anon-user down-chevron-sm facebook-mdi instagram-mdi twitter-mdi

She escaped alone to Uganda. Now Leoniya runs a small business in her refugee community.

Land is fertile amid the rolling hills of Southern Uganda, a blessing for the people living in Navikale, the oldest refugee settlement in Africa.

The rich soil and plentiful water supply allows Navikale’s tens of thousands of displaced residents to grow food for themselves and their families—including Leoniya, a grandmother of four who fled the horrific political violence in her native Congo several years ago.
Like many of Navikale’s refugees, Leoniya began her life in Uganda as a farmer, but soon saw an opportunity to become an entrepreneur. She opened a small shop in her village selling sodas, snacks, and other conveniences—and with the help of a Kiva loan, it has thrived. 

“I realized that the entrepreneur is a step ahead of the farmer in terms of profitability,” she explains.

“I decided to start this particular business because it was what was within my means and capacity.”

“I love working hard, when you work hard you get good rewards.”

Conscious of staying within those means, she still cultivates her gardens in the morning hours, returning to the shop at midday to relieve her daughter so she can fetch water and prepare lunch for the children. 

“I love working hard,” says the industrious multitasker. “When you work hard you get good rewards.”

Escaping horror, building a new life 

“Every morning you would find that your neighbor has been killed, so you would find means of escaping in order not to lose your life.” 

Navikale’s pastoral setting belies the chaos and trauma that Leoniya had to escape in her home country. Formerly known as Zaire, the Democratic of Congo (DRC) has suffered from decades of political instability, lack of infrastructure, and despotic violence since its independence from Belgium in 1960. 

Its civil war continues to rage in spite of long term UN peacekeeping efforts, and the death toll is estimated to be as many as 6 million people since 1996. Leoniya witnessed firsthand the cruel beheadings and grisly massacres committed against innocent people, including her neighbors and family. 

“Everyone I grew up with was killed,” she relays softly, her eyes unblinking. 

“Every morning you would find that your neighbor has been killed, so you would find means of escaping in order not to lose your life.” 

Of her sisters and brothers, Leoniya was the only one who escaped. She managed to make it over the border to the Nyakabanda Transit Centre, where hundreds of people a week arrive from their terrifying journeys away from the DRC. 

“The most surprising thing about reaching Uganda was the way they took us in and cared for us,” she recalls of those first tenuous weeks. “They gave us food and shelter, which was something I did not expect.”

She began to rebuild her life amongst Navikale’s refugee community of more than 100,000 people—the majority of whom came from the DRC and live and farm in a network of 79 villages. Acclaimed for its progressive policies and resettlement opportunities, Navikale nevertheless is reaching its limits of farmable land, propelling a need for refugees to seek out additional livelihoods as Leoniya has. 

Fortunately, she found that the community has resources she can turn to for support. 

Read more: ‘Where do refugees come from and where do they go?'

Stocking her shop with a Kiva loan 

“The loan really changed my life. Before I received it, my business was struggling, but now I have progressed and things are moving well.”

Leoniya's loan enabled her to keep her store open during the pandemic

Leoniya first heard about its microloan products from others in her village who were working to save a bit of profit for the future. She had opened up her stall three years before, and the business was coming along—until the pandemic hit and she had no funds to restock. 

Though she and her family were fortunate not to contract COVID-19, “the economic impacts it had on us were bad,” she attests, relaying how the sudden loss of income affected Navikale’s refugee community. “Many people did not have anything to eat.”

That’s when she approached Kiva Field Partner UGAFODE, a microlending institution (MFI) regulated by the Bank of Uganda that has provided loans, business training, savings accounts and other wraparound services to thousands of refugees. 

Without a credit history or collateral, refugees like Leoniya rarely have access to loans and other such financial services. MFIs are the only option for them to start and sustain a business in their new home countries.
“I was a little bit anxious asking for a loan, because I knew what a great chance it would be to be given a loan,” Leoniya remembers. 

While she felt uncertain about whether her business was viable enough to be approved, her fears were allayed by the loan officers’ personal attention and the ability to communicate in her home language.

“What made me happy with UGAFODE is how good the staff were and how we could communicate freely in our mother tongue,” she says with a small smile.

“What really excited me is that they educate you about the loan benefits, they help you in decision making, so that you know how to approach it and what is needed.”

Receiving the funding enabled her to buy sodas, waters, and more items for the shop, which stayed open during COVID-19, allowing her to maintain a measure of economic stability for her family, who had been living on reduced food rations. 

“The loan really changed my life. Before I received it, my business was struggling, but now I have progressed and things are moving well,” she says, describing how she was able to pay back the money easily.

“The repayment process was not hard because I worked and saved at the same time, so when my repayment time approached, I would pick some money, pay them, and save the rest for my family.”

Leoniya says she would consider taking out another loan to expand her house or add more items to the shelves, and encourages other refugees in the Navikale community to seek out support from UGAFODE. The traumatic events of the past and the loss of loved ones may still haunt their memories, but the verdant hills and flowing streams of Uganda bring sustenance, and perhaps solace. 

In the meantime, she continues to tend her shop and cultivate her gardens, sowing seeds of hope for the future.  

Lend to a refugee to help them rebuild here  

About the author

Jessica Leigh Lebos

Jessica Leigh Lebos is Kiva's Senior Storyteller and an award-winning writer based in Savannah, Georgia, USA. Covering social justice, cultural equity, sustainable growth, financial literacy, and always celebrating others' success, she is thrilled to help share Kiva's mission—and the stories of the people it connects.