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Soap maker in Kenya refugee camp lowers prices to fight COVID-19

Innocent Havyarimana, a Burundian businessman, holds a bottle of freshly-made hand sanitiser, which he sells to fellow refugees, aid workers and Kenyans

Innocent Havyarimana, a Burundian businessman who makes soap, holds a bottle of freshly-made hand sanitiser, which he sells to fellow refugees, aid workers and Kenyans in Kakuma camp, Kenya. © UNHCR/Samuel Otieno

Burundian refugee fights coronavirus, one bottle of soap at a time.

When Innocent Havyarimana, a Burundian refugee, first heard handwashing was crucial in preventing coronavirus, he did something few businessmen would do – he lowered his prices.


Others might have raised prices to increase profit, but his aim was to make his soap as accessible as possible, so he also boosted production.

“Everyone needs soap. I decided to reduce the price so that everyone would be able to afford it,” he said.

Coronavirus has left many people feeling helpless, but Havyarimana is an example of someone who saw an opportunity to make a difference and took it.

“Everyone needs soap. I decided to reduce the price so that everyone would be able to afford it.”

Fellow refugees, aid workers and Kenyans in the local community buy the products made at his small workshop in Kakuma camp.

“I vary the containers, starting from 100 millilitres to 1 litre so that even those with only 50 cents can buy some soap so that they can protect themselves from the virus,” said Havyarimana, who fled conflict in Burundi in 2013 and received a loan to start the business two years later from UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.

UNHCR and its partners work with the government to enhance capacity at local health facilities and share virus information. UNHCR has also increased access to clean water and soap as part of coronavirus preventive and preparedness measures.

“Refugees are playing an important role in prevention. In Kakuma, there are so many people doing something in the fight against COVID-19, whether it is mask making or spreading awareness,” said Kahin Ismail, the Senior Operations Manager for UNHCR in Kakuma.

Kenya is seeing a rise in cases, but none have been confirmed in refugee camps.

Innocent is not only supplementing the supply of soap, he is also making and selling hand sanitizer with aloe vera which he has planted at his workshop and outside his house.

The camp in north-eastern Kenya hosts close to 200,000 refugees. Development and private sector investment boost the economy and help the soap business, Galp Enterprises, thrive.

World Bank Study in 2018 found that there are over 2,000 businesses in Kakuma contributing US$56 million to the region’s economy.

Havyrimana has a diploma in chemistry and worked for a chemical company back home. He used those skills to establish a range of products including soaps, bleach and shampoo. The products are certified by the Kenya Bureau of Standards.

“Coronavirus has affected the world. Refugees are also afraid and that is why they are always washing their hands now,” he said.

Together with heads of state and government and leaders from UN agencies, international financial institutions, civil society and the private sector, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi is calling for the prioritization of water, sanitation and hygiene in the response to COVID-19. Learn more about their Call to Action.

Additional reporting by Linda Muriuki in Nairobi, Kenya.

Originally published on UNHCR on 20 May 2020