When Inokentiy Havyarimana started his soap-making business at the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya in early 2015, he was trying to continue the traumatic events that led him to flee his native Burundi a year earlier.
He hardly knew that his villa company would become the main weapon in the fight against the coronavirus in one of the largest settlements of its kind in the world – Kakuma is home to almost 200,000 people.
As soon as the former chemistry student realized the importance of hand washing to deal with the spread of Covid-19, he reduced prices and began offering his products in smaller quantities and sizes to make them more affordable.
“Everyone needs soap, but not everyone can afford it. That’s why I cut prices, because it was more important to protect people than to think about profit,” the 35-year-old told the BBC.
“We had to increase our production by 75% to meet demand when the pandemic started, so Covid-19 was good for my business.
“But I made sure to give free soap to vulnerable people like the elderly and the disabled.”
Mr Havyarimana’s initiative was highly praised by UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, which often highlights the contribution of refugee entrepreneurs to their host communities.
“Refugees play a key role in helping curb the spread of Covid-19 in Kakuma,” Eugene Buhn, a UNHCR spokesman in Kenya, told the BBC.
“They have helped in many ways, from spreading information about the virus to helping people take the necessary action.”
“Let’s look at each other”
She added that she was not surprised by Mr Havyarimana’s decision to reduce prices.
“Refugees are very community-oriented and they will take care of each other. Before that, they stepped up and helped us do our job in such situations.”
Mr. Havyarimana currently works in his business with 42 people called Glap Industries – short for God loves all people. Most of the workers are refugees, but 18 are Kenyans from Kakuma.
Glap provides local companies and institutions outside the camp and even relief agencies.
“Agencies buy my soaps to distribute to refugees who cannot afford them and to their own staff,” the Burundian said proudly.
Mr. Havyarimana is not the only local soap trader, but he is not afraid of competition and actually offers classes to teach people how to make cleaning products.
“I want to mentor women and younger people so that they have the opportunity to become independent and improve their lives like me,” he said.
“I want to help the community in any way.”
Efforts like his may have helped Covid-19 stay in Kakuma Bay.
The latest UNHCR data, dated 24 December, show that there are 341 confirmed cases of 19 people under medical care. There are 10 deaths from the virus.
Kenya has registered nearly 100,000 cases nationally with about 1,700 deaths, according to the Ministry of Health.
Political instability and violence have forced more than 300,000 people to flee Burundi to neighboring African countries over the past decade, according to UNHCR.
Mr Havyarimana was in the middle of his chemistry studies at the University of Burundi when he left. He says his life was in danger and that he received death threats from relatives of his late mother, who also took over his home.
When he arrived in Kakuma, he wanted to make money for himself instead of relying on humanitarian aid.
“I have no idea how to make soap”
The camp is located in an isolated and dry region, where the provision of basic services is a challenge for aid agencies.
Exploring the region, Mr Havyarimana noticed that there was no soap factory, which meant that cleaning products had to be supplied elsewhere.
“I had no idea how to make soap, so I started surfing the net for some knowledge,” he explains.
He later enrolled in a soap production course offered by the World Lutheran Federation’s aid agency, and with a loan from a former classmate in Burundi, he started the business with two assistants.
He also received grants from support agencies, including UNHCR and NGOs such as the African Entrepreneurship Group (AEC), which says it has supported more than 18,000 refugee entrepreneurs.
Community Safety Belt
“Innocent’s story shows how refugees can contribute to their host communities in a number of ways,” AEC President Julien Euler told the BBC.
“Camps like Kakuma are so isolated that entrepreneurs like him are a lifeline for basic goods and services during blockades and other restrictions.”
A 2018 World Bank study identified more than 2,000 businesses in Kakuma and estimated that they contribute more than $ 50 million (£ 37 million) to the local economy each year.
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Michelle Richie, a professor of technology and entrepreneurship at the British University of Loughborough, who specializes in refugee business ventures, says people like Mr Havyarimana are very important in changing the overall perception of refugees.
“The human potential within refugees is manifested when we give them a chance to work, instead of just focusing on humanitarian issues,” she said.
“We can help these people regain control of their lives after all they’ve been through.”
Starting a thriving business is not the only change in Mr. Haviarimana’s life since his arrival in Kakuma. In 2017, he married Alin, a friend from Burundi, whom he met at the camp.
They have two sons, and the youngest, Prince, was born in late November.
Mr. Havyarimana speaks fondly of life in Kenya, but dreams of being relocated to Australia or Canada.
“I like Kakuma very much, but I want to give my wife and children a better life,” he said.
Mr Havyarimana, meanwhile, is focusing on expanding his ways of helping the community, and in addition to offering 21 types of soap and cleaning products, he has created a hand sanitizer made from aloe vera grown in a sticker right in front of his workshop.
“The coronavirus has affected the whole world, but for us here in Kakuma it has made it even more important to clean our hands as best we can,” he said.