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MADE51: Connecting social enterprises with refugee craft makers.

MADE51 was set up by the UN refugee agency UNHCR to connect refugee artisans in Africa, Asia and the Middle East with local social enterprises. The project is based in Geneva and currently works with 2,700 refugees in 18 countries.

MADE51 is actually an acronym, because every UN project needs an acronym!” jokes Heidi Christ, MADE51’s Lead and a Senior Livelihoods Officer at UNHCR in Geneva. “It … stands for Market Access Design and Empowerment and 51 is a reference to the 1951 refugee convention,” explains Christ. She came up with the idea in 2016 and the project launched the following year.

Currently working with 2,700 refugees in 18 countries, the project hopes to expand to working with 300,000 by 2030. MADE51 selects partner enterprises that are based in refugee-hosting countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. The enterprises then employ refugee artisans and sell their crafts under the MADE51 brand through retailers around the world. The MADE51 team work alongside the artisans and social enterprises in order to find products which showcase refugee skills and make products which will work commercially on the market.

It is transformative on so many levels,” says Christ. For the artisans, using their existing skills and learning new skills is just the start of it. People who work on the project form multi-generational communities and links between refugees and host communities are also a vital part of MADE51’s work.

We want to use our hands, not just wait for handouts,” says Aimee, a Congolese refugee who is working with a MADE51 social enterprise called RefuSHE in Kenya. “There’s a form of sisterhood when we sit together, it’s a form of therapy,” Aimee continues.

Alice is another refugee from Congo who fled armed conflict in South Kivu in 2015. She works at the same project as Aimee. “It’s helping us refugees to live a sustainable life from the income we get, and I am so grateful for that.

Alice uses that income to support her young family who all live in Nairobi with her. One of her colleagues, Solange from Burundi, says the community helps “take away stress” from one another and “manage” the stress in their lives. Solange also left her home due to political violence in 2016.

The importance of design

MADE51 utilizes specific design criteria to ensure the stories and heritage of refugees come through in the product and also in order to make sure that the product meets today’s market trends. “MADE51 does not use a charity model,” explains Christ. “The aim is that, through MADE51 and our social enterprise partners, refugees are able to craft products that meet quality standards and are desired by today’s consumers. Beautiful, well-designed products show that refugees can be talented contributors to society, given the right opportunities.

The social enterprise partners have an important role to play too. They use their business expertise to ensure the refugee-made products are crafts according to the buyer’s order and meet quality control standards. “We want buyers and retailers to be truly satisfied with their order and proud to be bringing MADE51 products to their customers. We want them to be part of the solution to the global refugee crisis,” explains Christ.

Selling direct ecause of COVID-19

Before COVID-19 struck, MADE51 used the markets that the partners in the social enterprises already had. But with the onset of the pandemic, MADE51 quickly put together an online shop so that people all over the world can directly buy MADE51 products.

They have even expanded their product lines to include masks now too, demonstrating that refugees are helping to respond to the pandemic too.

Supporting the family

In some countries, there are tensions about refugees being there. Therefore, refugees are paid at a fair local rate which is not more than what the local artisans already working for the social enterprises earn. “We want MADE51 to benefit the hosting community as well,” says Christ.

They partner with the World Fair Trade Organization and work with the local living wage of each country. Some people are paid per piece and others are employed on a more permanent basis. In MADE51, host country artisans benefit alongside refugee artisans, either by working together in the same groups or through the increased marketing exposure that MADE51 brings the social enterprise. “Building a relationship of trust with the community is hugely important,” explains Christ.

A lot of our female artisans like to be paid per piece, says Christ, because that means they can fit it around their other family commitments. “They then don’t need to go in every day and work on a piece in their spare time.”

The artisan’s position in the family often changes as a result of this employment, says Christ. “Their money can be used to support the whole family.” To avoid conflict, MADE51 makes sure to hold a spousal meeting so that everyone is brought along in the process.

‘It helped them remember and value their own culture’

One of MADE51’s lines are crocheted animals made by Syrian refugees in Turkey. The MADE51 social enterprise, BebeMoss, worked hard to develop the line with them that would be representative of the Syrian women making the products.. Though the group had the crochet skills, they didn’t know what to make at first. They were looking for animals that would be representative of Syrian culture. Then they hit upon four animals from a famous Syrian poem by Suleyman Al-Issa. A fox, a sheep, a crow and a cat.

The process of designing and creating something that ties in the culture was such a moment of joy,” remembers Christ. “When everyone goes through that and has that experience together. Things that they had put behind them because of the conflict.” It helped them remember and value their own culture, even whilst they have been forced to leave it behind, concludes Christ.

Some of the Malian refugees working in Niger echo this joy. Their testimonies, provided by UNHCR, show that they have started to dream once again for themselves and their families. Fatouma from Mali is busy making leather collars. She says: “With the extra money, I will contribute to my children’s education and buy them books, shoes, clothes. My daughter would love to become a doctor one day. She is in high school and has good grades. My son would like to be an engineer.

**All refugee testimonies in this article were provided by the projects the women work for, they did not speak directly with InfoMigrants.

The above article by Emma Wallis first published on in Aug, 2020.