Every week through NaTakallam, London-based Megan connects with her Beirut-based Syrian instructor to learn Arabic online. NaTakallam connects skilled refugees to individuals and organizations worldwide, for language tutoring, cultural exchange and translation services. Photo provided by NaTakallam.

How can business-led innovation support refugees?

Rebecca Baron, Head of Activism and Social Mission and Niels Tigges, Product Marketing & Ice Academy Manager, Ben & Jerry’s

As the humanitarian landscape changes and COVID-19, with its associated economic turbulence accelerates need, business has a key role to play in supporting the livelihoods of refugees. The Business Refugee Action Network (BRAN) has explored the implementation of new, business-led approaches to employing refugees and reflected on the impact of COVID-19.

We know that the humanitarian landscape is changing – crises have become more protracted and complex, as well as characterised by greater barriers to humanitarian assistance. The COVID-19 crisis and associated economic turbulence is also accelerating need. In this context, business has a role to play in developing a more sustainable response to global displacement and in particular, supporting the livelihoods of refugees.

The Business Refugee Action Network’s (BRAN) recent report: Innovation in the Business Refugee Action Network (BRAN): Synthesis Report 2019-2020 explores the implementation of new, business-led approaches to employing refugees. The areas explored have been:

Integrating refugees into supply chains

Levi Strauss & Co.: The Levi’s® brand has trialed a pilot to integrate refugees into its supply chain by partnering with the Porto Alegre Cooperative in Italy to create and sell products, such as tote bags and pencil cases.

Virgin Megastore Middle East: Following up on Virgin’s long history of advocacy on refugee inclusion, Virgin Megastore Middle East has trialed a pilot to include home accessories and other items made by refugee artisans via UNHCR’s MADE51 model.

Opportunities for entrepreneurship

Ben & Jerry’s Ice Academy: Ben & Jerry’s has developed a dual track programme of employment and entrepreneurship training for refugees through its Ice Academy, a programme co-founded by Ben & Jerry’s and The Entrepreneurial Refugee Network (TERN).

Remote work

NaTakallam: NaTakallam’s innovative model facilitates remote employment opportunities for refugees in activities such as translation and language services. They partner with international companies such as WeWork and Hilton to expand the market for opportunities.

Key learnings

Exploring these approaches highlighted learnings in relation to COVID-19 and opportunities for scale.


Unsurprisingly, the COVID-19 pandemic affected all of the innovative approaches. Some common themes were:

  • The pivot to digital – whether through strengthening e-commerce opportunities or delivering training online, investing in this space has been key to the delivery of the innovations.
  • Altered capacity of the programmes– for instance, production lines were impacted by social distancing and the reassignment of refugee tailors to make masks. This led to the review of anticipated timings and quantity of refugee made products.
  • Impact on employers and the private sector – while the innovations explored proved flexible and resilient, the private sector as a whole has been significantly impacted by COVID-19 and this has affected opportunities for innovation.

Opportunities for replication and scale

Despite the challenges posed by COVID-19, business’ appetite to scale new approaches in support of refugees’ economic wellbeing remains strong. Drivers of replication and scale are:

  • Generating higher levels of demand for refugee made products or services;
  • Increased collaboration between corporates and value based social enterprises/NGOs;
  • Identifying and securing financial models that ensure the sustainability of the innovations.

Next steps

BRAN has identified the following as key to strengthening business action in this area:

  • Facilitating collaboration between businesses and other organisationsto support expanding these initiatives. For instance, Ben & Jerry’s is currently seeking new employment partners for its Ice Academy initiative.
  • Facilitating the exploration of new ideas and pilots. For instance, this could be done through the network developing a ‘BRAN Lab’ with its members.

If you would be interested in hearing more about BRAN’s innovation work or collaborating in the future, please do get in touch at bu***************@re*******.org

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