Agnes Asiimwe (left) of JRS Nairobi Urban Project addressing beneficiaries of the safety net programme during a meeting in Nairobi. (Charles Njanga/JRS)
Nairobi, 18 February 2013 – On a sunny Friday morning, St Theresa's Church Hall in Eastleigh, Nairobi, comes alive as people slowly trickle inside. A mixed crowd of men and women, each carrying a small bag, waited for the last meeting of the JRS initiative for urban refugees running small businesses in the Kenyan capital. The 45 beneficiaries of the JRS Nairobi Urban Project, received food and material assistance as a way of providing a safety net while they invested in their businesses (income-generating activities IGAs). 

The four month initiative, which ended last month, was launched after a study conducted by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and the Danish Refugee Council in May 2012 revealed that refugee-run IGAs in Nairobi were not expanding. The survey found the income earned was only enough to meet the basic needs of refugees, and was not invested back into the businesses. It recommended refugees receive food and material support for four months, giving them space to invest their profits.

The programme also sought to stabilise household consumption and strengthen the capacity of community-based self-help groups to deliver social assistance. After convening the meeting, the JRS Nairobi Urban Project IGA Coordinator, Agnes Asiimwe, invited the group members to explain the impact the initiative made on their lives. After some prodding, one woman volunteer spoke. 

"I've been able to grow my business; initially I only sold weaved baskets, but now I also sell vitenges [African print cloth]. The assistance that I received from JRS has really uplifted my life such that I have been able to move to a better house", the women said proudly, to a round of applause and smiles from those present.

Integration into the host community was another key component of the programme. As urban refugees live among Kenyans, in frequently very marginalised communities; the inclusion of five Kenyans in the group strengthened interdependence of national and refugee communities, helping avoid ideas that refugees are favoured over locals.

Testimonies. "I've been able to expand my food business in Kayole (Nairobi) after I retired from Telkom, Kenya. I'm now able to feed my family better", said Joseph, a Kenyan national. Participants like him are identified through six local Catholic parish church councils and are among the most vulnerable in the community.

"I'm very grateful for the assistance from JRS. My children are now able to get food and go to school. God will surely bless Kenyans for the assistance they have given refugees", said Mary* who sells deep fried cassava in two Nairobi neighbourhoods. With JRS assistance, her business has been able to expand to include basket weaving.

According to Mathias Mbisu, a JRS Social Worker based in Eastleigh, the distribution of food and non-food items has greatly assisted the beneficiaries of the safety net programme. 

"They've been able to concentrate on their businesses and not worry about feeding their families", says Mathias.

As part of follow-up for the programme, JRS staff members visit the beneficiaries where they are residing to see how they are doing.

Achievements. At the start of the initiative all 45 participants had opened individual bank accounts to receive the social assistance and as a way to encourage them to save. An evaluation carried out after two months indicated that 50 percent of the beneficiaries had been able to save in banks. Others had been able to increase the business stocks, diversify into other more profitable ventures or move to better houses.

As part of the exit strategy, JRS will provide training on business skills for participants. Leaving the hall, there is no doubt the lifestyles of the participants have improved. But the food distribution that day was to be the last, and the challenge will be to ensure former beneficiaries remain autonomous and to extend this type of support to new arrivals.

"With the end of the programme, there is the possibility the beneficiaries not being able to maintain their lifestyle but since the assistance had a clearly defined time frame, continued monitoring will ensure refugees have sustainable livelihoods", said Ms Asiimwe.

*This name has been changed to protect the identity of the person involved

JRS has been assisting urban refugees in Nairobi since 1991, responding to the urgent, unmet needs of newly arrived asylum seekers and refugees in the most vulnerable circumstances. JRS prioritises single women with large families, household heads without support, unaccompanied minors, persons with special needs or disabilities, older refugees, the sick, and those living with HIV/AIDS. In 2011, the urban emergency programme provided a range of services to more than 2,600 refugees, including the provision of food and non-food items, medical and financial assistance, pastoral and psychosocial support, and support for income generating activities.

Charles Njanga, JRS Eastern Africa Communications Coordinator