Kenya: IT Entrepreneurs Find Surprise Success in Dadaab Refugee Camps


Two decades on, Dadaab is home to many resourceful refugees who feel unable to return to Somalia Mohammed Bashir Sheik was four when he arrived at Dadaab refugee camp with his mother and sister 18 years ago. The family, along with tens of thousands of others, had fled the civil war in Somalia, looking for refuge over the border in north-east Kenya. His mother died when he was 14 and he grew up in the care of his sister.

"Survival in the camp was particularly tough after my mother died. The ration of 6kg of maize, 300g of oil and 400g of beans to last each person for 15 days was hardly enough," he recalls.

So far, Sheik's story chimes with the typical picture of a refugee. But that is where it ends. Meet Sheik aged 22. He has never left Dadaab, the world's largest refugee complex, but that has not stopped him learning how to create and host websites, set up a small business and teach others how to use computers.

When he is not out interviewing people for a newspaper produced in the camp, he can usually be found in the Hag youth information and communications technology (ICT) laboratory, in a corner of Ifo2 camp, an extension of Hagadera, one of the three camps that make up the sprawling Dadaab complex.

Two girls clad in buibui (the black shawl Muslim women wear to cover their heads) type on a mobile phone as they engage with friends on Facebook. The scene could be straight from downtown Nairobi, east Africa's ICT hub, except that this camp is 500km from the capital. The nearest town, Garissa, is 120km away - a three-hour journey on off-track roads. Visitors driving to the camp are asked to hire armed security guards for the final leg from Garissa, to ward off possible attacks from the Islamist al-Shabaab insurgency.

But for now worries are banished as three young boys tap happily on the keyboard while Sheik teaches them how to navigate the computer. The lab is the culmination of his passion for technology. He learned how to use computers through mobile clinics brought to the camps' schools by NGOs.

Unable to study beyond form four (the final year of secondary school), Sheik found computers offered him access to further education. He learned fluent English by chatting online, and friends he made across the world taught him further computer skills. One friend from Australia taught him basics via Skype. "It's funny that I have not met my friend in person," he says.

A visiting journalist suggested that Sheik get a dotcom domain to enable him to design websites and earn a living. His clients have included community groups, schools and international organisations.

"I borrowed $300 from a friend to buy a domain from a US-based company and was soon in business," he says. For web design he earns about $800 per project, while web hosting can bring in up to $300 per month. He receives this in cash, usually through third parties such as community leaders and NGOs. He has also set up a shop in a makeshift canteen in the camp, where he sells groceries and stationery.

Computers have given Sheik - now a father of four - a means to support himself and his family. Now, he is passing on these 21st-century survival skills to the next generation. "I'm happy today that my life is testimony to how knowledge can transform whole communities not just individuals," he says.

Sheik set up the internet hub two years ago with friends after a Danish NGO invited youth groups in the camp to submit business proposals, with a $12,000 prize for the best one. "Ours was the winning proposal, and we decided to invest the money in the project to help young people acquire computer skills."