Year one of DREAMS: A new model for building opportunity

The following story was originally written and published by Mercy Corps, our partners on DREAMS. You can read the original story on the Mercy Corps website here.

In Bidi Bidi, Uganda, Moses Aloro, a business mentor, connects with Festo James, a South Sudanese refugee who has set up a silver fish business in the local market.

When violence and hunger force people to leave their homes in search of stability and safety, their skills travel with them. Refugees are more than the circumstances they find themselves in—they are people like anyone else with the determination to provide for their families and the power to strengthen local economies.

That’s why Mercy Corps and Village Enterprise are teaming up. Together, we combine two evidence-based approaches in a program called DREAMS (Delivering Resilient Enterprises and Market Systems). This innovative partnership provides comprehensive support for refugees and people with lower incomes on their journeys out of poverty and into business ownership.

Through this multi-phased program, DREAMS participants engage in workshops and training sessions with Village Enterprise, learning how to establish, promote, and expand a business. Then, Mercy Corps provides the support needed to help business owners find success—and help local economies flourish.

Mercy Corps helps by identifying profitable opportunities and connecting entrepreneurs to local markets, so their new businesses are better able to run more efficiently and expand.


Mercy Corps’ CEO, Tjada D’Oyen McKenna, talks to colleagues during her visit to the Bidi Bidi refugee settlement. During her visit, Tjada engaged with 10 different Business Group clusters, including 60 members of the Safe Business Savings Group—a network for different Business Group clusters that have received support through the DREAMS program.

In October, Mercy Corps CEO Tjada D’Oyen McKenna and a small group of Mercy Corps leaders and board members had the opportunity to visit the DREAMS program in Uganda, meet participants, and hear firsthand about the impact we are helping to spark.

Thanks to the tremendous support of the ICONIQ Impact community and other funders, we are building a foundation to prove the power of the DREAMS model in refugee camps—one of the world’s most challenging contexts—and to scale it to reach others living in extreme poverty. With its success, DREAMS brings the humanitarian and private sectors into lockstep to support millions of people globally in moving from survival mode to self-reliance.

The photos below celebrate the close of the first year of this transformational five-year program. Meet a few of the people taking part in our first cohort in Uganda and learn how DREAMS is a new model to create lasting change for communities around the world.

One of the savings group members hands money to the group secretary. During gatherings, savings group members save money, collect loan payments, grant loans, balance their books, and review their goals together.

Laying the groundwork: A fund for entrepreneurs

In our first year of DREAMS, 1,200 households enrolled in the first cohort in Bidi Bidi, Uganda. In these Business Savings Groups, participants join roughly 30 other aspiring entrepreneurs from their community. Together, they grow their business skills and learn how to save and provide loans to each other—a network that is foundational to the success of the budding business owners.


Festo James, vice chairperson of his group, reviews his group’s records. He and other members of his savings group have trained with business mentors through the DREAMS program to learn financial literacy, budgeting, and record keeping.

In total, 40 groups have been established in the first year of the program. Festo (pictured above) serves as his group’s vice chairperson, helping to organize the group and track their assets. He’s also a business owner himself, having partnered with two of his fellow group members to start selling silver fish at the local market.

Festo James left South Sudan on foot in 2016, making the long and arduous journey to seek safety in Uganda. He now lives in Bidi Bidi refugee settlement with his family, is the Vice Chairperson of Ala-Zabu savings group, and plans to one day expand the business he shares with two others.

Ready, set, launch: New businesses take off

After 10 weeks of training from our DREAMS Business Mentors, the members of the savings groups have what they need to get their businesses off the ground. They know how to save and loan together, how to identify high-potential business opportunities, and how to operationalize a successful business.


Festo James (navy shirt) runs a silver fish business in the local market with two other savings group members. Under the DREAMS program, Village Enterprise supports business groups like his with grants to start businesses, then the organization’s business mentors provide training to help businesses flourish.

To help entrepreneurs like Festo succeed, Mercy Corps conducted two market assessments to identify high-opportunity value chains and onboarded four private sector investors and distributors. In the coming months, we will connect DREAMS business owners directly with buyers and sellers to ensure their businesses have every chance to thrive into the future.

Festo and his silver fish business are just one story from the DREAMS program. Out of our first cohort, 400 businesses were launched with the support of ongoing mentorship and seed capital grants.


Okukuru Zubeda (in blue), along with another member of the Embasi Business Group, feeds her group’s chickens. Their group is from the local host community. Through the DREAMS program, they have received poultry feed, chicks, and training on poultry keeping.

Okukuru: Raising chickens

At Bidi Bidi, Okukuru’s biggest concerns used to be feeding her children and paying their school fees. After joining her Business Savings Group in the local host community and receiving mentorship, her worries started to fade. Through DREAMS she and her group have been supported with poultry feed and Kuroiler chicks—an improved breed of scavenging chicken.

“This business has changed my life. I know how to manage the finances,” Okukuru says. With enough money to save and buy basic goods like saucepans and school uniforms for her children and sister, Okukuru recommends the DREAMS program to her friends and neighbors. “I encourage people to join savings groups and acquire knowledge from those groups.”

Members of the Saidu Business Group, Charity Opani, Juan Betty, and Celia Atiku meet with Fauzu Ajidra, a Business Mentor from Village Enterprise. Together, the three women refugees sell basic home-use products to the community.

Juan Betty: Selling home goods

Another business owner, Juan Betty, is a refugee from South Sudan who works alongside her partners to sell basic home products in her community. She says the mentorship and support she’s received have changed her life for the better.



“The program has brought unity in our community, since we all work together as one.”

– Juan Betty, Bidi Bidi, Uganda

Juan Betty is not only the sole provider for her family, she also has a chronic illness. With her earnings, she can buy medicine for herself and everyone in her home can eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And if her business continues to grow, her group will receive additional financial support.


John Sanya, Project Officer for Mercy Corps in the Yumbe District, talks with the members of Unit Business Group in their sesame fields. Under the DREAMS program, the business group received financial support to lease five acres of land along with training to an agribusiness enterprise.

Rose: Growing sesame

Reflecting on her life in South Sudan, Rose says she was well off—a business owner who was forced to leave her home to keep her family safe from harm. Now, Rose is rebuilding her life with the help of her Business Savings Group.

When a DREAMS mentor suggested growing sesame as a good opportunity to build a business, she and her neighbor set to work on securing funding from their group and planting their crops. Rose looks forward to harvesting the three and a half acres of sesame, saying “The rains have been good, and we foresee a good reap. After this harvest, I don’t think I will be the same!”

Rose Yabanga, a refugee from South Sudan and member of the Unit Business Group, harvests sesame from her fields. The Unit Business Group is carrying out large scale sesame growing to earn money to support their families.

A bold, new model for lasting change

The DREAMS program supports refugees and crisis-affected communities as they unlock their futures—improving their income and well-being significantly and sustainably. Connected to opportunity, funding, and skills, communities of people are better able to start businesses and power their local economies.

The design of the DREAMS program is a culmination of the partnership between Village Enterprise and Mercy Corps. Learn more about our pilot program through a story about Rashid, a Sudanese refugee living in Rhino Camp, Uganda, who attended one of our training sessions.

Our teams are committed to creating lasting, positive change for the world we share. Not only is DREAMS on course to assist thousands of people in Uganda and Ethiopia, but it forges a new path out of poverty that can be used again and again by local and international development agencies around the world.


DREAMS is a finalist for the Larsen Lam ICONIQ Impact Award. Learn more.

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