The business of Dadaab
Article originally published in the Standard on Sunday on June 14th 2015
You cannot interview Warsame Abdihakim Mohamed between 1300hrs and 1400hrs on any given day. He will look at you, and then look at your translator. Then gently tug at his beard and say ‘no’ with a genuine smile. He will then pull up his baggy pale green trousers, run a handkerchief over his forehead and tell you to wait an hour.
After an hour he will be back. He will then usher you into the bowels of Midnimo Ice Manufacturing Plant, then he will stare at you through his beady dark eyes and inform the translator to inform you to proceed with your questions. But just as you are about to speak he will beat you to it and say:
“Welcome to Hagadera.” Then extend his arm for a handshake as if the two of you have met for the first time.
In 1992, he crossed over from Somalia with his family fleeing war in his country of birth.
“It was very bad back then,” he says. “At the beginning life as a refugee was very difficult. We kept hoping that we would eventually go back home. But every morning, more people were crossing over bearing worse news.”
Soon, he and others like him, realised that although their hearts were elsewhere, home would be the place their heads lay at night.
“So we decided to do something about it,” he says. “With a group of friends we contributed a few dollars each, sought the involvement of the locals and made a life for ourselves.”
Next to Midnimo Ice Plant is Midnimo Hotel. Behind Midnimo Hotel is Midnimo Power Plant. In Hagadera, it is assumed anyone who walks into a hotel has not eaten. So as one looks around at an unoccupied table, one of the many employees will be at your shoulder holding an enormous tray of rice and goat meat enough to feed four hungry men. When you sit, the waiter will lay the tray in front of you and ask:
“Will your friends have the same?”
Abdihakim, like his father before him ran a hotel in Mogadishu before the chaos of 1991. Naturally that is what he took to on this side of the border. The Ice Plant was build out of need.
“Here temperatures can get up to 40 degrees Celsius… so people would crave for cold drinks. Business owners would need ice to store some of their produce, so we decided to build one,” he says.
To do so, they needed electricity. Hagadera is 9 kilometres from Dadaab, the alternative source of power.
“So we bought a huge generator to run the ice plant. But the output was too much. So we decided to sell off some power to local business men and homesteads at the reasonable fee of Sh200 every month. That is how Midnimo Power Plant was born,” he says.
The low hanging cables are noticeable when one walks through Hagadera Camp- from the market all through to the residential blocks.
Of all the five camps, Hagadera is famed for hosting the biggest population of urban refugees- those who fled from cities in Somalia.
Generally, business has been good. But over the past two and a half months, profit margins have become slimmer.
“Many people do not have money to spend. If you are not careful, you will give out all your stock on credit,” he says.
Two and a half months ago, the government, through the ministry of Interior banned a number of money transfer operators, hawallas, from operating in the country reasoning that these operators were knowingly or unknowingly funding terror activities.
Many of them had offices in the Dadaab refugee camp complex. Many of them remain closed.
“What this means is that as a businessman, I cannot start hounding my clients for unpaid bills. I know they have no way of receiving money from outside the camp,” Abdihakim says.
Business at the camps is based on trust. Eat now, pay later.
“But the later is now becoming forever,” he says. A customer is at the front of the ice plant. He is paying cash. Abdhiakim leaves mid- sentence to go attend to him. When he finishes with the customer, he comes back to our table apologetic. He looks disturbed and mumbles a few words to the translator. Midnimo Power Plant is down. This means angry clients. A stalled factory. Households with no power. An angry clientele.
For him, there can be no bigger emergency.