Refugee Soap-maker in Kenya is Fighting the Spread of COVID and Uplifting the Community

This is a story of Kakuma, a town in Kenya and UNHCR refugee camp which reportedly contains almost 200,000 people as of this writing – one of the world’s largest. As with any refugee camp, Kakuma has been beset by the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, but it is a community that has also made great strides to protect and care for itself and its people. That’s where Innocent Havyarimana enters the picture, a soap-maker who has lived in the town for over five years and does his best to help his neighbors stem the tide of COVID transmission while maintaining mindful business practices.

Havyarimana was once a chemistry student and knows full well about COVID-19 transmission, as well as the importance of people washing their hands to battle the spread of the virus. His soap-making business in Kakuma has been successful, with 42 employees under his management, but he has made sure that charity is also a key part of the product; he regularly gives soap to the elderly and the disabled, and even lowered his prices to encourage the beneficial use of his products as the pandemic continued through 2020.

Speaking with the BBC, Havyarimana mentions how he has even fostered his own potential competition, teaching classes to help others make their own cleaning products: “I want to mentor women and younger people so they can have an opportunity to become self-reliant and improve their lives like I did.” The UNHCR has praised the soap-makers work in Kakuma, as well as the general response of the refugee community there to the coronavirus.

Innocent Havyarimana is keen to mentor other refugee camp residents.

It’s an incredible narrative that played out over a relatively short period of time; Havyarimana originally fled his native Burundi in 2015 while in the middle of a chemistry university degree program, fearing for his life. Situating in Kakuma as a refugee, he recognized the absence of soap manufacturing facilities, and independently researched how to make cleaning products. Receiving grants from relief agencies and enrolling in a soap-making course, Havyarimana was eventually able to start his own business while helping his host community at the same time.

Of course, the importance of soap took on a new significance with the arrival of COVID-19. Considering that, thus far, Kakuma’s massive population has only resulted in 341 confirmed cases, the town is definitely doing something right. 

One thing the pandemic has shown us is that entrepreneurship and community solidarity can absolutely go hand in hand.

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