(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Business as usual for Congolese entrepreneurs in refugee camps

[Tanzania] The founders of the restaurant in Lugufu 1 refugee camp, in Kigoma region, Tanzania

Date: 28 February, 2003

The littered, dusty street could hardly be described as teeming with activity, but unlike most streets in refugee camps in Western Tanzania, which are often characterised by a sense of hopelessness imposed by years of waiting to return home, the unnamed street between residential villages 1 and 5 of Lugufu 1 refugee camp was definitely alive.

On its right hand side stood an impressive array of hairdressing establishments, with "Salon Las Vegas" and "Le Don de Dieu" selling themselves as a cut above the rest. Intermingled and sometimes hidden behind the saloons were artisans of various kinds. This seemed to be the area for carpenters and tailors.

A collection of restaurants and bakeries lined the opposite side of the street, which runs between two of the residential blocks that make up one of Tanzania's most populous refugee camps. Lugufu 1 is home to at least 55,000 Congolese refugees, many of whom are defying the restrictions that come with being a refugee, and are keeping alive their dreams of "making it" in business.

"Because of the environment of the camp, it is more difficult, but when it comes to business, it is difficult to keep us down," said Gilbert Pangu, a Congolese refugee who also works as a micro-project supervisor for Christian Outreach Relief in Development (CORD), the agency that coordinates community service activities in Lugufu 1.

"There are many constraints and limitations here in the camps, but we don't need much persuasion to get into business. It is part of our culture," he said.

Pangu said that CORD was working with the refugees, mobilising them through their activities and the village groups that are formed to asses their needs, and then supporting them with materials, though these were often limited.

Prospective tailors were provided with sewing machines while carpenters were given planes and saws, but because of the high level of demand, many would-be enterpreneurs missed out, Pangu said. Nevertheless, he said many of those who were disappointed simply carried on alone.

One of these was Abekyalemwala Mneo, a carpenter from Katenga, in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), who set up his own carpentry business in Lugufu 1 in 1999.

"I set up shop by myself, but, eventually, after a few years, CORD saw what I was doing so they helped me out with some materials," he said from his open workshop behind the row of hairdressers. "This is what I did in the Congo and this is what I will do for the rest of my life. I cannot just sit around."

Mneo sells most of his products to staff working for aid organisations, Tanzanians who live near the camps and the occasional refugee who has the money to spare, but he admitted it wasn't easy. "It was very hard to set up - just being in a refugee camp, with the lack of materials and a small market to sell in, but I am going to keep at it," he said.

Across the road, rice, beans, chapattis and a little meat were on offer at Mungu Nipe (Swahili for "God Provides"), a tiny restaurant set up by three enterprising women who wanted to earn some money to car for their children.

"We realised that life in the camps was expensive, so we had to make money to help clothe our children and avoid eating the same thing the whole time," Nalo Mengi, the head of the women's group, told IRIN. "Three of us got together and put in a little money - enough to buy some plates and pots, a little food and build this small restaurant."

The small, dark hut was crammed with Congolese refugees who were savouring a few morsels of meat, which they are not given in their official rations and is such an important part of the Congolese diet.

"It is good business and we do alright. We have employed three other women to help out, but the raw materials, which we buy in the markets from the Tanzanians, are very expensive," Mengi said.

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) in Tanzania said it fully supported the enterprises as they helped foster self-sufficiency within the refugee camps, but admitted the enterpreneurs faced severe limitations.

"We are behind these ideas and we are interested in promoting self-sufficiency, but it is difficult for the refugees as they cannot leave the camps, either to collect raw materials or sell their products," Ivana Unluova, UNHCR spokeswoman in Tanzania, said.

She said that the practice among refugees of selling part of their food rations to buy non-food items was both common and essential, and had also led to the refugees exploring other ways of making the most of what they had.

"In fact, it seems that the most vibrant markets anywhere in the districts where there are refugees are in the refugee camps themselves," she said.

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