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‘They call him the millionaire’: the refugee who turned his camp into a business empire

Mesfin Getahun runs an import and wholesale business in the Kakuma refugee camp. His merchandise comes from Kenya, Asia and the Middle East. Photograph: Hubert Hayaud for the Guardian

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It’s a sweltering afternoon in the Kakuma refugee camp, and workers are busy loading crates of Coca-Cola bottles into a run-down car stationed in front of Mesfin Getahun’s store. Clad in a pair of denim jeans and a matching shirt, the 42-year-old Ethiopian wholesaler moves swiftly inside the large room filled with piles of bulk powder milk, canned tomatoes and sacks of grain, attending to customers’ requests and giving orders to staff. A small crowd of refugees and members of the local Turkana tribe have gathered to socialise, sitting on plastic chairs by the shop’s entrance.

In 2001, Getahun fled neighbouring Ethiopia amidst political turmoil, settling in this sprawling camp located in arid, isolated and underdeveloped Turkana County, in north-eastern Kenya. Nobody, including himself, would have predicted that in 16 years he would go from sweeping floors to make ends meet, to being one of the camp’s premier wholesalers whose $10,000 (£7,779) monthly income has earned him the nickname “the millionaire.”

But today he’s troubled. His family have been selected for resettlement to the United States and is waiting for a departure date. It’s an offer most refugees would only dream of receiving, but it has led to an unexpected set of challenges for Getahun, whose refugee status makes it difficult for him to collect his assets, scattered between the local bank and the camp in investments and in cash, and transfer them abroad. Finding someone capable of buying and taking over his operations would also take time, he explains.

Like many refugees, Getahun arrived in Kenya with nothing – so it would be a big deal for him to sell up and start over again. But staying in Kakuma does not guarantee him security either as the Kenyan government has repeatedly claimed it wants to close all the country’s refugee camps over security fears. Attempts by the government to close the world’s biggest refugee camp Dadaab were halted by a court order earlier this year but the future of the camps is still uncertain – and with it, Getahun’s entire customer base.

“The Kenyan government has said they didn’t want to have refugees here, so I’m at risk even now. I must protect my money, but I don’t have any insurance. You have to be tactful when you live here as a refugee. I have a good relationship with the local people, the Turkanas [but I am still nervous about the government changing its refugee policy].”

A refugee’s rise to the top

A former soldier, Getahun’s first job at the refugee camp was as a cleaner at a refugee-run coffeehouse, where he earnt 1000 Kenyan shillings (£7.50) a month.

“I just kept that money. Then I used the savings to bake bread. I brought a little bit of wheat flour, and I started selling bread.” He ran his bakery business for a few years, before deciding to open a shop, selling a wider range of goods at a small profit.

Refugees and members of the local Turkana tribe come to Getahun’s store as much to socialise as do business. Photograph: Hubert Hayaud for the Guardian

But with close to 200,000 people living in the Kakuma camp, which opened in 1992, Getahun sensed there was a bigger business opportunity to be had. The residents there rely on refugee-run businesses to access goods and services that are not provided by international aid – think canned food, shampoo, school supplies, clothing, cybercafés, kitchenware, beauty products, restaurants, bars, photography studios and much more. Residents trade their food rations on the black market to pay for these goods, use money sent from relatives abroad, or start their own business (or look for a job in one of them). The luckiest ones are employed by one of the national and international aid agencies operating in the camp, for much higher wages.

Kenyans also shop, trade and sometimes work in the camp, attracted by its low retail prices and business opportunities.

The sheer scale of the camp and its needs was why Getahun didn’t fear competition. Instead he set up a wholesale business, knowing its success would rely on the expansion of the refugee-run economy.

“Most of the shopkeepers here, they are selling second-hand clothes. Only me, I was selling different things, different items,” he recounts. “So I just tried to teach them: ‘Why don’t you sell like me?’”

He not only encouraged them, but also mentored them and invested in their enterprises, thereby creating a network of businesses that ended up catalysing his transition to wholesale.

Rahul Oka, an anthropology professor at the University of Notre Dame who has studied Kakuma’s economy for years, says Getahun’s rise to the top of the camp’s economic ladder is unexpected. “Mesfin is unique,” he says.

Kakuma’s economy is run in large part by refugees who were already doing business back home, and brought along with them contacts and sources of informal capital. Somalis, for instance, can rely on a centuries-old money transfer system called hawala, remittances from family abroad, and business ties across East Africa and the Middle East.

For a refugee to compete with these well-established traders without any business experience, savings or access to credit, goes against all odds, Oka explains. “He’s actually replicated the Somali, or the Gujarati, or the Lebanese family business model, except that it’s not kin-related, but the ties are based on friendship and reciprocity.”

A fervent Christian, Getahun claims his innate business acumen is a “gift of God,” which he must repay through charitable actions. He’s helped build churches in the camp, and has made donations to mosques as well. He occasionally pays for hospital bills, supports the private education of orphaned children, and gives food to those in need. “I just follow the instructions of God,” he explains. “I don’t want to see poor people so I help them.”

In business and philanthropy, Getahun has cut across ethnic lines inside and outside the camp. He employs, does business with and gives to members of the local Turkana tribe, who often live in deep poverty. “He’s essentially generated tremendous amounts of social and political capital by his general goodwill,” explains Oka. “That has also played into an increase in his financial capital, because people go to him specifically to buy.”

“The millionaire” meanwhile lives modestly with his wife and two children in a large room located at the back of his wholesale warehouse. He doesn’t like to go out, or to go to restaurants. “I just spend my time here at work. I don’t want to go anywhere.”

His imminent resettlement to the US weighs heavy on his mind though. He has pleaded his case to the staff from the International Organization for Migration and the American embassy in Kenya who handle his file, but says he’s received little help to sort out the logistics of his departure. “They don’t understand me,” he laments.

The humanitarian system likely didn’t foresee that a refugee would start his life over and build a business empire in a camp where most live with their life on hold.

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How to Turn $200,000 Into a $670 Million Business

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Seven years ago, Ismail Ahmed set out to build a startup that could send cash electronically from the U.K. to Africa. He had $200,000 and a lot of experience in the money transfer business in his native Somalia.

Today, London-based WorldRemit Ltd. sends money to 148 nations and has just raised $40 million in a deal led by LeapFrog Investments, an investment firm in London, the company said in a statement on Thursday.

The Series C funding round values the fintech firm at more than $670 million, according to a person familiar with the transaction, who asked not to be identified because the matter is private. WorldRemit’s longtime backers, Accel Partners and Technology Crossover Ventures, invested in the deal.

WorldRemit, which specializes in sending money via mobile phones, will use the cash to try to grow its customer accounts globally to 10 million from 2 million by 2020. The company is making a big push in transfers between the U.S., Asia, and Latin America.
“The U.S. will grow our revenues as much as 40 percent over the next few years,” Ahmed, WorldRemit’s chief executive officer, said in an interview.

But the company faces stiff competition from The Western Union Co., the longtime powerhouse in the $444 billion global remittance business, as well as other fintech firms such as Remitly Inc., a Seattle-based company that raised $115 million in a private fundraising deal in October.

WorldRemit is on course to record 60 million pounds ($81 million) in net revenue this year, a 46 percent jump from 2016, according to Ahmed. The company is looking at a potential initial public offering in two to three years, he said.

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New market means increased economic opportunities for one Somali town

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In Somalia’s Puntland region, Bossaso’s local market provides a source of income for local traders. For women, however, the market is especially important.

After years of conflict, many households are reliant on money generated by women to survive. In some households, women contribute more than 70 percent to their families’ income.

And the majority of women in Somalia earn money from informal sectors – including working in local markets.

Unfortunately for traders in Bossaso, selling their goods in the city’s main market was no longer an option. In 2012, a fire severely damaged Bossaso Market – a place many women traders depended on for their livelihoods.

With funding from the Government of Japan, UNOPS oversaw the construction of a new market with improved facilities to support women entrepreneurs in Bossaso.

“We’re grateful for the support of the Government of Japan and UNOPS, who worked closely with us to implement the project,” said Engineer Yazin Mire, Bossaso’s mayor. “Many businesses will benefit from this market, which will help several different communities, including Yemeni refugees and returnees who fled from the conflict in Yemen.”

Giving women a say in their future

Before the construction of the new Bossaso Market began, information was collected from female traders during an extensive consultation process. This allowed them to be actively involved in the design and planning of the new site, ensuring their needs were taken into account from the beginning. In all, nearly 2,000 market traders, both male and female, participated in the data collection process. That data was used to define the scope of the construction of the new market.

An extensive community needs assessment was also conducted to encourage a sense of community ownership of the project, as well as to contribute to the long-term sustainability of the new market.

Training for the future

The new Bossaso Market will enable traders, particularly women, to become economically self-sufficient. In addition to the new market, local entrepreneurs also received training – carried out by the Japan Center for Conflict Prevention – aimed at teaching them new skills to help their businesses thrive. More than 200 traders – nearly 90 percent of them women – either received business skills training or business start-up kits.

“The Government of Japan is delighted with the success of this project, which contributed to stabilization of the region through the empowerment of women, in collaboration with the Japan Center for Conflict Prevention,” said the Embassy of Japan. “The Government of Japan is confident that those who got vocational training will play an important role in leading the local economy and society.”

Asiya Ali Farah owns a kiosk in Bossaso. She participated in a training session on microfinancing. “One day, I hope I will become a lender,” Asiya said. “So that I can give loans to Somali women who need help starting up small businesses to feed their families.”

“Microfinancing is not new in Somalia, but there are not many female traders with access to it yet,” explained Japan Center for Conflict Prevention Secretary General Yukiko Ishii. “The training was intended to help participants access emerging, locally available microfinancing schemes to boost their small business.”

The new skills learned as part of the training sessions will help market traders generate a higher income. This in turn can help increase economic development in the region – and encourage stability.

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Somalia’s Premier Bank becomes the first to offer letters of credit

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In Somalia, the government is trying to improve its financial capacity and capabilities. It wants to convince other countries that it’s a safe place to invest. One lender has taken a major step forward in this process. Premier Bank has become the first to offer its clients access to a letter of credit. The crucial document will go a long way to boosting trust between traders and suppliers.

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