Notes from the Frontier: Spurring Refugee Economic Inclusion in Rwanda through Inclusive Financial Products

Note to reader: For the safety of the refugees and following guidance from UNHCR, no names or pictures have been used in this piece.

Thursday 2nd November 2017 was the start of a two-day immersion in the Gihembe Refugee camp in Northern Rwanda. Our task – to develop financial services products that are relevant, affordable and accessible to the over 85,000 adult refugees in the country. For many in our party, which included representatives from six leading financial services providers (FSPs) in Rwanda, this was a first visit to a refugee camp. While the previous day’s briefing and clear instructions at the entrance provided some guidance, we really did not know what to expect.

To this blogger, the most striking observation as we drove in was just how “normal” it all seemed. Primary school children running around and laughing in the school compound. Old trucks with flat tyres on the side of the untarmacked road. Older men sitting at the entrances of shops displaying mobile money signage. This could have been a scene from hundreds of rural settings across sub-Saharan Africa (note: it was impeccably clean, with no presence of betting shops).

Our allocated parking slot right next to the WFP food distribution point and the crowd of people, mostly children, eager to say hello to the camp visitors reminded us of where we were. As we had two packed days of interviews, ideation and prototyping planned, we got right to it.

Our interviews have uncovered five interesting facts as we start to develop best-fit financial services:

  1. Like many Africans, the youthful refugees in the camps are extremely entrepreneurial

The camp is brimming with small businesses including airtime sales, food preparation, tailoring, cinemas and others. The majority in this segment of the community have lived in the camp for over 10 years, and are willing and able to work. They actively seek informal employment outside the camp, receiving payment for their manual labour in cash. Clear opportunities exist to digitize business records, link the camps and host communities to promote trade, and short-term credit to boost working capital.

  1. Interest earning is not a key incentive for saving money. Accessibility, security and ease of use provide greater attraction for refugees

All our interviewees understood the need for saving. Their end of day earnings are often promptly deposited at the mobile money agent. With nearly 100% penetration of mobile phones (many even had multiple sim cards, and were using data for WhatsApp) and mobile money, these agents provide a much-needed and secure store for their cash. There is also a high rate of usage and stickiness of savings groups.  None mentioned interest on savings, but all expressed an interest for a secure and accessible place to save their money.

  1. While limited formal credit options exist, the refugees have found innovative ways of accessing what they need in advance of effecting payments

With no collateral or traceable cash flows, no credit is extended by formal FSPs. The result of this is the informal arrangements mostly in form of store credit. This has been complemented by an NGO that extends credit at a competitive 12% per annum (maximum tenor of one year) and VSLAs.


  1. Few options present to act as safety nets to cope with unexpected shocks

Living in the camp is obviously a tough life. The loss of a household head results not only in the loss of the individuals cash transfer benefit (i.e benefits are provided per household member) but potential knock-on effects to the family business and other income sources. With no insurance to help with funeral expenses and guarantee – even in the short term – a set income for the family, this shock could set a family back several months.

When told about some services that existent on the market with potential to address their challenges, it was clear that perhaps a good place to start would be to consider that:

  1. Refugees are willing and able to explore different services, but lack information to allow them to do so meaningfully

While Equity Bank agents are present in the camp to support payments for the WFP and UNHCR cash transfer programs, none of the interviewees knew if they could deposit directly onto their accounts at the agent premises. Additionally, while the interviewees had heard of MoKash, the MTN and CBA savings and loan product, none knew how it worked.

Seem similar? These facts could also be applied to many rural, underserved communities and refugee populations in Africa.

Critically thinking about and addressing them in the (re-)design of products could lead to a quickly adoptable and scalable product for a bold financial services player. The demand, income levels and goodwill exist to make serving these communities sustainable and profitable.

FSD Africa, BFA Global and AFR, with support from UNHCR, have embarked on a journey to assess and present the business case for improving refugees’ economic inclusion through improved access to finance. Starting in Rwanda, this work seeks to facilitate FSPs’ engagement with refugee communities in other countries including Uganda, Sierra Leone and DRC.

This “Product Design Sprint” exercise followed the launch of a research project seeking to understand the financial lives and needs of refugees. The report from this project titled “Refugees and Their Money: The Financial Lives of Forcibly Displaced People in Rwanda” is due for publication in a couple of weeks. We look forward to exploring the options and opportunities in Uganda.


By Peter Kawumi
Former Innovations Specialist at FSD Uganda

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