21 Businesses You Can Start in a Refugee Camp

On my drive back home yesterday, I was listening to a fabulous segment on NPR about how the people in Haiti refugee camps have taken to starting businesses in their tents. Astonishing, isn’t it? That business can thrive, and often does, in the direst of circumstances. It got my brain going – and I made a list of 21 businesses someone can start in a refugee camp.

1) Food & Water – Back to the basics. Food and clean water are rare in camps, and FAIR PRICED vendors who can provide fundamental supplies win.

2) Fortune Telling –Read palms or tarot cards for fun? No matter the time or place –people are always eager to know their fortunes.

3) Entertainment – Rescued a Television set? Or put together some hand puppets? Diversion is a valuable commodity during tough times.

4) Beauty Salon – Men still need haircuts and many women will still spend their last dime on lipstick.

5) Bed & Breakfast – Well, not exactly. But, not everyone has a tent. If you setup an extra, you can offer people the comforts of shelter.

6) Restaurant – Got a stove and a magic touch? Make meals for the masses!

7) Education – Can you teach? Lots of parents would be happy to pay a share to have their kids continue their education.

8) An Internet Café – Probably the toughest but arguably the most profitable business to start in a camp. Charge by the hour or by the minute.

9) Phone Recharging Services – For visitors and residents of the camp alike.

10) Clothes and Accessories – Another fundamental of life.

11) Safe Storage – How easy do you think it is for people to keep their treasures safe? Are you trustworthy? Perhaps you can offer to give them peace of mind.

12) Cobbler Services – Shoes always need mending!

13) Messenger Services – Constant chaos can make it hard to communicate. Provide a reliable solution, and you can be in business.

14) Babysitting – Lots of crying babies means eager parents.

15) Jewelry – It may not be a necessity, but this will still thrive in time.

16) Toys – Can you sew together some dolls? You are in business!

17) Nursing – Close quarters of any kind mean more illnesses. Can you provide medical care? If so, you will be in high demand.

18) Legal Aid – People are constantly trying to get their share from the government or migrate or solve some other dilemma. Can you help them?

19) Job Placement – So many people and so much time on their hands. Can you help them get a job?

20) Matrimony Bureau – More commonplace in the third world, people often turn to a bureau to arrange suitable matches.

21) Mediation – Where there are people, there is conflict. Can you mediate and provide peace of mind?

What other ideas can you think of? Perhaps if the list gets long enough, we can have it translated into French and Creole and send it to Haiti.

Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/46972731@N08/4437653047/
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  • Deb

    Translation & letter writing services — I’ve visited refugee camps in several parts of the world, and noticed that those with good handwriting and stocks of paper and ink can still earn money in the 5,000-year-old way helping people put their words on paper. Especially if they have relatives abroad and are hoping to get help or immigration assistance, or if they need to write to a government agency or official.

    Great ideas, though!

  • JB

    Massage! In these tough times everyone needs a bit of TLC and nothing is better than a massage. Minimal equipment required, although training is recommended

  • Desiree Luth

    I’m marketing manager for a non-profit and I don’t get it. Maybe I’m missing something here. Who is it that would start these businesses, a refugee in the camp or someone from outside the camp? The idea of someone from outside a refugee camp going in to start businesses and make money off of people who have essentially lost EVERYTHING – home, family, limbs, country – seems absolutely mercenary to me. The types of business ideas you have listed should be offered as free services out of our care and compassion for others who are in such great suffering. Perhaps some time spent giving in humanitarian service at such a camp, or even in your local homeless shelter would give you a different perspective and hopefully cause you to think more deeply about the world you live in. There is more to reality than marketing and being clever.

    • Shama

      Hi Desiree –

      I think you misunderstand. I would never condone or encourage entrepreneurship by taking advantage of those in unfortunate circumstances. These are ideas to empower the people WITHIN the camp. I actually heard a segment on NPR highlighting a few of these ideas and how the refugees were being resourceful in such dire circumstances.