Mesfin Getahun is an Ethiopian businessman who lives and trades in the Kakuma Refugee Camp. He is the owner of a grand retail warehouse and a motorcycle store which were estimated to be worth more than Ksh7 million as of July 2018.
He is considered the richest man in the camp and leads a modest life.
The businessman fled Ethiopia for Kenya in 2001 over political unrest in his home country. Soon after arriving in the country, he was employed as a cleaner for a coffee shop within the camp where he earned Ksh1,000 per month. He later began making and selling bread which earned him thousands of shillings per day.
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“I just kept that money. Then I used the savings to bake bread. I brought a little bit of wheat flour, and I started selling bread.”
Kakuma boasts a population of over 200,000 people and so Mesfin Getahun saw an opportunity for bigger business, so he opened a shop that has since grown to become the largest within the camp.
“I don’t want big profits, I just want enough, and that is why people come here,” Mesfin Getahun told the Guardian.
A majority of the people within the camp rely on goods and services offered by refugee-run businesses. These include canned food, shampoo, school supplies, clothing, cybercafés, kitchenware, beauty products, restaurants, bars, photography studios and much more which are not provided by international aid. Residents trade their food rations in the black market for these goods.
Some people get the money to spend or start a business from relatives who are abroad. Those who are lucky are employed by some of the international agencies operating within the camp.
Kenyans also trade and sometimes work within the camp due to the low retail prices and business opportunities. This motivated Mesfin to start his shop without fear of competition.
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“Most of the shopkeepers here, they are selling second-hand clothes. Only me, I was selling different things, different items,” he recounted. “So I just tried to teach them: ‘Why don’t you sell like me?’”
Apart from encouraging them, he also mentored them and invested in their enterprises, which facilitated his growth into a wholesale.
Mesfin was also the sole supplier of motorcycles in Kakuma as at the time of the interview. He enjoyed the monopoly in an area with a couple of local banks. According to the Guardian, Getahun who came to Kenya due to civil unrest and started out with sweeping floors was making over $10,000 (Ksh1.2 million) per month from his wholesale business, which earned him the nickname “the millionaire.”
Rahul Oka, an anthropology professor at the University of Notre Dame who had been studying Kakuma Refugee Camp for years, the businessman’s rise to the top was unexpected. He noted that it was not easy for a refugee to compete with these well-established traders without any business experience, savings or access to credit.
“He’s actually replicated the Somali, or the Gujarati, or the Lebanese family business model, except that it’s not kin-related, but the ties are based on friendship and reciprocity.”
Mesfin Getahun helped build churches in the camp, and made donations to mosques as well. He occasionally paid for hospital bills, supported the private education of orphaned children, and gave food to those in need.
“I just follow the instructions of God. I don’t want to see poor people so I help them.”
The Kakuma millionaire lived with his wife and two children in a large room located at the back of his wholesale warehouse. He didn’t like to go out or go to restaurants.
“I just spend my time here at work. I don’t want to go anywhere.”
The businessman became an important pillar of the Kakuma Community over the years. When he was arrested a few years back, members of the Lodwar community marched to the police station, securing his release.
As at the time of the interview, he and his family had qualified for resettlement to the United States of America, and being a refugee, he was troubled on how he would collect his assets which were scattered across local banks and the camp in investments and in cash and transfer them abroad.
Finding someone who would afford to buy the whole operation was not easy and would also take time.
Despite his success in business, Gehatun lived in fear of uncertainty with the Kenyan government. He noted that the government did not guarantee them security within the camp, and had recently attempted to close the Daadab refugee camp, further making refugees to fear for their future in the country.
“The Kenyan government has said they didn’t want to have refugees here, so I’m at risk even now. I must protect my money, but I don’t have any insurance. You have to be tactful when you live here as a refugee. I have a good relationship with the local people, the Turkanas (but I am still nervous about the government changing its refugee policy),” he said.