How refugees in Ethiopia are launching life-changing businesses

With more than 43.4 million refugees currently worldwide, it’s never been more important for the international development sector to innovate in order to provide better, more sustainable solutions for refugees living in extreme poverty.

Through DREAMS, Village Enterprise and Mercy Corps are on a mission to do just that.

To learn more about DREAMS, read the stories of two refugees who have become business owners in two different refugee settlements in Ethiopia. The DREAMS program in Ethiopia is funded by the generous support of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation and the IKEA Foundation.

 

Runbille’s Story

For ten years, as a woman and a refugee living in Ethiopia, Runbille wasn’t able to secure a job. In 2013, she arrived in Ethiopia’s Hilaweyn Refugee Settlement from Somalia, but as a mother of seven living in extreme poverty, she found it impossible to find a consistent job or steady income.

Because she wasn’t able to find work in the settlement, Runbille could not afford to send her children to the local school or pay for their school supplies, nor was she able to afford healthcare when her family needed it. Since her husband also had difficulties finding work, the family fully relied on food rations from the United Nations World Food Program to eat. With ongoing budget cuts and subsequent decreases in humanitarian aid, the threat of not being able to secure enough food each month was a constant worry for them.

But in August 2023, Runbille enrolled in DREAMS and discovered the power of entrepreneurship to transform not only her own life, but the lives of her husband and seven children as well.

A young woman sits behind her desk in her tailoring business.
Runbille operating her sewing machine inside of her tailoring business in Ethiopia’s Heleweyn Refugee Settlement

DREAMS (Delivering Resilient Enterprises and Market Systems) is a first-of-its-kind, award-winning model that combines Village Enterprise’s poverty graduation program with Mercy Corps’ expertise in market systems development. By empowering refugees to become entrepreneurs, equipping them with the resources to launch their own businesses, and enhancing their local markets and economies, DREAMS offers refugees sustainable opportunities to lift themselves out of poverty and rebuild their lives.

Through Village Enterprise, Runbille learned how to operate a small business, track expenses, and keep financial records. Equipped with training, she was provided a cash transfer as startup capital to launch her very first business. Using this business grant, and under guidance from her DREAMS business mentor, Runbille started a business sewing and tailoring clothes by hand in partnership with two other women in the settlement. As her business grew, she was able to use her profits to buy a sewing machine to produce even more clothes and help make her work more efficient.

Village Enterprise also encouraged Runbille to regularly save some of her profits. She joined a business savings group of 30 entrepreneurs who met weekly to practice savings and support one another throughout the entirety of the program. Using her weekly savings, Runbille launched a second business of livestock fattening—the process of fattening sheep and goats to later sell at a better price—allowing her to double her monthly income.

 

Map of Hilaweyn and Kobe Refugee Settlements in Ethiopia

 

Through Mercy Corps’s market systems development work, Runbille was connected with private sector actors in the area’s sheep and goat industry, securing reliable supply chains and broader market access for her business. In doing so, they strengthened the economic infrastructure for Runbille and helped her tap into the local markets that would drive greater business success.

Runbille’s two businesses have had a profound impact on her and her family, and she’s grown to be seen as a leader in her community. “My opinion is respected, and I’m seen as a role model by many young entrepreneurs and mothers who wish to be like me,” says Runbille. Not only does Runbille feel as if her social standing has improved, but she’s been able to purchase household items, such as a bedframe and mattress, and pay for medical expenses for her children. Now, her family’s able to eat consistent, nutritious meals, and live a dignified life. They’ve even started dreaming big about the future for their children.

In fact, she and her husband are currently saving up to send their eldest daughter to college to study political science and global studies. As Runbille says, “Empowering a mother is like empowering a nation.”

 

Arfon’s Story

After fleeing the conflict in Somalia in search of a safer future, Arfon, 34, arrived in Ethiopia’s Kobe Refugee Settlement alongside her husband and three children. Finding almost no economic opportunities to earn an income, Arfon and her husband were forced to rely on growing their own food and doing manual labor to provide for their family’s basic needs. But because she didn’t have the right resources to manage her household garden and the labor jobs came and went, Arfon’s income was unstable and often insufficient, trapping her family in a cycle of extreme poverty and exacerbating their food insecurity.

But in August 2023, Arfon enrolled in DREAMS and a better future began to seem possible. Through Village Enterprise’s poverty graduation program, Arfon learned how to establish and manage her own business, and she gained the entrepreneurial skills needed to ensure her business would thrive. “The financial literacy and management skills have been crucial for me to make informed decisions and ensure the sustainability of my small business,” says Arfon.

Under the guidance of her business mentor and in collaboration with two other women in the settlement, Arfon started a livestock fattening business. She felt like it was a good opportunity, as she saw demand for the business in the local market and had previous experience fattening livestock back in Somalia.

Three women stand in front of a pink wall with many goats in front of them
Arfon (right) with her business partners, Anfac and Nura, showing off the sheep and goats from their business in Ethiopia’s Kobe Refugee Settlement

Like Runbille, Mercy Corps helped to connect Arfon with private sector actors in the region, helping Arfon secure better prices, establish reliable supply chains, and build her network of potential customers to sell fattened sheep and goats. In doing so, Arfon and her business partners, Anfac and Nura, were better positioned to identify and capitalize on viable business opportunities.

As her livestock fattening business took off, she was able to use her savings to launch a second business, helping to diversify her income and add another layer of financial security for her family. To her delight, Arfon started a tea cafe and, on top of her thriving livestock fattening business, says this is her proudest accomplishment. “I take great pride in having my own tea establishment,” says Arfon, who’s been able to use her profits to purchase flasks, cups, and cooking vessels and build this second business all on her own.

A woman is making tea at a small table.
Arfon making tea for a customer at her tea restaurant in Ethiopia’s Kobe Refugee Settlement

With stable and consistent sources of income, Arfon has been able to afford more nutritious meals for her children, better healthcare, and pay to send her children to school—something she wasn’t able to do previously. Not only has her family’s overall standard of living increased, but they’re healthier, happier, and excited about what the future holds.

Arfon and Runbille are just two of the nearly 10,000 refugees who have launched businesses through DREAMS in Uganda and Ethiopia.

You can learn more about this award-winning program here.

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