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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



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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DP World says Djibouti incident could hurt Africa investment



DUBAI (Reuters) – Port operator DP World said on Thursday that Djibouti’s decision to seize control of a terminal project could hurt African efforts to attract investment.

The Dubai state-owned port operator is facing twin political challenges in Africa.

Djibouti abruptly ended its contract to run the Doraleh Container Terminal last month and Somalia’s parliament voted this week to ban the company.

DP World has called the Djibouti move illegal and said it had begun proceedings before the London Court of International Arbitration, which last year cleared the company of all charges of misconduct over the concession.

“Africa needs infrastructure investments and if countries can change their law [to take assets then this] is going to basically make it more difficult to attract investment,” Chairman Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem told a news conference in Dubai.
DP World reported 14.9 percent rise in 2017 profit to $1.18 billion profit and said that it would invest $1.4 billion across its global portfolio including in Berbera in Somaliland. [L8N1QX0F2]

It is developing a port in Berbera in partnership with the governments of Somaliland and Ethiopia. It is also developing a greenfield free trade zone in the breakaway region.

Bin Sulayem said he was not concerned by the vote in Somalia’s parliament to ban DP World from the country, which the parliament said nullified their Somaliland contract.

It is unclear how Somalia’s federal government could enforce the ban given Somaliland’s semi-autonomous status.

Europe, the Middle East and Africa accounted for about 42 percent of the cargo DP World handled in 2017.

Reporting by Alexander Cornwell; editing by Jason Neely

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INTERVIEW: Somalia gears towards improving its monetary policies



CGTN — Somalia’s central government imposed a five percent sales tax this month as part of efforts to win billions of dollars in international debt relief. This was followed by protests in Mogadishu’s main market by traders opposed to the tax. CGTN’s Abdulaziz Billow sat down with the country’s minister of finance who shed more light on the country’s monetary policies

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Somalia Tax Argument From Both Sides: Bakara Traders vs The Government



Somalia’s busiest and largest open-air market in Mogadishu has been closed for the past two days.

Business owners in Bakara market are protesting over a five percent tax imposed by the government, in an effort to pay back some of its international debt.


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