Joint Statement: From Refugee to Entrepreneur, Mercy Corps and Village Enterprise Launch DREAMS for Refugee Assistance in Ethiopia

1,200 people are receiving seed funding to start businesses as part of an initiative from Mercy Corps and Village Enterprise to tackle extreme poverty in refugee settlements

A new program that trains refugees displaced by the Somali civil war to become entrepreneurs and start their own small businesses has launched within the Kobe, Hilaweyn, and Melkadida refugee camps in Ethiopia. 

DREAMS (Delivering Resilient Enterprises and Market Systems) for Refugees is a partnership that merges Village Enterprise’s poverty graduation program with Mercy Corps’ expertise in market systems development to equip refugees with the skills, resources, and market-linkages to start sustainable businesses and graduate from extreme poverty. DREAMS has been operating in Uganda since 2022, and the expansion to Ethiopia is supported by donations from the IKEA Foundation and the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. 

The Kobe, Hilaweyn, and Melkadida refugee camps are located near the southern border of Ethiopia and are home to approximately 130,000 refugees. As DREAMS launches in Ethiopia, it is providing the first cohort of 1,200 refugee entrepreneurs living in extreme poverty with seed funding of $500 to start their own businesses. Having fled the war in Somalia, with little prospect of being able to return, the first-time entrepreneurs are also receiving comprehensive training delivered by Village Enterprise’s expert business mentors. Over a nine-week training course, the entrepreneurs develop skills such as financial literacy, bookkeeping, and creating business plans to support them in launching their enterprises.

In Bidi Bidi Refugee Settlement and Rhino Camp Refugee Settlement in Uganda, DREAMS has trained 4,800 entrepreneurs to date. Working in groups of three, these first-time entrepreneurs have launched successful businesses in areas such as retail, livestock, and agriculture. In total across both Uganda and Ethiopia, DREAMS will reach more than 33,000 households and impact more than 200,000 lives. 

The DREAMS model aims to transform refugee relief. Traditional support for refugees is based on providing basic subsistence, such as food rations or shelter, rather than creating opportunities for people to become self-reliant. DREAMS won the Larsen Lam ICONIQ Impact Award for Refugees in 2021 and is part of Village Enterprise’s broader goal of lifting 20 million people in rural Africa out of extreme poverty by 2030. 

With 400 million people in Africa now living in extreme poverty, poverty alleviation solutions that work are more important than ever. Refugees are facing more acute challenges than at any other point since World War II, with approximately 6.6 million refugees living in camps globally. What are initially established as temporary measures to accommodate an influx of people seeking a safe haven, refugee camps often become protracted settlements. 

Tjada D’Oyen McKenna, CEO of Mercy Corps, said: 

“As conflicts around the world become more complex and protracted, displacement is now measured in decades rather than months or years. The system that was designed to provide urgent, lifesaving assistance in response to short-term displacement has struggled to serve millions of refugees who have put their aspirations on hold. Refugees deserve better. We’re thrilled to expand DREAMS to Ethiopia in partnership with Village Enterprise and to support refugees and the communities in which they live to thrive.”

Dianne Calvi, CEO and President of Village Enterprise, said:

“The expansion of DREAMS into Ethiopia is a great step forward in addressing two of the biggest challenges facing the world today—forced displacement and extreme poverty. With refugee numbers at record levels, as well as increases in food prices and decreases in aid budgets, it’s more important than ever that we are providing sustainable solutions and equipping refugees with the training, resources, and markets to become self-reliant. 

We are proud that this program will help empower so many refugees in Ethiopia to rebuild their lives, and in partnership with Mercy Corps, we’re looking for more foundations and individuals to join us so that DREAMS can reach even more vulnerable families and communities across Africa.”

Per Heggenes, CEO of the IKEA Foundation, said: 

“People who are forced to flee need the chance to rebuild their lives so they can support themselves and their families. We’ve seen firsthand that refugees have extraordinary talent and drive. We’re proud to support DREAMS to empower these communities to find pathways toward economic self-reliance.”

Barri Shorey, Senior Program Officer, Refugees at the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, said: 

“We’re thrilled to support the expansion of the DREAMS program for refugees and host communities in Ethiopia. This partnership between Village Enterprise and Mercy Corps targets families who have been displaced from their homes and supports them on their challenging journeys to financial security. In a time of increasing and longer-term displacement, we are excited to invest in solutions that support refugee households to actually envision and build a healthy and productive future for themselves and their children.”