£1m windfall to support England's refugee and migrant entrepreneurs

ACH, a social enterprise specialised in refugee integration and employment services, has received almost £1m in EU funding for a new project to support entrepreneurs in the West of England and the West Midlands.

The Effective Digital Entrepreneurship and Business Support (EDEBS) project will help 500 existing businesses or pre-start entrepreneurs who are refugees or migrants. Unlike classic business training, the project will be tailored to the particular needs of refugee entrepreneurs, ACH said.

The initiative stems from the observation that most forms of business support, which involve a formally structured course using a “teacher-pupil” approach, are often not appropriate for refugee communities, Richard Thickpenny, ACH’s chief innovation officer, said. EDEBS aims to make resources available to entrepreneurs in a way that allows them to acquire knowledge autonomously as they need it, while helping them to develop networks by connecting them to established refugee businesspeople.

“EDEBS is about liberating business support knowledge,” said Thickpenny: most of this knowledge typically sits with business support advisers, and people have to follow a formal course to access it. “What EDEBS is trying to do is to get that knowledge out into the community,” he added.

Covid stimulated and identified the massive need for a new type of business support

The two-year project is 90% funded by the €3.1bn European Union Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF), which aims to make management of migration flows more efficient across the EU, and 10% by ACH and its partner the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA). It will provide a mix of coaching, mentoring and training; entrepreneurs will get help from ‘enterprise facilitators’ to fine-tune their ideas, and will be assigned a mentor and have access to specialist advisors when needed. 

The scheme also puts a big emphasis on role models through “fireside chats” where accomplished refugee businesspeople will share their experiences and lessons learned – from both success and failure.

Building this connection to fellow refugees who already have business knowledge is essential, according to ACH, which has worked with refugees since 2008. Refugee entrepreneurs are adaptable, and they benefit from a global reach – often able to rely on a wide-reaching diaspora. But their networks are thin locally – and the “chain of knowledge” from which entrepreneurs in other circles benefit is not there, Thickpenny said.

Watch our film below about ACH founder – and former NatWest SE100 Leadership Award winner – Fuad Mahamed:

EDEBS builds on a one-year pilot run by ACH, the Refugee Entrepreneurship Support Project, which started in October 2019. While the approach of going deeper into the community was already in process, the Covid-19 crisis acted as a catalyst, Thickpenny said. “What we have seen during the [first] lockdown is communities that were left to their own devices,” even while business support to access government help was “much needed”. ACH managed to run a volunteer programme to deliver some help but the situation highlighted the lack of targeted support for refugee businesspeople, Thickpenny said. “Covid stimulated and identified the massive need for a new type of business support.”


‘Broken refugee’ stigma

ACH was founded by Fuad Mahamed, who came to the UK as a refugee from Somalia more than two decades ago. While grateful to be welcome in the country, he was frustrated by the feeling that people saw him as a “humanitarian case and a charity case,” he told Pioneers Post last year. After a successful career in the corporate sector, he went on to found ACH to enable refugees to integrate and contribute to UK society at the highest level without the “broken refugee” stigma – winning the Leadership Award in the 2019 NatWest SE100 Awards for his achievements.

Helping refugee entrepreneurs “thrive” fits into this objective. Refugees are often rushed into “just” finding a job – often low-end and precarious employment, out of necessity rather than choice – and little attention is paid to them developing long-term, fulfilling careers, Thickpenny said. Research published by the EU and OECD in 2016 showed that refugees in Europe are almost twice as likely to be in part-time employment than native workers (30% versus 17%) and 60% of employed, tertiary-educated refugees are overqualified for the job they occupy.

“EDEBS is there not just to provide a job but to provide support to those with an entrepreneurial spirit,” Thickpenny added.

The EU money for the new project is part of the last cycle of AMIF funding open to UK entities, and ends in 2023. The UK government is yet to publish details about programmes that will replace this type of EU funding, but Thickpenny said there are potentially “interesting times” ahead as the focus on a green economy will create the need for training people with new skills. “[But] the devil is in the detail, so we will need to hear more,” he said.

Header image: Inventor and entrepreneur Adriene Layne receiving business support from ACH (credit: ACH)

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