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Surprise! Technology is NOT Key Need for Refugee Entrepreneurship

By Guest Writer on March 18, 2021

tech business refugee camp

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in 2018 more than 70 million people around the world were forced to flee their homes because of war, persecution, violence and human rights violations.

One of the most affected regions is the African continent, with Sub-Saharan Africa hosting more than 26% of the total refugee population with some estimates putting this at 18 million people in this region.

Entrepreneurship in Refugee Settings

Self-reliance is an integral component of the UNHCR’s Framework for Durable Solutions for Displaced Persons.  It is also a key component in any strategy aimed at avoiding or addressing protracted refugee situations, as well as enabling refugees and host countries to find durable solutions.

It has been shown that such self-reliance can also have a positive influence by bringing new skills and additional income to the local host community and economy.  Both Uganda and Zambia provide examples of countries that have seen the kind of positive change that refugees brought to isolated and neglected areas.

Surprisingly, very few studies discuss the potential for refugee entrepreneurship and their influence on the host economy.  To our knowledge, no other study identifies underlying enabling or restricting causal mechanisms that impact successful business entrepreneurship in refugee camps.

In addition, none of the studies addresses broader issues such as the socioeconomic context of technology and business innovation.  This may be because it is recognized that these issues are complex, and the approach should result in a more nuanced exploration of entrepreneurial activities.

3 Key Entrepreneurship Enablers

What Enables & Restrains Business Entrepreneurship in Refugee Camps in Malawi? examines business entrepreneurship in the Dzaleka refugee camp in Malawi.  In particular, the research seeks to discover the underlying causal mechanisms that both enable and restrain entrepreneurship in this context.

Data collected consisted of semi-structured interviews of active entrepreneurs focusing on the ones bringing changes into the community, and also with the businesses bringing technological and entrepreneurial innovation.

The authors used a critical realist-based philosophical and methodological approach.  There are multiple benefits to using such an approach and methodology in this context, one being the deployment of a triangulated approach that takes into consideration multiple stakeholder perspectives and encourages discussion of multiple methodologies.

Using a critical realist-based philosophical and methodological approach, they hypothesized three mechanisms that explain how the interaction of different structural, cultural and agency factors have influenced this case:

  • The refugees’ attitude towards the importance of self-reliance and entrepreneurship.
  • The available customer base within the refugee camps willing to spend money and buy goods.
  • The mobile telecommunications technology and associated infrastructure available within the refugee camp.

The research finds that while technology is an important component in the overall environment required for business entrepreneurship to flourish within the refugee camp, technology is a not significant enabling or restricting mechanism in this case.

Enabling Environment Over Technology

Instead, they posit that other non-technology related mechanisms have a more significant enabling or restricting impact on business entrepreneurship in the Dzaleka refugee camp. This is somewhat surprising, as other recent research claims that technology is an integral component required for successful business entrepreneurship.

The first mechanism derived concerns the overall attitude of self-reliance and self-belief which is prevalent amongst the interviewed refugees. It emerged clearly from the data, with the refugees strongly believing in themselves and their ability to innovate and be entrepreneurial.

The second mechanism hypothesized concerns the ready and available workforce and customer base available within the refugee camps. This may seem like an obvious mechanism, but it is important in this case and includes the business environment and associated infrastructure specific to the Dzaleka refugee camp as such infrastructure is a necessary prerequisite for entrepreneurship.

The third mechanism is the mobile telecommunications technology and associated infrastructure available within the refugee camp. This mechanism is evidenced by the innovative use of WhatsApp and Facebook to create new business opportunities.

More Entrepreneurship Research Needed

It is important to point out that these three mechanisms have been derived from what the authors consider to be the first iteration of this work. Based on our preliminary results to date, authors call for additional work in Dzaleka refugee camp in Malawi to either support or counter our initial findings.

Furthermore, the authors call for more mechanism-based explanation using a critical realist-based philosophical approach and associated methodologies that examine refugee entrepreneurship in general.  This is important, as such mechanism-based explanation is likely to influence where scarce resources are allocated in refugee camps into the future.

By Suzana Brown, Assistant Professor, Department of Technology and Society at SUNY Korea

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One Comment to “Surprise! Technology is NOT Key Need for Refugee Entrepreneurship”

  1. Thank you for this article. It is very good and has a lot to say about mentorship.
    I would love to talk about how the Mennonites are doing the mentorship that you are talking about. Mennonites are ALL about mentorship.

    I sent a link to the article that I wrote for the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness. It is about the work that I am doing in Dzaleka with small businesses that is taking off.