In Burundi, refugees and ex-combatants turn to business

Burundi man with sewing machine
Returning to his home town after war forced him to leave, Adrian starts a new business with help from a UNDP scheme. (Photo: UNDP Burundi)

At a busy solar-powered hair salon, 42-year-old Jean-Marie dishes out the latest hair styles to a steady stream of customers, as well as charges mobile phones.

Nearby, a collectively owned clothes shop rattles with the sound of eight sewing machines. Co-owner Adrian sits out front smiling.

Both Adrian and Jean-Marie live in in Giharo, a small village near the border with Tanzania in south east Burundi. They are typical business owners in their 40s, but their lives haven’t always been about hem-lines, highlights and hairspray. They were both forced to leave their homes during the country’s long-running conflict. Jean-Marie became a refugee in Tanzania in the 1970s. Adrian had to move to a new town in Burundi. They both returned home when fighting had almost finished in 2007. And they have both taken part in a UNDP scheme that has helped them start their new, successful businesses.

Highlights

  • 17,000 people benefiting from UNDP disarmament, demobilization and reintegration schemes in Burundi
  • 300,000 people killed and 1.2 million displaced (including 800,000 refugees outside the country) from fighting in Burundi’s civil conflict, which lasted from 1993 to 2005
  • US $2.67 million has been injected in the community since 2010 from (amongst others), the Peace Building Fund, Government of Japan and European Union

UNDP initially gave Adrian and Jean-Marie, along with and 17,000 other ex-combatants and returnees, three months of employment to fix infrastructure destroyed by fighting, make bricks for schools, or build houses for vulnerable people. Adrian helped restore a local runway, Jean-Marie helped construct a market.

Besides quickly restoring local economies, one third of the salary that the workers receive is paid into a financial institution. When the three months work is up, they are able to use their savings (which UNDP matches three to one, along with training and start-up advice) to form producer associations and businesses. Besides establishing hair salons and clothes shops, beneficiaries have used the programme to set up farms, welding businesses, catering kitchens and carpentry workshops.

“Since we opened this business last year, we have been very busy,” says Adrian. “Most of our work is making school uniforms or new clothes for the ladies who come to the market!” He says, adding that his business gives back to the community by giving sewing lessons some days. “My dream is to continue building on the success of this business. I want to open a second workshop soon.”

And the scheme is reducing stigma and helping former soldiers reintegrate as well. “Often ex-combatants and refugees are perceived as a menace to peace, stability and development.” says Xavier Michon, UNDP Country Director in Burundi. “This programme has promoted thorough community reconciliation, which has encouraged ex-combatants, refugees and communities to move towards a shared future of peace.”

 “People are afraid of someone who has lived in the forest – even if they are part of the same family,” says Sharron*, a former soldier who spent years fighting in the bush and is taking part in UNDP supported road reconstruction.

”When I arrived home, people said we were savages and murderers. But since we started working together there is no discrimination and we have a feeling of belonging to our area. May God be praised for giving me this job,” she says.  

Jean-Marie, is equally enthusiastic. “UNDP has not only allowed me to feed my family, it has also allowed me to meet new people and build friendships.”

*Not her real name