How are refugee entrepreneurship programmes responding to the Covid-19 pandemic?

Betsy Alley is a Fellow at the Refugee Investment Network, one of REN’s Associate Member organisations. She is the author of a forthcoming report on refugee entrepreneurship accelerators and has offered to share her observations on how accelerators and similar programmes have been responding to the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic.

While the Covid-19 crisis has unfolded during the past several weeks, REN’s 26 March webinar provided a chance to hear from leaders of several refugee entrepreneurship programmes about the impact on refugee-owned businesses and how the programme teams have been responding. The insights from that discussion, as well as from the subsequent exchanges I’ve had with others on this topic, have formed the basis of this article.

Programmes’ efforts can be grouped into three general categories, each encompassing a variety of activities:

1. Adapting and enhancing programme offerings to stay connected. Since their own operations present the most immediate opportunities for programme managers to adapt and respond, they have quickly implemented the following types of changes and initiatives:

  • Moving training and other programme components online. Most programme teams, already adept at using remote working tools, have quickly transitioned to online delivery of their training courses. (Upcoming “demo days” could conceivably be held online as well, albeit with reduced opportunities for making personal connections.)
  • Proactively disseminating information about health care and economic resources. As the situation continues to evolve rapidly, refugees may find it difficult to navigate local information sources and government institutions. To assist them, programme managers have proactively compiled essential information (sometimes in other languages) as well as related resources to share with their refugee entrepreneurs—either via web sites (like that of SINGA France or the Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship) or emails.
  • Checking in individually with current entrepreneurs and ‘alumni.’ Reaching out to members of current and past cohorts has enabled programme teams to assess refugee entrepreneurs’ current needs and guide them to relevant resources. It’s also given the teams a chance to reconnect with the alumni and get an update on their progress.
  • Creating community: Some accelerator programmes have used social media platforms (e.g., WhatsApp groups) to launch virtual communities for their entrepreneurs; these are designed to provide moral support and encourage professional networking. In other instances, programme teams have helped their entrepreneurs engage with existing community platforms (such as and similar sites), so they can assist their neighbors and vice versa —and potentially find ways for their businesses to provide solutions.
  • Using social media to emphasise refugee entrepreneurs’ positive impact on their communities. Programme managers feel that it remains important to promote a positive narrative about refugees (as in this LIFE Project example).

2. Developing action plans for individual businesses. Since many refugee-owned startups may struggle to survive under the current conditions, programme teams have been busy advising entrepreneurs on how to adapt their businesses to the current climate, providing guidance in the following areas:

  • Facilitating startups’ ability to “go digital” in order to maintain business continuity. The need for a “shift to digital” applies particularly to brick-and-mortar businesses, which have been especially hard hit during the current situation. For these and other non-tech enterprises, programme managers been providing assistance in ramping up e-commerce capabilities, connecting to online delivery platforms, and so forth. (Some programmes, including the Miller Center and TERN, have featured entrepreneurs’ online stores on their Covid-19 response web pages.)
  • Identifying ways to pivot: Under the “new normal,” some entrepreneurs may notice demand for a different version of their product or service. For example, a food-sector entrepreneur found that stay-at-home policies created a demand for raw ingredients rather than the cooked fare. Accordingly, programme teams have been helping entrepreneurs to identify and/or implement ways to retool their business models.
  • Helping harness growth opportunities. While Covid-19 poses challenges for young businesses everywhere, it doesn’t necessarily spell trouble for all startups. The Ebola crisis in West Africa showed, for example, that a pandemic creates conditions under which some startups are able to flourish. For startups now facing a surge in demand (such as startups offering deliveries or health care solutions, for example), programme teams have been providing guidance on how to best scale up.

3. Exploring ways to offer emergency funding.  Managers of refugee entrepreneurship programmes are well aware of the acute and urgent financial challenges facing their entrepreneurs. Startups in general will face an intense struggle as the typical challenges of getting a business off the ground are compounded by a sudden economic downturn. And yet refugee business owners are even more financially vulnerable than the typical entrepreneur; having been forcibly displaced, they have been operating with very limited financial resources of their own. In the current climate, refugees face an even greater need for urgent financial assistance.

Unfortunately, however, accelerators and other programmes are not in a position to provide emergency funding; they aren’t financial services providers, and moreover, they rely heavily on donors to support their own operations. Nevertheless, many programme managers have been making concerted efforts to pursue any and all possible avenues of potential support. These have mainly included:

  • Grant funding. Private grants are a natural choice to fill the current gap in emergency funding; and at least one program, TERN, has launched a fundraising campaign. Fundraising is likely to be extremely challenging in this environment, however. Not only are there many more competing demands for charitable support, but many grantmakers are also earmarking funds specifically for enterprises in their immediate vicinity or for efforts that directly mitigate Covid-19—categories which likely exclude most existing refugee-owned businesses.
  • Tapping into government relief programs. In a few, limited cases, organizations can tap into government relief programmes to extend financial support to their refugee entrepreneurs. This is the case for the Business Center for New Americans in New York, a Community Development Financial Institution that has an established relationship with the U.S. Small Business Administration. As an experienced lender to refugee entrepreneurs, BCNA can help facilitate clients’ access to government emergency financing programs. It also created its own emergency loan fund to meet client needs.

It is crucial to bear in mind, however, that government relief programmes may be out of reach for many refugee entrepreneurs, due to limitations related to immigration status or other qualifying criteria; in some markets, it may be too slow to meet urgent needs, and in other locations may not exist at all.

There are no easy solutions. Refugees are resilient individuals with the skills to build and lead businesses, but they usually face significant financial constraints even in the steadiest of market conditions. I have a great deal of admiration for refugee entrepreneurship organisations, which continue to press forward against these headwinds and maintain their tireless dedication to refugee entrepreneurs. I’m hopeful that we will soon see further initiatives, including new strategies and partnerships, emerge as part of the ongoing efforts to support these entrepreneurs in the months and years ahead.