Urban refugee livelihoods in Kampala

I undertook preliminary fieldwork on urban refugees in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, between 24 July and 19 August 2012. The primary objective of this three-week mission was to understand their livelihoods; especially, how these refugees are engaging with local markets and business communities, both formally and informally. The research also aimed to identify ‘hidden’ opportunities to strengthen refugee subsistence by linking them with the local and national private sector.

Increasing number of refugees in the capital

I want to give you a snapshot of refugee situations in Uganda. As Alex writes in this blog, Uganda employs the progressive regulatory frameworks governing refugee protection. Unlike many of its neighbours, which encamp refugees, the Ugandan government promotes ‘self-reliance’ of refugees; this means that rather than limiting responses to refugees to humanitarian relief, a space is open for a development-based approach to refugee assistance. Because of this progressive policy, coupled with its relative peace, Uganda attracts approximately 200,000 refugees/asylum seekers from diverse nationalities, including DR Congo, Somalia, Eritrea, Rwanda, and Ethiopia.

Also, a large number of refugees are living in Kampala mainly to seek livelihood opportunities. Of 200,000 refugees/asylum seekers in the country, about 25% of them reside in the capital despite little direct support from refugee-assisting agencies. According to UNHCR staff members, the number of Kampala-based refugees has been sharply increasing for last several years and the ‘urbanisation’ of refugees is expected to continue. Given the noticeable presence of self-settled refugees in the capital, on 17 July 2012, a week before my arrival in Uganda, UNHCR organised a round table on refugees in urban areas to discuss about new approaches and modalities for them.

Fieldwork: slowly starting but gradually picking up

I embarked the fieldwork from the next day of my arrival but the progress of the fieldwork in Kampala was initially slow, as I expected. During the first two weeks, I struggled to get in touch with refugees. Before commencing the field-research, I was planning to ask UNHCR and other refugee-supporting agencies to link me with refugees in the capital. But this approach didn’t work out very well. As noted above, self-settled refugees in Kampala are living with little assistance from refugee-assisting institutions. Therefore, most of these agencies have limited interactions with refugees in Kampala. Instead, I relied on personal and informal networks between refugees in the capital. Especially, I tried to meet refugee leaders/representatives from different nationalities and asked them to introduce me to their fellow refugees from the same country. With support from refugee community leaders, eventually, I managed to interview total more than 70 refugees from diverse nationalities.

Another factor that slowed down the research was heavy traffic in Kampala. As refugees are staying in dispersed locations in the capital, I needed to move around by a bus but due to traffic jam I ended up spending a good amount of time merely for transportation. Later, to accelerate the pace of research, I combined using ‘boda boda’, motorbike cabs (Photo 1) for short trips and chartering a taxi for long distance.    


Photo 1: ‘boda boda’ motorbike taxi in Kampala

Diverse livelihood strategies employed by refugees

Let me move onto some of preliminary findings from the fieldwork. In sum, there is a significant diversity in refugees’ livelihood strategies. Whereas there are a small number of refugees who have been employed in local private sectors as teachers and clerk, most of refugee interviewees in Kampala are self-employed.

For instance, a considerable number of refugees are engaging in petty trading. The Congolese refugee in Photo 2 buys oranges from Ugandan traders in local markets and sells them around in his neighbourhoods with his wheelbarrow. He works alone and his business is not formally registered.


Photo 2: the Congolese refugee who sells oranges in Kampala

Some refugees are running a little more established business. Photo 3 is a tailor shop run by a Congolese refugee who has been in Uganda for about 10 years. His business is formally registered with the city council in Kampala, meaning that he is paying taxes and other registration costs. He currently employs 2 people: 1 Congolese refugee and 1 Ugandan.

Photo 3: the tailor shop owned by the Congolese refugee

Though a number is much smaller than micro-trading and medium scale businesses shown above, there are certainly some successful refugee enterprises in Kampala. Somali people are widely known as good traders and there are many refugee entrepreneurs in Kisenyi, an area where a large number of Somali people concentrate. Photo 4 is a mini-supermarket owned by a Somali refugee family. As it shows, the shop has a wide range of supplies including rice, canned food, ice cream, soap, cosmetic, etc. The business is registered and some Somali refugees are working there.

Photo 4: the mini-supermarket owned by the Somali refugee family

Different levels of engagement with business communities

I have shown a few examples of refugee entrepreneurs above. They are all part of Kampala business society but the degree of engagement with the private sector largely differs depending on the scale of refugees’ businesses. Generally speaking, larger enterprises are more extensively connected with local business sectors in many ways: for example, these business owners normally purchase goods from local suppliers, sell them to both locals and refugees, and often employ Ugandans. In contrary, refugee petty traders have fewer connections with local business communities, sell their goods to a small number of their fellow refugees and neighbours, and hardly hire any other people.

Of course, the level of income from subsistence also differs accordingly. The Congolese orange trader in Photo 2 works 6 days a week from 6am to 3pm. Despite his efforts, however, he deplored about insufficient income from his livelihood to feed his wife and 6 children. According to the refugee tailor in Photo 3, his shop receives 3-4 customers per week and makes 35-50 USD weekly sales on average. While his business is somehow keeping up his family, it does not generate enough profits to invest in his enterprise such as purchasing extra sewing machines to increase a level of production. On the other hand, customers incessantly come into the Somali mini-supermarket in Photo 4, and my interview with the shop owner was constantly interrupted. Although the owner never revealed the sales of his shop to me, the business seem to be going very well.

In Kampala field report 2, which will be soon updated in this blog, I shall touch upon some potential livelihood/business opportunities for refugees in Kampala.

                                                                                                                                                                         Naohiko Omata




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