Equipping Refugees to Become Entrepreneurs through DREAMS

Equipping Refugees to Become Entrepreneurs through DREAMS

Like mothers the world over, Anna dreams of giving her children the best life possible, including access to high quality education and healthcare. But living in the Bidi Bidi Refugee Settlement in northwestern Uganda, it has been difficult for Anna to provide these things for her two children, who are five years old and one year old.

Originally from Mugo village in South Sudan, Anna came to Bidi Bidi in 2018, fleeing the civil war in her home country. Like many of the 270,000 refugees living in Bidi Bidi, a lack of economic opportunities has meant that Anna and her family are largely dependent on humanitarian aid for food, education, and healthcare—programs that have seen significant cuts due to the pandemic. However, Anna was recently selected for Village Enterprise’s DREAMS (Delivering Resilient Enterprises and Market Systems) program, and over the past few months, she has completed nine business and financial literacy training modules, received a seed capital grant, and successfully launched a retail business with two other first-time entrepreneurs in Bidi Bidi. As a result, she’s been able to better provide for her family.

“I am very happy that I was able to buy all the scholastic materials for school and footwear for my children using the profits I got from the retail business,” Anna says. On top of shoes and school materials, Anna has been able to buy more nutritious meals for her children to eat and new clothes for herself. She also has joined a business savings group, providing her with access to loans, opportunities to save, and the ability to access emergency funding in case her children were to get sick and need medication that is not available at the settlement’s free clinic.

Anna sits next to the food items she sells as part of her newly launched small enterprise. Anna, who is 27 years old, came to Uganda from South Sudan in 2018.

A winner of the Larsen Lam Iconic Impact Award for Refugees and funded by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation and the IKEA Foundation, DREAMS is an innovative program that merges Village Enterprise’s poverty graduation model with Mercy Corps’ expertise in market systems development in order to equip refugees with the skills, resources, and markets to start sustainable businesses and graduate from extreme poverty. Anna is part of the first cohort of DREAMS as the program expands in Uganda, building off its successful pilot in 2018. In the months ahead, Anna will continue to receive business mentoring from DREAMS staff to help with the success of her business. Furthermore, DREAMS will connect Anna to private sector actors in her community that can both provide her with the high quality business inputs she needs and buy her products. With her eyes on the future, Anna has plans to buy goats and diversify her business. This will help her further fund her children’s education, which she believes will “change our lives forever.”

“What’s unique about DREAMS is that it isn’t a short-term solution,” says Dianne Calvi, CEO and President of Village Enterprise. “Support for refugees often focuses on immediate needs, such as providing shelter or food assistance. While that approach is extremely important, our aim is to equip refugees with the tools and resources so they can launch their own sustainable businesses, earn higher incomes for themselves and their families, build assets, savings and resilience, and ultimately live happier and healthier lives.”

Rashid, an entrepreneur from the DREAMS for Refugees pilot in Uganda, stands next to the new home he built with savings from his business. You can read Rashid’s story here and watch a video about DREAMS here.

On top of expanding in Uganda, DREAMS will launch in Ethiopia later this year. In total, the program will reach more than 33,000 households across the two countries and impact more than 200,000 lives. Just as importantly, its impact will be studied in an independent randomized controlled trial (RCT) conducted by IDinsight, providing valuable research that can be used across the international development and humanitarian aid sectors to better serve refugees in the future. This research will also build off the two RCTs that Village Enterprise has already participated in. Most recently, in March of this year, findings from the Village Enterprise Development Impact Bond (DIB)—the first-ever DIB for poverty alleviation in Africa—showcased cost-effective, sustained impact in income and asset increases for over 14,000 households in Uganda and Kenya despite the pandemic. It also estimated there would be $21 million in lifetime benefits for participating households, which is more than four times the cost of the project. Learn more about the Village Enterprise DIB results here.

All of this comes at a crucial moment for Africa. The Norwegian Refugee Council recently published its annual list of the world’s ten most neglected displacement crises, and for the first time ever, all ten were in Africa. On top of this, the ongoing drought in East Africa and rising prices due to the war in Ukraine have caused an estimated 50 million people to experience acute food insecurity. As displacement grows in the region due to these shocks, so does the need to better serve refugees and help them create a sustainable path forward.

In order to meet this need, Village Enterprise and Mercy Corps are currently working to expand DREAMS into Kenya, and there have already been discussions with the Kenyan government about what the program would look like. Village Enterprise is currently looking for donors to support this $10M expansion that would reach an additional 33,000 households and impact the lives of more than 200,000 people. This way, the program can reach more people like Anna, ensuring more parents and families have the opportunity to make their dreams a reality.

If you are interested in supporting Village Enterprise’s mission and helping to end extreme poverty, you can make a donation here.

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Village Enterprise

Village Enterprise identifies the extreme poor in Kenya and Uganda and delivers a four part program to build businesses: entrepreneurship training, a cash grant, business mentoring, and a savings group. There is strong evidence that this leads to a significant and persistent increase in income.

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The views expressed in blog posts are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Peter Singer or The Life You Can Save.