Avina Ajit: Turning compassion into a business

August 11, 2020
Avina Ajit is the co-founder of a non-profit organisation that is based on making available the human right to access for refugees and other migrant communities. She remembers hearing about the plight of refugees around the world from a young age. She saw a large number of homeless migrants during winter while on a trip to France, and was both baffled and disturbed by their evident social exclusion. Avina held onto these feelings throughout her journalism degree, eventually left her job at Reuters and traveled from India to Ghana to begin her journey with RIO.

RIO (Refugee Integration Organisation) is Avina’s and her co-founder, Rya’s social enterprise, and it does what its name suggests – it has at its heart the economic and social integration of refugees into their host societies, specifically in Ghana. Many of whom come from Ethiopia, Sudan, Sierra Leone and more, but remain living in settlements away from the local or urban community, and after the provision of basic infrastructure, they were effectively left to their own devices. This is despite the fact that Ghana, unlike many other countries, allowed refugees to buy land, start business and enter the labour market. So, Avina and Rya thought that there must be more that can be done to improve the situation of the refugees.

This is how they settled on the solution of Community Lending. Inspired by the Grameen Bank model developed by Muhammad Yunus (making Avina a very appropriate Y&Y Fellow!), RIO provides small loans to refugees and other migrant communities that allow them to develop their own businesses. What sets RIO apart from microfinance institutes in Ghana is that everything is very personal: the assessments are done on an interview basis, there is very little paperwork, camp chiefs are encouraged to take lead and solve problems, and most importantly, RIO uses their personal bond with the residents settlements to equip each lendee with the entrepreneurial skills they need to set up a successful business.

Since the refugees speak a number of languages, the highest outlay for RIO is interpreting. Avina hopes that eventually they can train the camp chiefs and camp supervisors to in turn train others to carry out the regular loan assessments, so that the programme can carry on as long as there are people living there. Trust, efficient learning, personal connections and a good rapport with the camp operatives are the backbone of the operation.

The businesses that are set up are often simple, such as the sale of cooked food or soap within their community. RIO is influenced by the idea that the more money circulating any such community, and the more they can offer to the local community themselves, the better the chances for integration and growth. Which will have only positive impacts on the larger economy of the country. She also sees this as a form of empowerment – particularly for the women in the camps who were, for various reasons, often not able to take up any work until the loans became available.

Avina Ajit and Rya G. Kuewor (who was himself a refugee), have a great relationship. She says that working so closely with someone so accomplished benefits her largely with the sharing of knowledge, experience and understanding of their field. She has also learnt the importance of compromise and to recognise where her skills are best deployed. She is finding that the Y&Y Fellowship has also come at a great time for RIO – it is helping her, personally, to gain a lot of confidence as her organisation’s representative and chair of RIO’s board of directors, and to fine-tune where they want the organisation to go. The questions that are being asked of her force her to think about organisational issues that, she says, she should have already been thinking about but better late than never and for that, she’s grateful. Perhaps that’s easier said than done, but the Fellowship is guiding her through some very crucial stages in the development of RIO, and is equipping her with the skills she needs to take it to the next level. She is also noticing the huge benefit of the personalised guidance offered by her mentors, who are offering creative solutions, financial advice and are helping her come up with new ideas. She is also very inspired by the work and achievements of the other fellows and often says how reassuring it is to speak with them, as they’re all in similar stages, going through similar problems. Care for others is what led her to join RIO, and care is what keeps her going – she believes she will reach her full potential by facilitating the potential of those who need it, in Ghana and the world.

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