Experimental feature

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00
Experimental feature

Faith Gakanje had an interior design business and comfortable lifestyle before she was forced to flee Zimbabwe because of her opposition to the then prime minister Robert Mugabe. Arriving in the UK in 2002, she was packed into the back of a van and dumped in a shared room in a house in Nottingham, in the middle of the country.

“I was not allowed to work. It made me feel awful,” she says. As an asylum seeker she was given £31 a week and moved house seven times in nine years before the government recognised her right to stay. As an opponent of the Mugabe regime, she says she feared for her life.

She now runs her own clothing company and mentors other migrants as they start their own ventures. Her base, in a former tanning salon in a deprived part of Nottingham, is a whirlwind of activity as she runs up bespoke orders for her African print dresses, prepares a fashion show and dispenses advice to other wannabe women entrepreneurs.

So much talent is being wasted, she says. “The government never assessed asylum seekers for what we can offer to the country. We were skilled when we came to England.”

Instead of integrating, refugees can end up isolated and attract resentment from some people who see them receiving money and housing without work. “I understand why the local community is angry. People say ‘they are lazy’ but the government is creating it.”

If the authorities were able to find ways to make more use of refugees’ and other migrants’ talents, it could pay dividends. Some of the world’s biggest business were started by migrants. Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, moved to the US from Russia as a child. Elon Musk, of Tesla, arrived in the US from South Africa in his twenties.

Some of the winners of EY’s World Entrepreneur of the Year competition are also reminders of what migrants can achieve. Mohed Altrad, a Syrian who came to France on a scholarship ended up building a construction empire in his adopted country and won the award in 2015. Manny Stul, the 2016 winner, arrived in Australia from Poland as a child and created Moose, a toy business. Murad Al-Katib, a Canadian born to immigrant parents, won the award last year.

Faith Gakanje in her clothing business. So much talent is being wasted, she says © Jon Super for the FT

With more refugees worldwide than at any time since the second world war there is a growing need to ensure that migrants are productive in their host countries, rather than being seen only as a burden.

The UN is drawing up a global compact, part of which aims to focus on supporting solutions that encourage refugees to be self reliant. It has created Made51, an online marketplace, which enables refugees to sell artisan products worldwide.

The EU is developing a programme to support migrant entrepreneurs as part of its COSME scheme to help small and medium sized enterprises. It is seeking proposals for projects that will help identify potential migrant entrepreneurs, provide them with education and training, mentor them and promote cross-border co-operation.

In Germany, which has taken more refugees in recent years than anywhere else in the EU, KfW Stiftung, the charitable arm of a regional lender, has teamed up with Social Impact, a social enterprise, to offer an eight-month incubator programme for refugees.

In 2017, another project in Germany called Start-Up Your Future, was launched to provide experienced mentors in the pilot region of Berlin-Brandenburg to help refugees establish businesses. Brigitte Zypries, who was the economy minister, says: “Many of the refugees who came to Germany have entrepreneurial potential. Not a few of them were self-employed in their homeland. We want to open up self-employment for refugees in Germany as an employment option and thus contribute to integration into the economy and society.”

Companies are also joining in. The Entrepreneurial Refugee Network (Tern) is an incubator programme that started in London in 2016 with help from Oliver Wyman, the consultancy, and Ben & Jerry’s, the ice cream maker.

It has so far helped 240 refugees to work on business ideas. They get a part-time job with Ben & Jerry’s, which is owned by Unilever, to support themselves while they do so.

Charlie Fraser, 24, who co-founded Tern after volunteering in refugee camps in Calais, France, and Kos, Greece, in 2015, says those people who could afford to pay smugglers to get them to Europe and who would brave such a trip have entrepreneurial skills.

“Being a refugee makes you more determined and resilient and those are two key traits for entrepreneurs.” Tern is working with partners in Holland and Germany and Mr Fraser says there are similar schemes in Mexico, the Middle East and west Africa. “There is real momentum. We have a lot to learn though. We feel like we are 10 per cent of the way there.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.