Refugee Entrepreneurship and Self-Reliance – the UNHCR and Sustainability in Post-Conflict Sierra Leone

Claudena Skran

Journal of Refugee Studies, Volume 33, Issue 1 (2020), Pages 268–298


In 2003–04, UNHCR supported 15 entrepreneurial ventures for returned refugees in urban and peri-urban locations in Kambia, northern Sierra Leone. Despite a challenging environment for entrepreneurship in post-conflict Sierra Leone, 20 percent of these ventures were still operating 15 years later—a figure comparable with the success of start-ups in the United States. This paper examines the factors associated with the sustainability of refugee enterprises in Sierra Leone, and the role played by UNHCR in supporting them. The qualitative analysis is based on data covering a 15-year period (2003–18). The sustainability of refugee enterprises is evaluated using a multi-metric model composed of five interrelated dimensions: ownership; management; mission; activities; and financing and physical capital.


The author notes several barriers to refugee entrepreneurship in post-conflict Sierra Leone including: poor physical and social infrastructure due to war damage; weak state structures and an uncertain regulatory framework; governance issues; and lack of available credit for both business start-ups and expansion. Female entrepreneurs confronted additional hurdles. Nevertheless, opportunities for entrepreneurship still exist, largely because of the potential for innovation by refugees once they return to their home country.


Key findings:

  • Start-up phase (2003 – 2004): Of the 15 entrepreneurial ventures sponsored by the UNHCR in 2003 and 2004, 100 per cent survived for at least two years. UNHCR helped refugee entrepreneurs to gain access to property and credit, and helped build human capital, especially for female entrepreneurs. In addition, UNHCR’s encouragement of innovative ideas lowered the bar to entry for entrepreneurs. In December 2004, UNHCR ceased reintegration activities in the district.
  • Transition phase (2005 – 2009): By 2009, only six of 15 (40 per cent) refugee enterprises continued to pursue their mission and activities with viable financing. The 40 percent that survived did so by changing their management structure and activities, and finding transition funding from either an international organization or their own profits. The 60 percent that failed did so largely because they could not secure transition financing.
  • The mature phase (2010 – 2015): By 2018, only three (20 per cent) continued. The sustainability of refugee enterprises depended on the ability to secure property rights, to generate adequate profits for reinvestment, and to adapt to changing circumstances.

The authors conclude that

  • Any attempts at seriously building self-reliance for refugees through entrepreneurship need to emphasize the transition phase;
  • UNHCR has an important and continuing role in helping refugee enterprises to secure their access and use rights to property; and
  • Typical measures of entrepreneurial activity need to be modified to fit refugee enterprises. The use of a multi-metric model that separates the role of owner from that of manager, and that considers social mission and activities as well as financing and physical location, gives a more accurate assessment of sustainable entrepreneurship.


Sierra Leone