When the innocent Havyarimana started soap making operations in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya in early 2015, he was trying to escape the traumatic incident of fleeing his native Burundi a year ago.
Little did he know that his home-based business would become the main weapon in the fight against the coronavirus in one of the world’s largest settlements-Kakuma, home to nearly 200,000 people.
Once the former chemistry student realized the importance of hand washing in dealing with the spread of Covid-19, he lowered the price and started offering products in smaller quantities and sizes to make them more affordable.
The 35-year-old told the BBC: “Everyone needs soap, but not everyone can afford it. So I lowered the price because protecting people is more important than considering profit.”
“When the pandemic started, I had to increase production by 75% to meet demand, so Covid-19 was good for my business.
“But I make sure that I give soap to vulnerable groups such as the elderly and the disabled for free.”
Mr. Havyarimana’s initiative has been praised by the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, which often emphasizes the contribution of refugee entrepreneurs to their host communities.
The UNHCR spokesperson in Kenya, Eujin Byun, told the BBC: “Refugees play a key role in helping to contain the spread of Covid-19 in Kakuma.”
They have provided a lot of help from spreading virus information to helping people take necessary measures. “
‘Take care of each other’
She added that Mr. Havyarimana was not surprised that he decided to lower the price.
“Refugees are very community-oriented and they will take care of each other. They have stepped up their efforts before and helped us with our work in this situation.”
Mr. Havyarimana currently has 42 employees in his company, named Glap Industries-short for God loves all. Most of the workers are refugees, but there are 18 Kenyans from the town of Kakuma.
Grapp provides services to local businesses and institutions outside the refugee camps, and even relief agencies.
Burundi proudly pointed out: “These agencies bought my soap for the refugees who cannot afford it, and also for their own staff.”
Mr. Havyarimana is not the only local soap merchant, but he is not afraid of competition. In fact, he has opened courses to teach people how to make cleaning products.
He said: “I want to guide women and young people so that they have the opportunity to be self-reliant and improve their lives like me.”
“I want to do everything possible to help the community.”
Efforts like his might have helped keep Covid-19 in the bay of Kakuma.
UNHCR’s latest figures date back to December 24, showing 341 confirmed cases and 19 people receiving medical care. Ten people died from the virus.
Statistics from the Ministry of Health show that Kenya has registered nearly 100,000 cases across the country and approximately 1,700 deaths.
According to UNHCR, over the past decade, political unrest and violence forced more than 300,000 people to flee Burundi to neighboring African countries.
Mr. Havyarimana was doing chemical research at the University of Burundi when he left. He said his life was in danger and he was receiving death threats from the relatives of his late mother, who also confiscated his house.
After arriving in Kakuma, he wanted to make money on his own instead of relying on humanitarian aid.
“I don’t know how to make soap”
The camp is located in a remote and arid area where the provision of basic services is a challenge for relief agencies.
While browsing the area, Mr. Havyarimana noticed that there is no soap factory there, which means cleaning products must be taken away from other places.
He explained: “I don’t know how to make soap, so I started surfing the Internet to get some knowledge.”
Later, he attended a soap making course provided by the World Lutheran Federation aid agency, and founded the company with two assistants with a loan from a former classmate in Burundi.
He also received grants from relief agencies including UNHCR and non-governmental organizations (such as the African Entrepreneurs Group), which said the foundation has provided support to more than 18,000 refugee entrepreneurs.
AEC Chairman Julienne Oyler told the BBC: “Innocent stories show how refugees can contribute to their host communities in many ways.”
“Camping sites like Kakuma are so isolated that entrepreneurs like him are the lifeblood of basic goods and services during periods of lockdown and other restrictions.”
A study conducted by the World Bank in 2018 identified more than 2,000 companies in Kakuma and estimated that they contribute more than US$50 million (£37 million) to the local economy each year.
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Michelle Richey, a lecturer in technology and entrepreneurship at Loughborough University in the United Kingdom who specializes in refugee business, said that people like Mr. Havyarimana are very important in changing people’s general perceptions of refugees.
She said: “The human potential among refugees shows that we give them opportunities instead of just focusing on humanitarian issues.”
“We can help these people take control of their lives again after all the suffering.”
Since arriving at Kakuma, the booming business is not the only change in Mr. Havyarimana’s life. In 2017, he married Aline, a refugee from Burundi he met in the camp.
They have two sons, the youngest is a prince, born in late November.
Mr. Havyarimana is passionate about life in Kenya, but he dreams of settling in Australia or Canada.
He said: “I like Kakuma very much, but I want to give my wife and children a better life.”
At the same time, Mr. Havyarimana is working to expand his community service methods and provide 21 types of soap and cleaning products. He also designed a hand sanitizer made from his aloe, which grows outside his workshop. .
He said: “The coronavirus has affected the entire world, but for Kakuma here, it is more important for us to wash our hands as much as possible.”