Helping refugees in Africa become entrepreneurs

© Jjumba Martin for Mercy CorpsOctober 2022, Bidi Bidi, Uganda. One of the group members saving with the group secretary. Under the DREAMS program, a consortium of Mercy Corps, Village Enterprise and IDinsight, Support has been extended to the Ala-Zabu savings group comprising refugees from South S

By Michael Laff

Festo James left South Sudan in 2016 and walked to Uganda. Today he and his family live in the Bidi Bidi refugee camp, where he owns a business.

He operates a silver fish business with two partners while leading a group of fellow entrepreneurs. James is participating in DREAMS (Delivering Resilient Enterprises and Market Systems), a U.S.-financed program that helps refugees in Africa start their own businesses.

The initiative is a partnership among Mercy Corps, Village Enterprise and IDinsight. All three are U.S.-headquartered organizations that tackle poverty.

James’ business is among 400 that the DREAMS program said it helped launch since 2022, supporting 1,200 households in Uganda.

Developing networks

Woman reaching out to take folded bills from outstretched hand as others look on (© Jjumba Martin/Mercy Corps)
During gatherings, group members collect loan payments, grant loans, balance their books and review their goals together. (© Jjumba Martin/Mercy Corps)

Inside the refugee settlements, the participants join a business group of about 30 people each, creating a network of entrepreneurs.

As vice chairman of the Ala-Zabu savings group, James reviews the financial records for his colleagues, tracking their assets. If one entrepreneur needs financial help, the others will provide assistance.

The sponsoring agencies study the local market and identify business opportunities for program participants. Entrepreneurs obtain financing and access to potential business partners that buy or sell their products. The initiative fosters business development among participants. who support each other.

Changing lives

Two women feeding chickens (© Jjumba Martin/Mercy Corps)
Okukuru Zubeda, right, with a colleague, started a poultry business with help from the DREAMS program. (© Jjumba Martin/Mercy Corps)

Okukuru Zubeda joined a business group inside Bidi Bidi. She received support to obtain chicken feed and training to build a growing poultry business. With her savings, she purchased saucepans and school uniforms for her children.

“This business has changed my life. I know how to manage the finances,” Okukuru said. “I encourage people to join savings groups and acquire knowledge from those groups.”

Other entrepreneurs breed chickens, grow sesame or sell home goods.

“We wanted to give [the refugees] an opportunity to grow by themselves and create long-term solutions for them to move forward in their goals,” said Allison Huggins, Africa deputy regional director for Mercy Corps.

Several U.S. foundations finance the program, including the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, ICONIQ Impact, Sea Grape Foundation and the Patchwork Collective.

The next site for expansion is inside the Dollo Ado refugee camp in Ethiopia. DREAMS will partner with 33,000 households in both countries, connecting with more than 200,000 people.

The U.S. business magazine Fast Company honored DREAMS with one of its 2023 World Changing Ideas Awards.