At the age of 29, Mekonnen Tareke and his family were forced to flee Eritrea to neighbouring Ethiopia, fearing persecution. He arrived at the Shimelba refugee camp in May 2009 with his wife and two younger brothers. Mekonnen had been able to provide for his family in Eritrea, but the limited economic opportunities in a refugee camp left him with few options other than makeshift trading in surrounding towns. To add insult to injury, he was arrested by local authorities for not having a permit to leave the camp.
When Mekonnen decided the risk was too great to justify the small return, his life became extremely difficult and his family endured hardship. However, Mekonnen refused to quit.
It was at this critical juncture that Mekonnen learned about the International Rescue Committee’s youth and livelihoods entrepreneurship education programme for aspiring business owners in the camp. Mekonnen was among the initial refugees who attended the four-month course.
Preparing for life outside the camp
There are approximately 5,978 refugees in Shimelba camp. The IRC helps support them all, providing education, reproductive health and HIV/AIDS care, child protection, support for survivors of violence, and water, sanitation and hygiene services.
The programme includes training on market assessment, business management, customer service, finance and budgeting, and communication skills—as well as problem solving, decision-making, creativity and life skills.
“At the end of the course, trainers help participants create a business plan and provide the most viable plans with in-kind support and start-up kits,” says Haftom Abrahaley, youth and livelihoods officer in Shimelba. “This increases participants’ confidence and self-sufficiency, and gives them crucial skills to prepare them for employment outside of a camp.”
So far, 250 refugees have participated in the programme in three camps across Ethiopia. For many, the training has transformed their prospects, even experienced businessmen like Mekonnen.
The IRC selected his business plan as one of the best in his class, and provided him with start-up materials worth about $275 in addition to technical support. With such guidance and the power of his own dedication, Mekonnen launched a grocery business, supplying fruits, vegetables, fast foods and other goods and services to refugees and host community members. In just four months, he managed to increase his investment to $2,500; today, his business flourishes.
Mekonnen can once again provide for his family and plan for the future. He hopes to save enough money to open a juice café, linking a value chain with his current fruit selling business. He is also exploring poultry production, hoping to use the byproducts of his fruit and vegetable business as feed for the chickens.
“Until I attended the entrepreneurship education, my petty trade had been poorly managed,” says Mekonnen, reflecting on how dramatically his life has changed in such a short time. “Now, thanks to the IRC’s youth and livelihoods programme, I am much better off.”