Last night, at AEC's 5th Anniversary event at Barclays NY, AEC assembled some leading thinkers and do'ers on the issue of refugee livelihoods across Africa. AEC's CEO Julienne Oyler, Board Member and Host Committee were joined by speakers including NYU master’s student Dogon Sedigy, former resident at Mahama refugee camp, Arjun Jain, UNHCR Senior Policy Advisor, and the HE Ambassador Valentine Rugwabiza, Permanent Representative of Rwanda to the United Nations.
In 2016, AEC expanded our signature program of business acceleration and access to affordable finance -- to include refugee entrepreneurs. To date, AEC has worked with 1,200 Burundian and Congolese refugees, and more than 400 Rwandan and Tanzanian businesses. In refugee camps and in host communities, we are already seeing entrepreneurs driving growth and bringing relevant solutions to solve Africa's most pressing problems.
AEC Rwanda Managing Director, Nathalie Niyonzima, shared her thoughts about AEC’s work at last night’s event:
Hi, I’m Nathalie Niyonzima, the Managing Director of AEC’s operations in Rwanda, and I’m so pleased to share with you today the work that we do and why it matters so much.
Let me start by telling you a story.
Christelle ran an events management company in Burundi’s capital city when the political violence got really bad. Anyone associated with or assumed to be connected to the opposition party was put on a list and targeted to be put in jail… or worse. One day, Christelle learned that her cousin was killed, and she feared that she too might be a target. So Christelle and her husband packed up and fled that night to Rwanda.
Scared, confused, and with little savings, Christelle needed to figure out a way of getting an income almost as soon as she arrived in Rwanda, so she did what she knew how to do… she started an events management company.
AEC identifies entrepreneurs, like Christelle, and we support them to strengthen their businesses by providing a comprehensive package of training, consulting, and low cost finance.
AEC started working with refugees for two reasons. First, it was a natural extension of our existing model. We’ve been working with young entrepreneurs to help them grow, and we’ve seen the result of increased income and job creation. Working with refugees, allows us to expand our program to a new population of people in Rwanda, who also wanted to grow a business to create income for themselves and their families. For some refugees, starting and growing a business was the only way that they could afford to stay out of a refugee camp.
And secondly, when we explored the chance to work with refugees, we came together as a team, and decided unanimously that this was a direction we wanted AEC to go. This work is meaningful to all of our team. We have over 30 staff from Rwanda, Tanzania, Burundi, and Uganda. Many AEC staff have been refugees themselves, many have refugee family members, all are one degree away from the refugee experience. Tending to the refugees from Burundi and Congo that are living in Rwanda is a way of taking care of our extended family. And to be able to support someone in their search for self-sufficiency is an incredible honor -- an opportunity that we don't take lightly.
Rwanda is located in the Great Lakes region in between Central and Eastern Africa. Historically these regions have been rhythmed by internal conflicts. Rwanda is the smallest country in the region, and completely landlocked. But despite its size, Rwanda has opened its borders and welcomed refugees from neighboring Burundi and Congo. In total, there are about 157,000 refugees living in Rwanda.
Last week I visited the Mahama camp, in Eastern Rwanda, hosting 53,000+ Burundian Refugees for the last 2 years. When I walked into the Mahama camp, I immediately noticed there were like hundreds of young children, aged between 2 to 6, walking out of school.
I am Burundian, and it struck me because this is actually the future of my country living in a camp. They were singing, they were smiling. And then there was another smaller group of 4 teenage girls they were talking about what they were going to do, and one of them said ”Nzosubira mu muziki ni nataha”. “I will only go back dancing when I go home.” They have hope. It’s a huge village, families, moms, young children, 50,000 people. And the only actual job that they can get is to become a volunteer in one of the organizations in the camps. And they only get like 600 RWF per day. That’s 75 cents. That cannot even buy one kg of sugar.
There is an urgency to support refugees to improve their livelihood. Right now, at AEC we are working with 950 entrepreneurs in East Africa, including Burundian and Congolese refugees based in Rwanda. These are people who left everything (homes, career, businesses) their worked hard for and fled to seek a safe refuge in Rwanda. Starting from scratch is not easy in a new environment and these people need support to become self-reliant, to generate income for themselves and their families.
As a young female leader, I know that the youth are the future of any country and if the aim is to find sustainable solutions to peace and alleviate poverty, we have to up lift each other and empower the youth through better education, mentorship and access to opportunities!
AEC is a values-driven organization. This work is too hard and it is too personal not to be driven by values. My favorite value is that “people are the source of all great things.” Another one of our values is that “all of the problems on the continent have solutions that already exist on the continent.”. And together, what these two values mean, is that by investing in the young people to unlock their creativity, their skills, their passion, their contributions to their community, we can then create self-sufficiency not just for one person or one family, but for nations.
In Africa, people have killed each other because there aren't enough resources for everyone. Bad governments encourage killing because there isn't enough food, hospitals, schools for everyone. It's a mentality of scarcity. But Rwanda is different. In Rwanda, people are told that they are the resources; that they are more than enough; that people don't have to hurt and kill each other because there is enough for everyone, because it is the people who are the country's greatest resources.
My colleagues and I are passionate working with entrepreneurs in Rwanda because Rwandans are on a mission to make their country a better place and uphold the values of resilience, dignity, self-reliance and finding home grown solutions to their community challenges. In Rwanda, the government understands that businesses will be the path to self-determination, and understands this to the point of allowing refugees to start a business, open a bank account – seemingly simple things that aren’t happening for refugees in other parts of the world. In the process, they are becoming economic contributors in their host country and better integrate in host communities instead of relying on humanitarian aid solely which is supposed to be temporary solution.
Christelle is now one of AEC’s entrepreneurs, and has re-opened her business in Kigali. She has a small shop, and regular customers. We’ve provided her with a loan. We support her with bookkeeping tools and access to new markets. In the midst of so much change and trauma, we’re proud to be part of helping her restart her new life.
As I conclude, my hope is that you will continue to support AEC’s work of introducing the entrepreneurship spirit within the refugee communities, as really the whole goal is to help refugees become self-sustainable, and to find dignity.