The refugees came to Kakuma seeking shelter from war, persecution, and injustice. More than 190,000 people now live in the refugee camp in Kenya’s northeast, a good portion of them already for many years and some even having been born there. Thanks to humanitarian aid, they are provided with the bare essentials to survive, but not much more than that. Their living conditions leaves much to be desired. Even the local population is quite poor: they compete with the refugees for essential resources such as wood, water, land, and jobs.
There is, however, potential for economic activity at the local level. In and around Kakuma, there is a lively informal sector. Small shops, internet cafes, bakeries, tailors, and hairdressers are offering their services. The professional skills the refugees have brought with them are nevertheless sparse. That makes it difficult to find jobs and ear some money for themselves and their families.
Thus, on behalf of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), Swisscontact has been training refugees and members of the local population in professions that are in demand in the local market. The Skills for Life project supports young adults from 16 and up, and women in particular. Arranged into learning groups, they learn new practical skills with hands-on training. Swisscontact also collaborates with community-based organisations. They ensure the project is firmly rooted at the local level.
The objective of Skills for Life is to improve the employability of the youth both in refugee and host communities. The fact that not only refugees but also people from the host community are included in the project is key. The refugees get a sense of belonging, while the local population also gains opportunities to grow both financially and personally, to the same degree as the camp inhabitants.
3,096 young adults (of whom 1,878 are women) have completed vocational training in the past eight years, half of them coming from the camp and the other half from among the local population. On average, they have earned an additional CHF 1,778 per year from their economic activities.
No professional training could be implemented in Kakuma from March to July 2020. Just like everywhere in Kenya, there was a strict lockdown in the refugee camp. The Skills for Life project team remained in touch with trainees over the phone during this time. These telephone discussions helped the young beneficiaries adapt to the new reality. After the lockdown was lifted, the learning groups had to be cut down in size in order to reduce physical contact among participants. In order to maintain training capacity despite the smaller group sizes, the project expanded to digital learning in 2020.
Since 2017, some learning content has been accessible digitally. Now they expanded comprehensively. Reading, writing, and mathematics are particularly well suited to online learning platforms. There are also plans to introduce courses in finance, entrepreneurship, and managing savings and loan groups. The project team uses the digital platform to raise awareness, for example, on the subject of gender equality. Through this channel, the project can also expand coaching and mentoring activities for graduates.
As the internet connection in Kakuma and its surrounding areas are unreliable at best, all training units are being offered both online and offline. Trainees are given computers and tablets through which they can access the platform.
Skills for Life is the first project offering digital learning to this extent in such a fragile context. The digital learning initiative constitutes an important project advancement above and beyond the COVID-19 crisis. Skills training is an important enabler for achieving rewarding livelihoods for people in the refugee camps – more so during the pandemic-inflicted economic distress. Skills for Life constantly strives to improve the accessibility and effectiveness of training. Digitisation of technical trainings offers flexibility in terms of learning space and timing. Such flexibility makes trainings more accessible for trainees with special needs like young mothers.
Congolese-born Marie Heshima started working with the Skills for Life project in 2016:
"Being a trainer in the Skills for Life project is a big job. I take on the role of creating awareness of the training offerings, career guidance, forming learning groups, registering the beneficiaries for training, and scouting for the training venues. In my capacity, I support them by teaching them life skills that guide them in coping with their differences and encourage cohesive learning. After the training period has elapsed, I catch up with each beneficiary trying to establish their next plans. Most transform their respective learning groups into business groups. I also offer advice to those who choose to break away to begin their entrepreneurial journey. It is a gratifying experience as I get to watch the beneficiaries grow and progress to achieve the best for themselves and their loved ones. I’m happy knowing that I can empower people. The new skills improve their chances for a better future.”
Innocent Havyarimana understands what it feels like to go through a struggle before finding his path. He used this as his motivation to become a mentor with the Skills for Life project.
“I learned about the project from posters that were pinned up around Kakuma. I have always felt the need to help the community in which I live, and this did not change when I fled Burundi for Kenya. Giving hope to others, especially during hard times, fulfils me. As a mentor, I coach people who have completed training as part of the project. I help refresh their production skills, offer guidance in marketing and networking, and advise them on the right documentation to have while setting up their businesses. I am overjoyed when I see the men and women I have coached achieve positive, tangible change in their lives. I recall a group of refugee women who only relied on donations to feed their families. After completing the training and mentorship, they are now all able to send their children to school, buy better clothes, shoes and even food without relying on relief. It’s comforting to see many refugees actively looking for solutions to their challenges even while living in fragile conditions.”
By the end of 2020, Innocent Havyarimana had coached 136 beneficiaries in soap production, 22 of whom are running their own MSMEs.