17 Business Models to Build Refugee Resilience

By Jessica Davis Pluess, Challenge Director, Business Fights Poverty

Our new report,“Resilience through Refugee-Inclusive Business”, aims to help mobilise more business to support this commitment. This includes a taxonomy of 17 practical business models and a series of in-depth briefs on what it will take to mobilise more business and scale solutions that help refugees thrive, not just survive.

Turning a crisis into an opportunity is a bold idea. But, difficult to do in practice. This week world leaders have gathered in New York where they are expected to agree on a landmark commitment to strengthen the international refugee response under the Global Compact on Refugees. A commitment that hinges on the ability to make this bold idea a reality

Today, we are launchingResilience through Refugee-Inclusive Businessto help mobilise more business to support this commitment. This includes a taxonomy of 17 practical business models and a series of in-depth briefs on what it will take to mobilise more business and scale solutions that help refugees thrive, not just survive.

The need for speed and endurance

There is widespread agreement that business has a key role to play in the global refugee response. This is not only because the scale of the challenge is too large for any one actor or sector but also because the entire nature of displacement is changing.

Of the more than 25 million refugees globally, the highest figure ever recorded, many are living in protracted situations with no immediate end in sight. Most also reside outside camp settings, relying less on donor aid and more on local infrastructure and services and political will of host country governments.

Put simply, the refugee response is now both a sprint and a marathon. It demands speed and efficient interventions alongside endurance and long-term development solutions. It is also about a “whole-of-society” approach that prioritizes integration and engagement with local communities rather than isolated interventions, removed from local realities.

As a key creator of jobs and important provider of goods, services, and investment, large and small companies are an essential part of helping countries and entire economies prepare and respond to an influx of refugees.


From pledges to practice

More companies are interested in supporting the refugee response beyond simply charitable contributions, by drawing on their core expertise, resources, and influence with consumers, suppliers, and government. More than 70 companies have made commitments to support the refugee response under the Tent Partnership for Refugees. They see this not only as a moral obligation but also a social and economic imperative.

But translating ambitious commitments into tangible actions and benefits is challenging in practice. In April 2018, Business Fights Poverty launched the Business and Refugees Challenge with support from Pearson and in partnership with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), Business Call to Action, Innovest Advisory, Mercy Corps, and Thomson Reuters Foundation to identify ways to mobilise more business action. Early on in the Challenge, we recognized that there was a lack of knowledge of what refugee-inclusive business models look like and the key ingredients to bring them to scale.

The final output of the Challenge, released today, intends to help fill this gap with a taxonomy of 17 business models, and a series of deep-dive briefs into three different business models – digital education for refugee children, buying from refugee-owned or inclusive enterprises, and safe and sustainable off-grid energy solutions. Here are some of the key findings:

  • Digital education for refugee children: Technology is a powerful tool to expand access to quality education for the more than 4 million refugee children who are out of school. Companies like Pearson, Vodafone, Microsoft, and Cerego have developed tools from e-learning and mobile apps to entire connected classroom infrastructure.

Although many digital options already exist for low-resource settings, there are unique considerations for the refugee context. This includes how digital education can support children’s integration into local communities through language and cultural awareness features, as well as how to integrate psychosocial support for children suffering from the effects of war.  

For the #everychildlearning maths learning app Space Hero, Teodora Berkova at Pearson explains that the company “wanted to go beyond funding, to use the company’s core competencies. We weren’t looking for a quick fix. We didn’t want to take products off the shelf so we worked with refugee and local Jordanian children to develop something that would meet their specific needs outside camp settings.”

  • Buying from refugee-owned and inclusive enterprises: While formal employment is often limited, entrepreneurship is flourishing in many refugee settings. Many of these are informal or unregistered businesses, which not only limits access to markets but can also perpetuate vulnerabilities.

Sourcing from refugee-owned enterprises and other businesses that support decent work for refugees is one way to strengthen economic inclusion for refugees while also meeting the supply needs of larger companies. Sasha Muench of Mercy Corps explains, “many multinational companies have gotten better at thinking about more inclusive supply chains. All of those lessons apply to refugees, but they are just harder.”

There are a number of programs underway to strengthen refugee business skills, but this does not guarantee a sustainable livelihood. IKEA has engaged refugee artisans in their supply chain to produce a limited-edition collection of handcrafted textiles called TILLTALANDE. The company is working with the Jordan River Foundation to employ refugee women alongside local Jordanians as a way to support social cohesion. Vaishali Misra of IKEA explained that the company “really wanted to move away from common models of training refugees but then no access to a market.”

  • Safe and sustainable off-grid energy solutions: Refugees and displaced people are among the most energy poor in the world. The humanitarian sector has tended to apply a traditional humanitarian approach to energy access, providing solutions for free directly to refugees. While this model might be appropriate during the early phases of an emergency response, it is unsustainable and can undermine local markets.

Various companies are developing clean and safe energy solutions for refugees, particularly in remote, camp settings. Pawame and BBOX for example have established distribution outlets to provide off-grid solar systems to refugees in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. The innovation is not only in the product itself but also in the way they have adapted payment models to include mobile and pay-as-you go or subscription models, recognizing that refugees often have low and unstable income.

One lesson on scaling is to consider how providing aid in the form of cash, debit cards, or in-kind payments can help build up the local market for solar products.  Integrating refugees’ energy needs into national development plans and humanitarian decisions can also help countries prepare and respond to any strain on existing infrastructure and natural resources.


Where do we go from here?

These briefs are intended to help the private sector and development actors find practical ways to collaborate to turn one of the greatest challenges of our time into opportunities – for refugees, for host countries, and for business.

For our part, we will be exploring a range of potential ways to take this work forward including additional deep-dives into other business models and working closely with partners to support the roll-out of these models.

One concrete next step emerging from the Challenge is a partnership between Business Fights Poverty and the Tent Partnership for Refugees to co-commission research on refugee rights to entrepreneurship from TrustLaw, the pro-bono legal programme of Thomson Reuters Foundation. The research conducted by TrustLaw partner law firms will explore the legal frameworks governing businesses’ ability to engage refugees in work opportunities and, in particular, laws relating to whether refugees can own and operate businesses and access finance.


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