'No one plans to be a refugee': The Burundian entrepreneur who wishes to be seen beyond his status 

World Refugee Day: Innocent Havyarimana was forced to flee his native Burundi in 2013 due to traumatic events.

World Refugee Day: Innocent Havyarimana was forced to flee his native Burundi in 2013 due to traumatic events. Image: GLAP/God loves All People

Pooja Chhabria
Digital Editor, World Economic Forum
Tarini Fernando
Lead, Equitable Transition, World Economic Forum
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  • Innocent Havyarimana started his soap-making business in Kenya's Kakuma refugee camp after being forced to flee his native Burundi.
  • In a conversation with the World Economic Forum, he talks about his vision for the informal business, and the challenges that come with holding a refugee status.
  • On this World Refugee Day, which focuses global attention on the plight of those fleeing conflict or persecution, Innocent also hopes for a shift in mindset towards refugees.

"I wasn't ready to be a refugee," says Innocent Havyarimana, who was forced to flee his native Burundi in 2013 due to traumatic events.

He was a former chemistry student who dreamed of making medicines but found himself alone at the Kakuma refugee camp in north-eastern Kenya with no prospects of continuing his education.

"I had no money and decided to start a business that relates to my education in chemistry, or the mixing of chemicals, as I see it.

"From there, I started producing one type of soap. And now we create 16 types of soap under the company I founded called 'GLAP', which stands for 'God loves All People'."

Innocent's soap-making business, founded in 2015, hit global headlines during the pandemic. It was hailed for being 'a major weapon in the fight against coronavirus' at the Kakuma refugee camp, one of the world's biggest settlements of its kind. It's home to almost 200,000 people, the BBC reported.

The demand for soap products was hitting an all-time high with the guidance around handwashing, and Innocent realised there were major gaps in access. "There were many people who were not able to buy soap. So I decided to assist some people based on my savings from the business."

Innocent's soap making business now employs over 40 refugee and host community members in Kakuma.
Innocent's soap-making business now employs over 40 refugee and host community members in Kakuma. Image: GLAP/God loves All People

In May, Innocent participated in the 2023 Growth Summit to join the World Economic Forum’s Refugee Employment Alliance in its global, multi-stakeholder effort to expand employment and employability opportunities for refugees.

Here, he talks about his vision for the business, which now employs over 40 refugee and host community members, while serving relief agencies and local businesses outside the camp.

"In the next five years, I hope to employ more than 100 people and expand to other countries, including Uganda, South Africa, Mozambique, Tanzania and South Sudan."

But he says accomplishing these goals comes with its unique challenges due to his status as a refugee. "First [challenge] is the access to capital. I am an entrepreneur… but it's difficult to access finance, especially from formal institutions, due to my status."

The second and third include accessing water and facilitating transportation for raw materials. "Most of the chemicals, the packaging and labelling come from Nairobi, and the lack of a travel document slows down the process.

"I wouldn't have these problems if I wasn't a refugee."

How can we improve access to employment and entrepreneurship for refugees?

A World Bank Study in 2018 found that over 2,000 businesses in Kakuma contribute US$56 million to the region’s economy. Innocent remains optimistic – he says he started with 1000 Kenyan shillings (about 7 USD) and has built over 10 million (in assets) over seven years.

But his experience points to some of the findings from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Their Global Roadmap for Refugee Entrepreneurship identifies these main needs of refugee entrepreneurs after analyzing desk research and interview findings:

  • improving access to finance, markets and information
  • addressing xenophobia, discrimination, and relations with host communities
  • addressing differences between policies and their implementation
  • creating behavioural change
  • improving operational management for entrepreneurship support
Innocent says access to capital remains a primary challenge as a refugee.
Innocent says access to capital remains a primary challenge as a refugee. Image: GLAP/God loves All People

According to Kelly Clements, Deputy High Commissioner at UNHCR, “The biggest challenge many refugees face is accessing the formal labour market. Addressing these barriers to employment and entrepreneurship can be the key to unlocking innovation and opportunities for both refugees and host communities.”

While some private companies are pledging to provide jobs, training and connections to work opportunities for refugees, others like Manpower Group, are collaborating with partners to host a customised job postings platform.

The Ingka Group, which operates nearly 400 IKEA stores across the globe, is adopting a localised approach to hiring and talent management strategies. As millions of refugees from Ukraine fled to Poland, IKEA Poland for instance, began to ‘look for talent, not CVs’ and recognised language as a barrier to encountering success. It led to the team conducting interviews in the language of the refugee to give them a better chance of expressing their skills and competencies.

“From its small roots in the region of Småland in Sweden, IKEA has always prided itself and been driven by entrepreneurial people. From our years of experience working with refugees inside the business and the value chain, we’re convinced that their resilience, experiences, entrepreneurship, and adaptability spark innovation that’s good for both business and society,” says Tolga Öncü, Retail Operations Manager, Ingka Group (IKEA).

Promoting a mindset shift

The speed and scale at which the war in Ukraine unfolded was unique, and so too, was the legal and institutional response it invoked. The World Economic Forum’s Refugee Employment Alliance harnesses the opportunity to learn from the rapid labour market integration of Ukrainian refugees in host countries to motivate progressive and equitable solutions for the economic integration of forcibly displaced populations, globally.


How is the World Economic Forum supporting refugees?

Following the latest tragedy in the Mediterranean, the worst in several years, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and UNHCR have issued a joint statement for ‘urgent and timely action’ to prevent further deaths at sea. Hundreds of migrants from the Middle East, Asia and Africa attempt to cross the Mediterranean each year as a route into the European Union.

International days like World Refugee Day, observed each year on 20 June, help to focus global attention on the plight of those fleeing conflict or persecution. Innocent hopes it can also prompt a shift in mindset towards refugees.

"No one plans to be a refugee - I am a refugee today but may not be one tomorrow.

"And being a refugee doesn’t mean we don’t have the skills; it’s a status and doesn’t define our abilities."

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