Refugee entrepreneurs share their start-up journey (en)

17 juillet 2019
ITC Nouvelles
To mark World Refugee Day, Swiss-based refugee entrepreneurs and International Trade Centre (ITC) initiatives to help refugees came together to debunk myths.

The reality of refugees fleeing conflict and misery never disappears – likewise the negative myth that refugees and migrants steal jobs from the host communities they eventually call home.

But for World Refugee Day on 20 June, International Trade Centre (ITC) chose to bust the myths and organise a moment to listen directly to refugees, give them space and promote further understanding of the complex situation at hand.

ITC invited refugee entrepreneurs and the civil society organizations and businesses that engage with them in Switzerland to a panel discussion and pop-up marketplace at ITC’s Geneva headquarters. From food prepared by refugees to scarves, artwork and wall hangings, to setting up an online platform or playing music, the marketplace highlighted the diversity and talent of the refugee skillset.

Pathway for refugees

Around the world, countries establish different laws and regulations to manage migration flows. Switzerland currently has tight regulations for migrant and refugee arrivals, but the situation is improving.

This has created the conditions for refugees to rebuild their lives, said Giordano Neuenschwander, head of SINGA in Geneva, an organisation supporting refugee entrepreneurship.

SINGA offers a mentorship programme where refugees and migrants can become so-called SINGApreneurs and receive guidance from its network of skilled volunteers. This can cover branding work to navigating customs regulations to fundraising.

It is not an unusual for refugees and migrants to set up a business as a way of earning a living since in some ways it is easier to be one’s own boss than rely on a job market that may discriminate against new arrivals.

SINGApreneur Elie Khudari founded Seeveez in Zurich after limited success finding a job. With experience running large and successful businesses in Syria and Saudi Arabia, Elie is fearless and has big dreams: “I want to become a billionaire,” he beams. His business is an online HR platform using the latest AI technology to disrupt traditional job platforms and hiring processes.

For Saran Camara, her arrival in Switzerland sparked an entrepreneurial spirit. After relentless searching, she was unable to find high quality food items she missed from her home in Guinea, so she decided that she might as well import it herself.

With that, an African superfood queen and a business, Keneya Foods, was born. Saran’s first product is a baobab powder packed with healthy minerals and vitamins.

Yet even Saran had to overcome the negative myths around refugees often projected onto her. The “refugee” status printed on her Swiss permit made her believe she was not able to start or own a business. Fortunately, the SINGA team helped her understand her legal rights and make a business plan.

What about refugees in camps?

Roberta Ventura left her job as an investment banker to become an activist business owner with a mission to change the lives of refugees and their families. Roberta is calling for governments to stop “storing” refugees in camps and instead help them to realize their value and talent.

Roberta’s business, SEP Jordan, works with Palestinian and Syrian refugees in Jordan. With a team of 525 artisans trained and ready to work on incoming orders for embroidered products, SEP Jordan is an impressive example of a scaled-up artisanal business. The brand has a strong following with SEP ambassadors around the world wearing their scarves, hats and bags.

And with its Refugee Employment and Skills Initiative, ITC has recently set up Nyota Farsamo, a Somali-Kenyan artisan cooperative, in Dadaab, one of the world’s largest refugee camps, in Kenya. The refugees who work there have successfully participated in two craft sales in Nairobi in under a year.

Similarly, ITC’s Ethical Fashion Initiative is supporting the growth of the Malian artisan cooperative, Atelier Autodidacts Anti Algorithms (AAAA), which provides jobs for young internally displaced males. Working alongside elder master artisans, the young men can continue practicing the traditional weaving craft on traditional looms to make cotton fabric wall hangings.

Nyota Farsamo and AAAA both represent ITC’s work supporting refugees develop their talents and access trade opportunities to generate income. For refugees or migrants, gaining financial independence is critical to regaining self-respect and confidence.

ITC thanks the audience for its engagement and all event participants: SINGA, Interactions, Thrive, Refugee Voices, SEP Jordan, RefuShe Switzerland, CusineLab, Rossana Amman, May El Kurdi, Au fil du geste, Nyota Farsamo and AAAA.