Using Human Centered Design to adapt Graduation for refugees

Bidibidi refugee settlement (photo courtesy of Creative Commons)
Bidibidi refugee settlement (photo courtesy of Creative Commons)

In the 30 years since Village Enterprise was founded, a lot has changed. Our program has grown tremendously in both scale and nuance. We’ve embraced innovative digital solutions for data collection and management. But what has remained the same over 30 years is our belief that when given the right tools, people living in extreme poverty develop the capacity to lift themselves from poverty. We believe the extreme poor are hindered by lack of opportunity, not by lack of potential.

We believe the same is true of refugees.

According to UNHCR, there are 25.4 million refugees worldwide, the highest ever recorded. Worldwide, 1 in every 116 people has been forcibly displaced as a refugee, asylum seeker, or internally displaced person. Over 1.5 million of those forcibly displaced live here in Uganda. Since 2013 over 1,000,000 refugees have fled to Uganda from South Sudan alone. Uganda, where roughly 27% of the population live in poverty, has some of the most progressive policies toward refugees in the world. Refugees can work. They can participate in markets. They can move freely. They are viewed as an asset rather than a drain on Ugandan society. Uganda shares our belief that when we invest in the potential of even the poorest and most vulnerable, we all do better.

This isn’t always easy. The consistent influx of refugees has placed pressure on the humanitarian sector to expand humanitarian response interventions for the growing number of new entrants, while also offering sustainable livelihood interventions to refugees to reduce aid dependency and promote sustainable escapes from poverty. Earlier this year, Village Enterprise worked with Mercy Corps to examine whether the Village Enterprise program could be adapted to help meet this need. We engaged in a rigorous process, using Human Centered Design, to understand the unique challenges and opportunities faced by refugees in Uganda and adapt our program accordingly. (Check out to learn more about this fantastic process of building solutions with people, for people). We spent four weeks in three settlements in Northern Uganda, including Bidibidi (one of the largest refugee settlements in the world), talking to people, immersing ourselves in context, and trying to absorb as much learning as we could. Our process culminated in a Human Centered Design workshop during which our team synthesized what we had learned, brainstormed potential fixes, and honed our solutions into an approach ready to prototype. Here’s some of what we learned:

Eager for enterprise
The individuals we engaged with during our design process fled South Sudan with nothing. In the year-and a half that they have been settled, they have been dependent on the in-kind donations provided to them. Now, they need stuff. They need new clothes and shoes that fit. They need sauce pans and Jeri (gas) cans. They want to eat meat, and eggs, chew sugar cane, drink juice. They want cosmetics and jewelry. These market opportunities are generally untapped; the small supply can’t meet the demand that is quickly growing as people have increasing financial flexibility. In response, we’re building on our existing business selection processes to teach refugee participants to evaluate these ever-growing markets and to select businesses most likely to be profitable and sustainable.

Integration through entrepreneurship
The vast majority of South Sudanese refugees have been settled in the West Nile region, which is one of the poorest and most vulnerable sub-regions in Uganda. There is a critical need for interventions that address poverty within the host community as well as in refugee communities and to integrate the two populations. What we learned, is that there isn’t just a need, there is a vested interest on the part of refugees to engage with host communities. Refugees aren’t just willing to start businesses and engage in trade with their hosts, they are eager to do so. Working together means access to two different markets: refugee and host communities, and with it, potential for higher value, more profitable businesses. We’ve designed a pilot approach in which we form business and savings groups that contain both host and refugee community members. A community liaison from the host community works with a business mentor from the refugee community to support cohesion and boost potential.

Leveraging linkages
Refugees have a unique set of needs, and to meet them, there are typically a plethora of interventions to fill them. For example, psychosocial support and protection programs are designed to address trauma and vulnerabilities. Education is needed to keep kids learning despite having been displaced. Livelihood programs can’t work in a silo. Programs like ours offer a strong foundation to integrate with other programs and ensure sure that as a whole, a consortium of actors can offer a holistic approach to increasing resilience. We’ve built room for linking our participants to other vital services in our adapted program, leveraging our business mentor model, which offers a platform for household level need-evaluation and carefully counselled referrals. For example, should a business mentor identify a business ready for next-level market linkages, they can link that business to value chain services. If they notice a family in need of psychosocial support, they can connect that family to actors within the settlement providing those services.

We’re new to the refugee space, and we’re excited to keep learning. What we do know is that there are 156,000 entrepreneurs across East Africa who have started small businesses and changed the lives of their families after participating in our program. We also know that there are over a million refugees in Uganda eager to achieve self-reliance. We’re excited to bringing our life-changing program to a new group of soon-to-be entrepreneurs.

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