From refugee to entrepreneur: an Ethiopian success story

It was the devastating war ravaging his home country that forced Ethiopian Getaw Cherinet to flee. Like many of his compatriots in the 1980s and 90s, young Getaw ended up in Kenya and spent a large part of his life in the crowded refugee camp Kakuma. Many years later and a world apart, Getaw is living in Ethiopia again, now a successful entrepreneur. What made this possible?

Group of men and boys holding containers
‘I was only a student when the government passed a new law, requiring all university students to go into military service. For me and 10,000 other students, this was the moment we knew we had to flee the country. We ended up in Kakuma refugee camp, where basic necessities like food and water were provided, but nothing more. There weren’t any opportunities for us. There was no way to continue studying, get any training, or even develop life skills.’

Making a living

‘I felt a real urge to become self-reliant. Earn my own living. It wasn’t easy to do from Kakuma, but I managed to introduce myself to some traders and vendors. I did some work for them and won their trust. Slowly my network started to grow. And after some time I was able to open my own shops. I still had no legal papers but was able to rely on my partners. They arranged the necessary paperwork.’

Opportunity knocks

‘I became very active and continued my work. That’s when the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, offered me an incredible opportunity. They gave me the chance to go to New Zealand via one of their programmes. There I was able to study and develop my business skills. My stay in New Zealand was an unforgettable and valuable experience. The training taught me a lot about international trade and investment.’

Water filters

‘Eventually I was able to return to Ethiopia and once I had settled, I invested in some farmland. I noticed that many of the farmers working for me often fell sick. It turned out this was due to waterborne diseases. Apparently as many as 80 percent of Ethiopians regularly suffer from diseases caused by unsafe drinking water. People just can’t afford to buy bottled drinking water. That observation made me interested in water filters. In my search for the right products and technology, I came across a Dutch business. They were willing to work with me and together we want to make water filters available throughout Ethiopia. Now I run a successful company in water filters.’

People filling containers at small lake

Refugee experience

‘My time as a refugee still influences my life, for instance in the way I conduct business. I was the first investor here to hire refugees. I provide them with training and really make them feel part of the company because I know how much refugees need that. I host entrepreneurial sessions where we can inspire each other. I hope that my own experience gives them the confidence to develop and use their skills.’

Prospects for young people

‘Nowadays, there are so many young people living in refugee camps. If you ask me, the best way to invest in young people is to provide them with both psychosocial support and the skills they need to get work. That’s what will really help them move forward. But just developing skills isn’t enough. There needs to be a real prospect of work. Young people deserve the opportunity to earn their own income and live their lives with dignity.’