Kenya hosts one of the largest refugee populations in Africa. The country has over 495,000 refugees and asylum seekers fleeing war and violence from Somalia, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Ethiopia. The majority of these refugees are located in camps in Dadaab in the southeast of Kenya, Kakuma in the northwest as well as Nairobi. In what some have referred to as “the forgotten crisis,” many of Kenya’s refugees have spent generations living in camps. During the COVID-19 pandemic, sanitation has become an issue among the refugee population in Kenya, Luckily, a refugee soap maker has emerged to aid with that challenge.
The three Dadaab camps, which some originally expected to hold only 90,000, are now home to over 300,000 refugees. Similarly, the Kakuma camp is home to nearly 200,000 people. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the close quarters and less-than-ideal sanitation standards can be dangerous. Like many others around the world, those in Kakuma have been stocking up on everything from food to sanitation supplies.
A Clean, Helping Hand
Innocent Havyarimana is a refugee soap maker in Kenya. Through his business, he helps to combat COVID-19 at the local level of the Kakuma camp. A former chemistry student from Burundi, Havyarimana fled the country in 2013. Upon arriving in Kakuma, he began to look for a way to support himself. In his search, he noticed that the region did not have a factory to produce soap. Afterward, inspiration struck.
Havyarimana garnered information from the web and took a course on soap making which the World Lutheran Federation aid agency offered. With a loan from a former classmate in Burundi, he was able to begin his soap-making business, Glap Industries, short for God Loves All People. The refugee soap maker then received grants from relief agencies including, UNHCR and NGOs, such as the African Entrepreneur Collective.
Glap Industries supplies soap to local institutions and relief agencies outside of the camp. The business additionally provides classes for refugees on making cleaning products. The company also serves as a way to provide jobs for refugees. A total of 42 employees currently work for Glap industries, the majority of them refugees themselves.
Glap Industries Adapts to COVID-19
With a spike in the need for sanitation products, the refugee soap maker had to increase its production by 75%. Further, Havyarimana started making hand sanitizer with aloe vera in addition to his soap products. The soap maker wanted to ensure access to sanitary supplies, especially for those most vulnerable to COVID-19, such as the disabled and the elderly. To accomplish this, he significantly lowered his prices and began producing smaller, more affordable sizes. Glap Industries offers soap in 100 milliliter to 1-liter containers, the smallest costing only 50 cents. “I lowered prices, as it was more important to protect people than to think of profit,” says Havyarimana.
The Bigger Impact
Businesses and entrepreneurship are a vital part of the economy of Kakuma. According to a 2018 World Bank study, the 2,000 businesses operating in Kakuma bring more than $50 million annually to the local economy. Eujin Byun of the UNHCR in Kenya says that “the refugees are playing a pivotal role in helping contain the spread of COVID-19 in Kakuma.” UNHCR has been working with the government to improve the capabilities of local health facilities to treat patients. Another aim is to spread necessary information concerning the virus, such as the importance of handwashing.
As a refugee soap maker, Innocent Havyarimana encourages other refugees to take precautions against the virus. However, his role stems far beyond fellow refugees. Havyarimana shares the importance of sanitization in stopping the spread of the coronavirus through Kakuma, and subsequently the rest of Kenya. His outreach and business help to minimize the spread of COVID-19 for those all throughout Kenya.
– Nina Eddinger