YAOUNDE, July 17 — The chic evening clutch-bags, dainty sandals and leather smartphone accessories on display in a showroom in an upscale district of Cameroon’s capital, Yaoundé, would not look out of place at the smartest dinner parties.
But their creators come from an entirely different world — forced from their homes to escape suicide bombings, theft and killings by Islamist militant group Boko Haram.
Their craft work is supported by a new social enterprise — IDP Goods — set up by a group of young Cameroonians to help internally displaced people (IDPs) from the country’s most remote and populous but least developed region, the Far North.
The aim is to enable them to start their own businesses, create employment opportunities — and ultimately, to defeat radicalisation.
Since Boko Haram’s first attacks in Cameroon in March 2014, more than 1,500 people have been killed, prompting almost a quarter of a million to flee their homes.
Just last week, two suicide bombers killed at least 12 people and wounded over 40 others in a small town in northern Cameroon near the Nigerian border.
The country has also taken in more than 360,000 refugees from Nigeria and Central African Republic who are receiving essential aid from international agencies, despite a shortage of funding.
Balkisou Buba, a co-founder of IDP Goods, said displaced Cameroonians, on the other hand, are “completely forgotten” by humanitarian agencies. “We wanted to do something for them,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The group, all alumni of the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders run by the US State Department, began looking for sustainable, longer-term solutions in a region where some three-quarters of the population live below the poverty line, and more than half of children do not attend school.
“We wanted to capitalise on the existing skills people had,” said the group’s CEO, Charlie Wandji, at its small office adjacent to the showroom.
‘Call to unite’
Since last October, the group has established two co-operatives for IDPs — one in Maroua, the capital of the Far North region, and one in Zamai camp for the displaced.
Initial finance, which runs until October, was provided by the US State Department.
The idea is to train IDPs to produce quality goods to sell in the country’s commercial centres of Yaoundé, Douala and Garoua, among others. Half the profits are channelled back into running the enterprise, while the other half go directly to the workers, said Wandji.
Each item bears the distinctive “IDP Goods” logo, a patented trademark Wandji and his team hope to make into a symbol of businesses led by Cameroon’s displaced.
“You don’t have to work in our co-operative and stay on our sites in order to use our trademark,” explained Wandji.
Once IDPs have received training, they can set up their own businesses and sell their goods using the trademark to gain more exposure, he said.
Even when people return home, they can continue using the label. “The only condition is that the company employs at least five IDPs,” said Wandji.
Oumarou Souley, secretary to the Zamai district chief who donated a plot of land to build a workshop in the camp, said the label “is a call for everyone to unite”.
“It could have been any one of us in the same situation,” he said in a phone interview. By buying the products, consumers can help IDPs get back on their feet and “feel that they’re not forgotten”, he added.
Haouaou Hamadou, 22, is the president of the IDP Goods collective in Maroua, and was herself displaced.
She and her husband fled their home in Banki, on the border with Nigeria, in 2015 when Boko Haram attacks were at their peak.
“There were so many problems,” she said by phone. “Especially at night, when we were sleeping, we would hear loud explosions, gun fire... My heart kept jumping, I couldn’t handle it anymore — we had no choice but to leave.”
She completed her training in shoe-making two months ago, and is now learning to make bags.
“We want to set up more workshops, buy machines, find a trainer in couture in order to make clothes — make it more professional,” she said.
Poverty and extremism
The social enterprise also has an educational component, reaching out to local youths in the Far North, as well as displaced people, in a bid to stem radicalisation.
“We realised that the main cause of the violence is extreme poverty and huge unemployment,” said Buba, who runs the group’s training to counter violent extremism and is also a social worker with Cameroon’s Social Affairs Ministry.
“You see a youth who has grown up and who has never had 10,000 francs (US$17.25 or RM74) of his own money,” she said.
Many displaced families have lost relatives and property, and are left with nothing, she noted.
“We have to make them understand that revenge won’t get them anywhere,” she said. The IDP Goods approach is to teach them to use new and existing skills to sustain their lives and families.
Using a local cartoonist, the group has produced a booklet for school children about the dangers of radicalisation, and Buba has given talks to around 2,000 young people in the region.
Sights set on NYC
In the longer term, the group wants to spread the initiative further. “Imagine we have 5,000 IDPs going back and setting up their own businesses,” said Wandji.
The group also plans to export “IDP Goods” products to the United States, under the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which enables African goods to enter the US market duty-free.
Wandji said the group received a lot of interest during a fashion show at the American ambassador’s house last month in Yaoundé.
“We found that people loved our story and what we advocate for,” he said.
“In our experience, New York is the right place, although it’s not an easy place!” he said with a laugh. “The showroom costs are enormous — but... God is in control.” — Thomson Reuters Foundation