IFC talks to Getaw Cherinet about how and why he started a water filter company in Ethiopia and why it is important for him to employ refugees.
Cherinet has had an eventful life, but his entrepreneurial story begins in the early 1990s when he fled conflict in Ethiopia and became a refugee in Kenya’s Kakuma Refugee Camp. In this episode, he talks about how he started a business in the refugee camp and how his journey led him to New Zealand, the US and finally, back to Ethiopia. Here, he started a farm and a water filter business called Tulip Addis Water Filter.
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Getaw Cherinet (Tulip Addis Water Filter): I was really shocked. They took us to a camp in New Zealand and the camp is too old. We were given a blanket. It was a really old blanket. We were given a meal like oatmeal and one banana and milk. That night I really cried.
Jasmin Bauomy (host): Getaw Cherinet will never forget that night. He had just been resettled to New Zealand from one of the largest refugee camps in the world: Kakuma camp in Kenya. His dream had finally come true, but the reality of resettlement hit him like a brick.
That was back in 1997, and today Getaw owns two businesses in Ethiopia: a big farm and a water filter company called Tulip Addis Water Filter.
And this is the story of how a former refugee became a multiple business owner in Ethiopia, and why he decided to start a water filter business.
GC: Actually, I didn't have any intention whatsoever to start a water filter business.
JB: So, how did it happen?
You're listening to Creating Markets, the show where we meet investors, entrepreneurs, and other people from the private sector to talk about the investments and opportunities in emerging markets. And I'm your host, Jasmin Bauomy.
News clip: Good evening. The headlines at six o'clock...
JB: It's 1991. And international news is dominated by the Gulf War...
News clip: Waves of allied aircrafts have been bombing targets in Iraq and Kuwait all day long...
JB: ...the dissolution of the USSR.
News clip: After six and a half years in power, Mikhail Gorbachev confirmed his resignation on television tonight.
JB: And for the first time the Internet is made available for everyone, even if it doesn't really make the news. Meanwhile, in Ethiopia, Getaw Cherinet, a university student, is recruited to join the military to fight in a civil war, but armed groups are advancing against the military.
News clip: After three decades of war, rebels are approaching the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.
JB: Getaw's unit retreated South. And he ended up in his first refugee camp, just across the border with Kenya.
GC: The first camp we were residents in as refugees was Walda refugee camp. Over 10,000 university students and the military themselves had left the country.
JB: At first Getaw was hopeful. Kenya's then-president had visited the camp and told the refugees:
GC: “Don't feel like you are a refugee. You're not immigrating somewhere. You came home. We will send you back to school, no matter where.” That was the biggest hope we had.
That promise was never delivered.
JB: Getaw's hope for an education never materialized. Instead, in 1993, he was transferred to what would become one of the biggest refugee camps in the world. Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. These days, more than 200,000 people live in Kakuma and a nearby settlement.
But back in the early nineties, around 65,000 refugees found shelter in Kakuma. They were running from conflicts in East Africa, just like Getaw.
GC: Then, when we reached Kakuma, it was totally deserted and in the middle of nowhere .
JB: So, Getaw started working as a social worker in the camp. It’s what he'd studied. He helped new arrivals connect with other sections of the camp. The living situation was rough for everyone.
GC: The living situation...we were given a ration. We had a tent. We lived in the tent and the hard part was having malaria every week.
It was a really painful situation and a painful moment as a young man over there, and we had no experience whatsoever. All those young students had a lot of issues, a lot of problems. And finally we coped with it. And we started a business in the camp.
JB: Wait, how does one start a business in a refugee camp?
GC: When you are looking for a way to get out, you do everything you can. And I asked the district officer. He knows me. I'm a social worker over there. The first thing I asked him for was the travel document.
JB: Finally, Getaw found a way to use the system. He got permission to deliver a truck to Eldoret and travel there.
GC: Then I assessed: what could I really do? In the evening, I was searching. What could I bring from the camp to Eldoret to do business? Then finally, I found one hotel owner. We talked. And he said you could bring a sufriya. You know those pans, frying pans, the refugees are selling and sleeping mats
JB: And so, that’s what he did. He returned to Kakuma and collected pans and sleeping mats and anything else the refugees could spare. And then he traveled back to Eldoret and sold all those things. That was his first business deal. And oh, it felt so good.
GC: I was so excited. I was so happy and privileged when I came back. Then I wanted to do it again. I wanted to do it again.
JB: Getaw returned to Kakuma and started to use the connections he'd built as a social worker to build a network for his business. And soon he began traveling to Nairobi and to Uganda to trade goods.
He also quit his social worker job.
GC: I became a trader, brought goods in, rather than taking them out. Also brought back clothes from Nairobi, from Uganda, and electronics. Then, finally, I opened a shop with hard electronics. I brought tapes, radios and I brought films and shoes. Finally, I was a really known trader in the camp. And finally I bought a matatu. It's a local transport with loud music.
JB: Matatus are buses used for public transport in Kenya. They're pimped in every imaginable way. With disco lights, huge graffitis on the outside, big screens on the inside.
And the most important thing is blaring music. Now, imagine our young refugee trader with his new bus. He was so proud.
Getaw hired a driver and continued managing his shop and other trading activities.
It's actually quite common for people within Kakuma to start a business. At least these days, it is.
IFC collaborated with UNHCR on a study in 2018 and found that the camp’s informal economy was thriving. The study, titled “Kakuma as a marketplace,” showed that more than 2,000 businesses try to meet the daily needs of the camp's residents, providing food, cosmetics, mobile phones, and many, many other things.
Here's what Raouf Mazou, a representative of UNHCR told IFC about businesses in Kakuma back in 2018.
Raouf Mazou (UNHCR): What’s most important for us in Kakuma now is just to change the mindset, and for all of us to see Kakuma as a different place. As a place where there are business opportunities, where people create wealth.
JB: However, not many refugees have the funds or the financial literacy to start their own business. These days, some residents have access to business and language training, but back in the early nineties, when the camp was first established, it was a different story.
GC: I did everything on my own. I started it. I think I wanted to do business because there was no way to get out. You cannot go back. You cannot go forward. So you need to really dig to get somewhere and do something. I did it on my own. Nobody trained me about business. They will give you the rations. You wait for the resettlement.
JB: Resettlement. That was everyone's dream. Getaw's too.
After three years in Kakuma, New Zealand accepted his application. And six weeks later, he landed in Auckland where all the new arrivals attended language courses and cultural awareness courses.
That first night was hard. Nothing looked like the movies Getaw grew up watching.
GC: I was really shocked . They took us to a camp In New Zealand and the camp is too old. We were given a blanket. It was a really old blanket. We were given a meal, like oatmeal and a warm banana and milk. That night, I really cried
The camp is isolated. You cannot go out. And after four days we met people. The fellow Ethiopians who came before us and they came and asked: “Where are you from? How do you feel? Don’t worry. You’ll be ok. This is how we felt, too, and no one would comfort us. How do you see it?” That's the encouraging part. They told us what New Zealand looks like. It's a beautiful country. It has nice people. “You guys are very very lucky.”
JB: His fellow countrymen put Getaw at ease. This wasn't so bad after all.
He transferred to Wellington where he started volunteering and he volunteered everywhere he could.
GC: I worked for refugee migrants as a volunteer. I worked for the Citizens Advice Bureau as a volunteer. I worked for Newtown Union Health Service to translate for my fellow refugees for doctors and for Capital & Coast.
JB: After all that volunteering Getaw started working as an ethnic liaison officer for the city council and a year and a half later...
GC: To be honest, when I was given citizenship, it was a surprise. Then I had the privilege to come back home to see my family.
JB: Getaw has lived many, many lives. So let me fast forward: after visiting his family in Ethiopia, he went to Los Angeles, California to pursue an old flame. It was somebody he had met in Kakuma. He lived in the US for four years. And during that time, he got a taxi license, a taxi, and then several taxi cars, which he then sold to return to Ethiopia, where he ended up leasing 185 hectares of land from the government.
Having never worked in agriculture before, he had such a steep learning curve. So, why then did he end up starting a water filter business on top of all of that?
GC: Then during harvesting and weeding time, we had almost over a hundred people working on my farm.
I saw a lot of people were off sick. It doesn't take much to identify what the problem was, because my farm is up here..
JB: While we speak Getaw gestures showed me that his farm was up on higher land.
GC: The river we had is on the bottom and all of them are using their latrines in the ‘up’. And they fetch their water from the bottom. You can imagine. It's all contaminated water .
JB: Okay. So let me just make this clear. People live in the Highlands, in higher lands.
That means their wastewater flows down into the valleys, but then they go down to the valleys to fetch drinking water, and that's how they got sick. Getaw was wracking his brain about how he could fix this. And on one of his trips to the US, he sat in a cafe and overheard a man pitching a water filter product.
GC: It was a Monday morning then we were drinking coffee. There was this freelance adviser who promoted this Tulip [water filter].
JB: Getaw holds up one of the product boxes of one of his Tulip water filters into the laptop camera, just so I could see. And so back then, when he was eavesdropping, he got so excited that he crashed the meeting at the table next to him.
He ended up buying 20 Tulip water-filters from the guy and brought them back to Ethiopia where they were a huge hit. The deputy governor at the time heard that he was providing clean water for his employees. And...
GC: He said: “I want you to expand this. We are looking at your technology transformation. What you did is what the government is expecting.”We want you to do with assistance. We will assist you. We want you to do this business parallel [to the] agriculture business because it's life-saving. What you did in your farm is great And we want to expand it to the rest of Amhara societies.”
JB: And that's how it started. Getaw, got in touch with a person who sold him the first filters, and he started importing them on an exclusive license for Ethiopia. It was a Dutch company.
But at one point, Getaw wanted to produce the filters in the country.
He submitted his idea to a competition, which was organized by the NGO SNV Netherlands development organization. It's an organization that aims to fight poverty worldwide.
Mesfin Tadesse: Currently, and, three years ago, we have a program called, innovation against poverty. Which is basically focusing on the poorest community to solve their real problems with local innovation and local technology.
JB: This is Mesfin Tadesse. He's SMV’s deputy country director for Ethiopia. I called him up to talk about Getaw’s water filter project. Tulip Addis Water Filter won the competition for the grant a bit more than three years ago.
MT: We gave him €120,000 for expanding his investment and to improve the access to the water filters, especially with affordable prices for the poorest community.
At that time, he was selling, he was distributing his product through different humanitarian NGOs and partly with the government’s utility authority.
JB: Since Getaw received the grant, his company has grown a lot.
MT: We have seen a lot of expansion, a lot of sales. At that time he was, he was having 12,000 water filter sales per year. And then, last September from our report, we saw that his sales have increased to 150,000.
JB: Not only sales increased. Getaw also decided that he could make his product even more affordable if he produced it in the country. And so he bought some land. He built a factory, which is almost ready to go into production, but things have been stalled because of the ongoing pandemic.
However, not long before the pandemic hit, another great opportunity came knocking. Here's Getaw again.
GC: SNV with the Dutch embassy [in] Addis Ababa [came up with] another idea. They wanted [to] give job opportunities [to] urban refugees, because there was a lot of crime, a lot of drugs and there were no job opportunities. They approached almost all businesses, big big businesses to employ refugees. Just everybody said no. SNV knew that I have a refugee background. They asked me: “Will you be happy to employ refugees?” I never hesitated. I said yes. It's a privilege for me. It's a give back situation for me because I know what the refugee life is [like].
JB: Here’s Mesfin again, the SNV deputy country manager.
Mesfin Tadesse: In that project also, he supported us. We funded him some money, because of that story he has. He's very passionate [about] supporting the refugees. And he has really supported many of the refugees to establish their own shops while he's supplying them, you know, on credit, his own product to sell - for Yemenis, Somali[s], Eritrean[s], and South Sudan[ese].
And in that [project], it was €300,000 because it was a pilot project. It has a lot of investment.
He had to open, you know, shops, outlet shops in many areas. Training had to be provided for these refugees, including soft skills and business skills.
That has already ended. It was a 6month pilot. Now we are consolidating the impact, and hopefully, we are looking for additional funding for that.
JB: Over the years, Getaw has worked closely with the Ethiopian government to expand his business. Financially and in terms of infrastructure, this has been a really beneficial partnership for him. These days, he's also working on receiving a bank loan to expand his business, and he's looking for private investors.
GC: I want to expand my business. We could do it, exporting for the rest of Africa because this product is highly demanded and I would grow if I had successful and energetic partners
JB: There's a lot of potential for the water filter or business in Ethiopia and surrounding regions. Mesfin Tadesse of SNV agrees.
MT: Ethiopia, is a big country, with a population of more than 110 million, with a big gap in terms of access to clean water. So the potential is huge even, in the next 10, 15 years.
I would presume, even by himself, he wouldn't, address the whole demand. So 60 to 70 percent of the population is not receiving access to clean water. So this is really a very important product and it has huge potential for additional investments.
GC: So it's a very good sector to start because people are starting to now filter [their water], and drinking filtered water. It’s often expensive but we brought a solution and affordable technology to all.
JB: By now, Getaw's water filter products are helping around 300,000 households get access to clean drinking water. And there's huge potential for growth.
Meanwhile, in Kakuma refugee camp, the place where Getaw started off his journey to becoming a business owner, new business continues to thrive.
The 2018 study estimated that the business in Kakuma refugee camp contributes 29 percent of the area’s total consumption. It's a significant market for Turkana County, where the camp is located.
But there is a need for more jobs for refugees and more opportunities for them to start their own businesses. And to fill that gap, there’s a fund.
Luba Shara (IFC): So Kakuma Kalobeyei Challenge Fund aims at attracting or facilitating the entry of private businesses, private firms to that area so they can hire people. They can give jobs to people. They can improve services and they create other secondary opportunities for entrepreneurs who are already there.
JB: This is IFC’s Luba Shara.
LS: My name is Luba Shara. I'm the project manager of Kakuma Kalobeyei Challenge Fund based in Nairobi.
JB: The Kakuma Kalobeyei Challenge Fund is an IFC initiative, where we work with the Africa Enterprise Challenge Fund, the Turkana County government and UNHCR to create more jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities in the camp.
The fund is starting the private sector and social enterprise sector competition windows. So, basically competitions for private and social enterprises who want to start or scale up their businesses in Kakuma and the Kalobeyei settlement.
LS: The competition we have just launched is for businesses, more established ones, registered ones that already have some history and profitability.
JB: There are some fairly big grants up for grabs. You’ll find the website for the fund in the show notes as well.
And that was it for this episode of Creating Markets.
Thank you so much for listening. If you enjoyed this episode, feel free to rate us on Apple podcasts. Tell your friends and family about us, and find IFC on social media if you have any good ideas for who else you think we should talk to.
Thank you to Getaw Cherinet, Luba Shara and Mesfin Tadesse for taking the time to talk.
This episode was produced by the IFC comms team. Special thanks to the Youth Voices of Kakuma and the Filamujuani foundation for providing some audio from Kakuma Refugee Camp and Matatu buses. Other sound effects were added for storytelling purposes. Nicholas Alexander is the sound editor for this episode. I'm Jasmin Bauomy. And I'll talk to you again soon.