It's never too late to reset and restart

Initial vocational education and training, Labour market insertion, Migration
It was 38°C and the scorching sun felt more like a punishment than a gift. We were on our way to Kakuma Refugee Camp in Turkana Country to interview Naomi Bindu, a 34-year-old asylum seeker from DR Congo. We arrived at about 2 pm and found Naomi eagerly waiting for us at the front of her shop. With a wide beaming smile across her face, she warmly welcomed us to her premises. Her energy filled the room and we quickly forgot about the unbearable heat that was making us uncomfortable. She told us her story… 
"In 2014, violence erupted in my native country DR Congo. What started as a few security concerns quickly escalated and instinctually, I knew I had to leave. Without knowing where we were going, I fled with my two children. The journey was treacherous and the unpredictability filled me with anxiety. I knew I had to be strong for my children and protect them no matter what. I was now their mum and dad since my husband had recently passed away from an illness."
Naomi Bindu

Fortunately, after countless days and nights, Naomi and her children arrived safely in Kenya. After vetting and registration, they were transported to Kakuma Refugee Camp, located in Turkana West County, the North-Western region of Kenya. For a long time, she relied on the rationed food distributed by humanitarian organisations to survive. She was uncomfortable watching days pass without her being productive and she actively sought ways she could earn an income. Since Naomi was good at working with her hands, she observed how to plait hair and offer basic beauty services. She often practised on herself and on her daughter to perfect her skill. When she was more confident, Naomi decided to open a salon. She didn’t have much to start with and set up her space with the bare minimum – a working chair for herself, a mat for her customers to sit on and a few basic tools like combs and shampoo.

“Since I desired to improve my life, I perfected my skill and slowly grew my clientele mostly through word-of-mouth referrals. As I was operating in an environment where most of the inhabitants had little spending power, I needed to price my services affordably to attract and retain my clients. In a good month, I would earn CHF 100, which supported our needs but it was not enough. After much thought, I was able to identify my interest in tailoring and restrategised. Even when I lived in Congo, I had always wanted to learn how to sew clothes, but I had never had the opportunity to learn the skill,” said Naomi.

Naomi sewing

Starting over

The restrictions around the Covid-19 pandemic slowed down Naomi’s business completely. She was barely earning any money, and this destabilised her completely. As fate would have it, Naomi soon got wind of a technical skills training course being offered by Swisscontact. She was elated to discover a tailoring course and immediately signed up for it. In February 2021, she began the 3-month training in her learning group.

“By that time, the movement restrictions in the camp were not so stringent and we were able to attend the training sessions physically on condition that we kept our distance, regularly sanitised and wore our facemasks. We learnt every Monday to Friday for about 3 hours a day. This was an exciting time for me as I was actualising what had seemed like a dream for a very long time. I was devoted to the sessions and never missed even one class. I appreciated that the training was not limited to tailoring only. The project was designed to empower us with other skills like basic literacy and numeracy, marketing and communication skills, workplace hygiene and safety, group savings and lending, what they refer to as mavuno,” expressed Naomi.

On completion of the training, learning groups transition into business groups. Trainees who do not wish to remain in their business groups are free to venture into self-employment. The Skills for Life project offers business coaching and support services for both clusters of beneficiaries.

A mix of second hand clothes Naomi sells and some outfits she made

Taking a leap of faith

“I chose to venture into the tailoring business on my own since I am very zealous and motivated by my dream of offering my children more. I figured working in a group would slow me down since not everyone displayed my drive. Working in a group also meant my income would have been divided. Since I knew starting a business in a foreign country was not easy, I considered seeking employment but a quick calculation on how much I would earn completely crushed that thought,” explained Naomi. “I had to go into this on my own and I had to be successful.”

With a positive attitude, Naomi set out to establish her business. She identified the location she would set up, paid monthly rent of CHF 50 and used her savings to buy some fabric and a sewing machine. “I had barely any savings left after investing in my business, but I was sure I was making the right decision. I did not second guess my gut.”

For the past 10 months, Naomi has been running her business successfully. She not only sews clothes from scratch but also does repairs as per her clients’ needs. She has diversified her offer and sells secondhand clothes and African material, commonly referred to as kitenge.

New kitenge material for sale

“I started selling the two on the side to boost my business. Tailoring has proven to be more profitable than hairdressing. My clients often come and buy kitenges and ask me to make them outfits. This means I am earning an income from both ends – selling the material and sewing their outfits. Today, I earn about CHF 150 to CHF 200 a month as a profit. This is more than what I earned from hairdressing. I can tend to my family’s needs without a lot of strain. I am also disciplined and save between CHF 30 to CHF 50 for a rainy day, depending on how business has been that month.”

Naomi undoes some stitches.

'If you educate a woman, you educate a nation’

Naomi has also trained 3 other refugees in the tailoring trade. She earned a stipend from this, which she quickly channeled to her savings. The sky is not the limit for her. “I hope to grow my business even further and to improve my offering. Right now, I have a reasonable clientele base and I have earned their trust by being honest and timely with my deliveries. My services are affordable and I do not charge high labour costs or put too much margin on my items for sale. I aspire to advance my tailoring skills and pass the tailoring grade 3 test so I can attain a certificate that is recognised in Kenya. In the future, I hope to become a well-established tailor and fashion designer.”

As we mark International Women’s Day, Naomi is happy to be among the game-changers who are defying odds and succeeding in their own way. “I challenge myself each day to do more than I did yesterday. No challenge is too complicated to overcome. No task is too big to complete. I strongly believe in the saying that if you educate a woman, you educate a nation. I love to see women prosper and take over spaces that once seemed impossible,” Naomi happily comments.

Labour market insertion, Initial vocational education and training, Migration
Promoting Life Skills and Livelihoods (S4L)
Turkana County, the second-largest county in Kenya boasts of an estimated population of 926,976 with young people below the age of 19 years, accounting for 60% of the population. Classified as the most impoverished county, 79% of its people are living in poverty with illiteracy levels rising to 82%.  Despite the high levels of marginalization,...