Man in blue shirt and yellow sleeves stands in front of a pile of plastic.

Raphael Basemi at one of the three plastic collection centres he runs in Kakuma refugee camp. ©UNHCR/Pauline Omagwa

Raphael Basemi’s recycling business is providing jobs for other refugees and the host community and helping preserve the environment in Kenya’s Kakuma camp

By Pauline Omagwa and Charity Nzomo in Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya

Raphael Basemi has come a long way since arriving in Kenya’s Kakuma camp in 2009 with just a bag of clothes and his education certificates.

The Congolese refugee now runs the largest community-led recycling enterprise in the camp, providing hundreds of jobs for other refugees and local community members.

“When I look at this plastic, I see a precious material, an employment opportunity for my community, a source of wealth, and a chance to support my family,” he says.

Raphael spent his first six years in the camp working as a teacher. Later, in 2013, he founded FRADI (Fraternity for Development Integrated), a community-based social enterprise that promotes environmental protection and livelihoods for refugees and the host community in Kakuma.

“We realized that there was a language barrier among refugees,” said the 31-year-old father of two. “We started teaching Swahili to the Somali community and English to the French-speaking community. And then we started providing technical skills such as hairdressing, carpentry, and welding.”

It was while studying for a Business Management degree in the capital, Nairobi, that he struck on the idea for a recycling project that would allow him to generate income to support his family and preserve the environment.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, he returned to the camp and started the project as a pilot. He did extensive research on policies governing waste management and how they affect refugees wanting to venture into it.

Community comes together

“When I had the idea for this [recycling] project, I sat with my neighbours and told them about my plan,” he says. “Some embraced the idea and supported me. Some did not understand why I wanted to collect garbage and pile it in our community, but they willingly lent a hand.”

Local community leaders were ready to support the initiative and when he called for volunteers, he received an overwhelming response, with over 2,000 applicants.

“The first month [in early 2020] was a trial-and-error period. We didn’t have money to pay the collectors. After one month, some dropped out, but that did not stop me.”

Support from the County Government and the Department of Refugee Service in Kenya (DRS) came just in time – Raphael was allocated three plastic collection centres to run in Kakuma refugee camp and one in the nearby Kalobeyei settlement.

Members of FRADI (Fraternity for Development Integrated), a community-based social enterprise founded by Raphael Basemi, at their plastic collection site in Kakuma camp. © UNHCR/Charity Nzomo
Nasheka Paul and Mlondani Juma, members of FRADI, sort plastics according to colour. © UNHCR/Charity Nzomo

“It was a long and challenging journey to train volunteers on recycling, set up structures, and find a vendor for the crushed plastic,” says Raphael.

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and other partners, helped Raphael to establish a shop in the Kakuma Incubation Centre – a UNHCR-funded economic development initiative that supports start-up businesses. There he sells items made from the plastic he recycles such as pegs, buttons, rulers, plates, and cups.

When the Government of Kenya signed the Refugee Act in November 2021, which included significant new policies on refugee economic inclusion and integration, Raphael was able to reach out to larger companies that now collect plastic from him for recycling.

In addition to supporting refugee entrepreneurs like Raphael, UNHCR is working to reduce the environmental impacts of its assistance, including by reducing the use of virgin plastics in the production and packaging of relief items it distributes. Blankets and other items are now made with 100 per cent recycled plastic.

A world without plastic

In the last three years, Raphael has created over 500 jobs for refugees and the local community, allowing them to earn an income and support their families. He has also expanded his operations into solid waste management, dealing with all types of waste, including bones, glass, metal, and organic waste.

Bush Francois, a member of FRADI, holds up buttons and pegs made from recycled plastic waste. © UNHCR/Charity Nzomo
Cups like these, and other items made from recycled plastic waste, are sold at a shop UNHCR helped Raphael establish in the Kakuma Incubation Centre. © UNHCR/Charity Nzomo

“People know me as ‘Raphael Plastic’ or the ‘Plastic Man’,” he laughs. “When I see the volunteers bringing in the plastic they have collected, I see a community that is coming together for a greater cause.”

Despite the challenges that come with being a refugee entrepreneur, such as not being able to access financial services, Rapahel remains optimistic about the future of his business and its potential to help create a circular economy in Kakuma and the Kalobeyei settlement.

Part of his motivation comes from imagining the consequences for the environment if there was no plastic recycling. “I cannot sit and imagine a world like that.”

Originally published by UNHCR 17 April 2024.

Pin It on Pinterest