 2011. “Due to insecurity, we decided to leave Congo,” remembers Edwige. “The war was intense and unbearable for my family, and we decided to seek refuge in Uganda.” A single mother of eight, Edwige reflects on the difficulties of raising her children in a new home: “I love my family, and I always try my best to put food on the table for them. Life as a single mother is not easy; there are many challenges.” To provide an income for her family, Edwige learned to sew clothing and bags and started a tailoring business in Kampala.

In refugee settlements, entrepreneurial activities are key to creating sustainable livelihoods. However, this vulnerable population faces significant hurdles and needs specialized assistance and financial resources. With support from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, Accion launched a program in Uganda and Ethiopia to enable women refugees to build self-reliance by helping them open and grow small businesses in their new communities.

A woman standing at the door of her garment store and talking using her mobile phone.
Edwige hopes to uplift others like her in the future: “I want to have a vocational training school and teach people how to tailor their own clothes. I want to teach single mothers, orphans, and school dropouts on how they can make money using their own hands.”

Taking an ecosystem approach and applying learnings from our research, Accion and local partners are working together to provide digital platforms, financial resources, and training for refugee women. We’re bringing together different organizations to provide technical support and advise on best practices to serve refugee customers. In Uganda, our partner Soko Uganda offers an online marketplace for women to sell their textiles and handicrafts. Participating entrepreneurs can open and link bank accounts from UGAFODE Finance Limited (MDI) to their Soko Uganda online store, allowing them to receive payments and access working capital loans.

One of Edwige’s biggest struggles is attracting customers. “Soko Uganda helps us upload our products online. We get some of our customers from walk-ins, some come from the online platform,” she says. “Last week, somebody saw a bag online on the Soko e-commerce platform. They called and made their order. We met near my church, and I delivered it to her, and she paid me well.” Edwige activated her bank account with UGAFODE so she can accept digital payments and manage her money from her phone.

Few people walking on the road.
Jewi Refugee Settlement in Gambella, Ethiopia

In Ethiopia, Accion has partnered with Elebat Solutions and Unilever to expand Unilever’s Shakti initiative to refugee communities. This program offers women income sources as last-mile distributors and resellers of quality household goods. Using Elebat Solutions’ digital platform, women refugees can order these products from distributors and have them delivered to their stores.

Nyabang Bayieke’s business is essential to her journey to build a new life for her family in Ethiopia. Originally from South Sudan, she came to Ethiopia in 2013 to escape conflict in her home country. “I came here with my husband. We were a young couple then,” she remembers. More than a decade later, they’re now parents to seven children and run a small retail store in a refugee settlement in the Gambella region of Ethiopia. Nyabang sells everyday household items like juice, food, and soap.

A woman and a man sitting inside their shop selling vegetables and other household supplies.
Nyabang and her husband, Chot Tut, have made a new home in Ethiopia, opening a small shop in the Jewi Refugee Settlement in Gambella.

In Ethiopia, extant regulations do not allow refugees to take loans directly, preventing them from investing in their businesses. “Lack of working capital is the main challenge I face,” says Nyabang. “The volume of stock I can afford [to purchase] doesn’t match the demand.” We’re opening access to credit for these entrepreneurs by bringing together partner organizations: Elebat Solutions is working with financial institutions to access and provide funds that enable refugee women to obtain products on credit. Using Elebat Solutions’ platform, entrepreneurs can order products for their stores from distributors. “They supplied on credit the main products I wanted, like flour, sugar, coffee beans, tea bags, and biscuits,” says Nyabang.

Beyond access to digital tools and financial resources, women refugees also receive training to build their digital and financial capabilities to position them for success. As Hillary Mbabazi, CEO of Soko Uganda, noted, “The refugees need more technical training on how to use the e-commerce platforms and equip them with a lot of entrepreneurial skills. Not being able to operate a computer affects them a lot.” Developed by Accion Advisory and implemented by local teams from Soko Uganda and Elebat Solutions, trainings are tailored to meet refugee women where they are and address their specific challenges — including adapting to a different language and culture and navigating regulations and restrictions for refugees.

A woman standing in a grocery store and looking at her mobile phone.
Nyabang orders inventory for her store and manages her accounts using her phone.

As the global refugee crisis worsens, with nearly three million additional refugees expected to need resettlement in 2025, meeting the needs of displaced people will take innovative solutions and collaboration. Leveraging local expertise and dynamic partnerships, we can work together to help support refugee families in the long term by addressing their unique challenges and connecting them to economic opportunity.

Learn more about how Accion works with financial institutions and fintech companies to provide refugees and migrants with responsible financial solutions so they can improve their economic well-being.

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Today, after decades of improvement, global poverty and inequality are on the rise, making our mission more urgent than ever.