Creating income opportunities for refugees in East Africa

22 December 2016
ITC News
Trade can play a crucial role in helping refugees and displaced people
maintain their dignity.

Didier is 21. When his father was murdered, Didier fled to Nakivale in southeast Uganda. He found safety in the bustling settlement along with more than 60,000 refugees. As the initial shock started wearing off, he focused on finding ways to support himself and his younger siblings. Yet, those livelihood opportunities are difficult to come and going back home is not safe.

Didier is not alone. More than 60 million refugees and internally displaced persons face similar difficulties across the world. Stricken by despair, many of them – including several of Didier’s friends – embark on a dangerous journey in the quest for a better life. Lack of prospects pushes people to take otherwise intolerable risks.

Despite the adversity, income-generating opportunities do exist. The International Trade Centre (ITC) has partnered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to translate them into better lives, not only for refugees but also for host country nationals who bear the costs of this global migratory crisis.

ITC and UNHCR have identified opportunities in agriculture, artisanal work and business process outsourcing (BPO). In Burkina Faso, for example, the two agencies have helped enhance traditional skills in leather and metal working to produce highend home décor items for sale in upmarket shops in in the European Union.

In addition to such artisanal activities, the internet has enabled myriads of new opportunities for virtual work. ITC has teamed up with the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) to tap into these opportunities in Kenya and Uganda (see pages 24-26). Pilot initiatives have confirmed ‘proof of concept’ for BPO work out of the Dadaab refugee centre. In addition, ITC has enabled social enterprises in Uganda to hire both nationals and refugees to undertake internet- based research for a Swiss university, as well as to transcribe interviews for United Nations Radio in Geneva.

Given the scale of the problem, finding sustainable solutions also requires new approaches, new ways of harnessing modern technology. To devise such tools, ITC turned to Hyper Island, a creative business school, and social entrepreneurship and design students at its hub in Manchester. A ‘hackaton’ yielded a number of new ideas. One of them was to develop a mobile application, or app, to link talented refugees (such as Didier) to overseas clients for BPO services such as translation, data entry and image processing.


Together with Common Good, a design and innovation consultancy, and Freeman XP, a brand agency, the students are developing a digital platform to facilitate the necessary linkages; organize quality assurance systems; mainstream BPO delivery; and handle international payments. Once fully operational, this facility will reduce transaction costs involved while boosting refugee incomes. This app also aims at delivering cost-competitive services to international clients while also giving them the chance to engage in meaningful and impactful development assistance.

Developing the app has demanded solutions to mitigate a number of challenges, such as unreliable internet access. In rural areas, for example, UNHCR has found that only 17% of the refugee population has access to 3G coverage, while a fifth the of the rural population has no coverage at all. In many cases refugees can only access the internet through web cafés or computer labs run by non-governmental organizations, which may be far away and expensive.

Against this backdrop, the team is developing an offline solution, which only requires connectivity to search and download specific jobs and then to upload the finished product. Refugees can use a local internet café to download a BPO job to a device and then work on the assignment in their own time without incurring extra data charges. The platform also leverages cloud technology, which divides the work into small pieces which the system aggregates digitally for revision and delivery. This feature allows for flexible part-time working that fits in with commitments such as child care or education.


Take the example of translation services. ITC has identified vibrant international demand while preliminary costing exercises indicate potential for competitive market positioning by both refugees and partner enterprises. In fact, this expanding market is estimated at well over US$20 billion globally. The team has tested an early prototype of the application though a real-life transaction involving residents at Nakivale, including Didier. This exercise has yielded good quality translations (from English into French, while payments were handled through the M-pesa mobile system. As such, this experience indicates overall app viability and cost competitiveness. Further application development, live testing and benchmarking are planned for 2017.

Once fully operational, the app is expected to prove a boon to entrepreneurial refuges in remote areas. For example, Didier has already decided to stay in Nakivale and help his siblings from there. He has benefitted from a UNHCR-run visual-arts programme that taught him how to film and edit video material. He also does translations on an ad hoc basis.

The app will allow Didier to bid for assignments much easily and hence multiply his earnings while enjoying access to training and support specifically geared for translation assignments. If he and the surviving members of his family manage to return home one day, they will take the BPO tool with them and continue generating income while they adjust to their new setting.

Didier’s story shows how trade-led support can help create livelihoods opportunities, support voluntary returns and, perhaps most importantly, allow disenfranchised people to regain their dignity.