Somali refugees set up businesses in camps

The Dadaab refugee complex in Kenya's north-easterly province.

Jeremy Hobson: The latest numbers out of Somalia show hundreds of thousands of people are starving because of a famine that has already killed tens of thousands this year. Many Somalis have fled to refugee camps in Kenya.

And as Marketplace's Scott Tong reports, it appears a new economy is starting up in the camps.


Scott Tong: This is the sound of a permanent refugee camp. Schools, birthing centers... And convenience stores.

This shack sprang up two months ago, built by refugee Abdinasar Omar Ali. He hawks everything from shampoo packets to gumballs to spaghetti -- thank Italian colonialists for that.

Abdinasar Omar Ali: I used to be a very well-known businessman in Somalia. I sold auto parts from Mogadishu to Dubai.

But the last couple years, Islamic extremists known as Al-Shabaab destroyed his business model.

Ali: They would come to my shop, value my items, and say, "you will pay us this much." Some businessmen gave 30 percent of their goods; pthers 50 percent.

This "taxation" is a key money source for Shabab, as overseas support's drifted away, to jihadist battles in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, says Tony Burns. He's with a Somali aid group.

Tony Burns: Somalia has now become an economic backwater for international jihadis. Al-Shabaab has suffered accordingly. It is trying to raise new modes of taxation from within the indigenous population.

And driving them out.

Ali, the shopowner, packed up his wife and 10 kids, and paid smugglers $250 dollars to get them to Kenya. He says his small business is already worth 50 percent more than when he started.

Elsewhere in the camp, more entrepreneurs: a blacksmith, a tailor, a fruit seller. So many transplanted businessmen have left home. And yet, Somali-American Sadia Ali Aden clings to hope. She's just back from Mogadishu.

Sadia Ali Aden: I met medical students. I met high school students. Mogadishu University became ranked 29th in all of African colleges. This is the beauty of Somalia that people need to build on.

If and when peace come to Somalia. Til then, hundreds of thousands of Somali entrepreneurs do their business on the outside.

In the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, I'm Scott Tong for Marketplace.

About the author

Scott Tong is a correspondent for Marketplace’s sustainability desk, with a focus on energy, environment, resources, climate, supply chain and the global economy.

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