DREAMS on World Refugee Day

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 nine months 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 DREAMS (Delivering Resilient Enterprises and Market Systems) for Refugees, and over the past few months, she’s started learning about running a business and being a part of a savings group. As a result, she’s feeling more hopeful about the future and her own ability to provide for her family.

“Having a successful business will be a blessing to me—I will be able to support myself and take my children to school,” Anna says. With the money earned from her business, Anna is planning to buy her children shoes, school materials, and medication that is not available at the settlement’s free clinic.

A photo of Anna sitting at Bidi Bidi. She is looking toward the camera and smiling.

Anna, who is 27 years old, came to Uganda from South Sudan in 2018. Village Enterprise’s poverty graduation model has started more than 63,000 businesses in Africa and transformed the lives of nearly one million women and children living in extreme poverty.

A winner of the Larsen Lam ICONIQ Impact Award for refugees and funded by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation and the IKEA Foundation, DREAMS for Refugees 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 for Refugees as the program expands in Uganda, building off its successful pilot in 2018. In the months ahead, Anna will finish her business training, receive a seed capital grant from DREAMS to launch her business, and be mentored by a DREAMS staff member to help with the success of her business during its first year. 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 produce.

“Anna will benefit further as DREAMS Market Systems Development approach facilitates the development and improved access to markets, goods, and services to propel her business,” says Dulane Omer, Program Manager, Ethiopia at Mercy Corps. “The market linkages will ensure Anna has access to quality products and services from private sector actors and that her new business flourishes with new clients.”

“What’s unique about DREAMS for Refugees 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.”

On top of expanding in Uganda, DREAMS for Refugees will launch in Ethiopia later this year. In total, DREAMS 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.

Rashid, an entrepreneur from the DREAMS for Refugees pilot in Uganda, stands next to the new home he built with savings from his business. Read Rashid’s story here.

“By generating evidence within refugee communities, we can help ensure that investments lead to meaningful benefits that help refugees improve their lives,” says Alison Connor, Director II at IDinsight. “The evidence collected in this project will help us understand how to meet their unique needs and challenges. IDinsight is excited to evaluate this innovative program.”

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 has caused 23 million people to experience extreme hunger and threatens to push millions of families into extreme poverty. These crises have been rarely featured in the media and are significantly underfunded. 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 for Refugees 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.

To learn more about DREAMS and our entrepreneurs, read Rashid’s story from the program’s pilot in Uganda here and watch a video featuring Joyce’s story here.

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