“Learning from each other”: Empowering migrant and refugee entrepreneurs in Turkey

Turkey is home to the world’s largest refugee population – and for many, entrepreneurship is a viable pathway to building new lives for themselves within their host communities. 

This International Migrants Day, we spoke to Guler Altinsoy, CEO and co-founder of Istanbul-based entrepreneurship initiative IDEMA, to hear how they are supporting migrant and refugee entrepreneurs through COVID-19.

 IDEMA is working with YBI through our COVID-19 Rapid Response & Recovery Programme funded by Google.org. 

What are the challenges in Turkey for migrant and refugee entrepreneurs, specifically? 

Entrepreneurship itself is a challenging journey, especially at the beginning. But for migrants and refugees, there are extra barriers. Firstly, there is the language barrier. Secondly, they aren’t familiar with the local structures, how the market functions or what the market and customer demands are, so they need extra time to adapt to their host countries. Thirdly, although some subsidies and government support are available to entrepreneurs from the host country, they are not necessarily available for refugee or migrant entrepreneurs. 

Can you explain a little more about the situation for migrants and refugees in Turkey? 

Turkey hosts the largest refugee population in the world. We have four million refugees in total, including 3.6 Syrian refugees and 400,000 other refugees from Afghanistan and other countries. Interestingly, only 2% live in refugee camps, meaning 98% live in host communities. To promote social cohesion, a host community needs to understand the challenges faced by migrant and refugee populations and what their needs are, because otherwise those populations will be marginalised – especially young people. It benefits the host community to support refugees, and it benefits refugees to understand how social and economic life functions in Turkey and how to adapt to it. 

“Entrepreneurship itself is a challenging journey, especially at the beginning. But for migrants and refugees, there are extra barriers.” 

How does IDEMA support migrant and refugee entrepreneurs? 

60% of the entrepreneurs we support are refugees and we mainly work with them in the food sector. We take them through a four-month incubation programme with a curriculum encompassing general critical skills like marketing and business management, which is all food sector specific. 

A major barrier for many food entrepreneurs is a lack of access to technical equipment, as they need lots of investment to build a kitchen. IDEMA has two industrial kitchens where food entrepreneurs can test their products, meet customers, get feedback and finalise their products. Once their product has demand, they move out to their own premises. IDEMA also runs social cohesion activities where we bring Turkish entrepreneurs and refugee and migrant entrepreneurs together to foster understanding. 

“Entrepreneurship itself is a challenging journey, especially at the beginning. But for migrants and refugees, there are extra barriers.” 

Why is your programme for migrants and refugee entrepreneurs focused on food? 

When we were initially designing our support offering for refugees, we planned to create an incubation centre to support tech and digital entrepreneurs. But we soon learnt that refugees don’t necessarily have high-level digital literacy. But they do know a lot about food – Syrian refugees in particular have a rich gastronomic heritage and relevant skills to start their business in this sector. When we saw that the entry barrier was quite low for food entrepreneurs to enter the Turkish market, we specifically targeted that sector. We now run a yearly gastro-diplomacy event to bring together the host and refugee communities across the table. 

The gastro-diplomacy event sounds interesting. Can you tell me more about it? 

At the gastro-diplomacy events our migrant and refugee entrepreneurs cook their traditional food, and we invite guests from civil society organisations and the private sector in Turkey. Across this table, we usually discuss cultural and social events and the challenges we are all facing. We come together to share ideas and knowledge, and it’s also a good networking activity for our entrepreneurs. 

Are there any particularly memorable entrepreneurs who have inspired you? 

There are so many inspirational stories from IDEMA’s work! Inam’s story in particular is really touching. Inam is from Syria and was already a very good home cook when she arrived here in Turkey. She realised her cooking skills were an entrepreneurship opportunity and she started to provide catering services, mainly working with Turkish businesses and developing her products to Turkish taste. She’s now a fully-fledged businesswoman and she has supported her husband to participate in the programme as well to develop his cheese product. She also has two daughters, who are now part of IDEMA’s entrepreneurship community as well. The whole family has become part of the programme! 

Usually, the first time we meet our entrepreneurs, they are too shy to look into people’s eyes or even to introduce themselves. It gives me goosebumps to see them after the program, confidently presenting themselves and their businesses on stage.  

How has COVID-19 impacted the entrepreneurs you work with? 

The challenge for all our entrepreneurs has been how to adapt their business activities. Within IDEMA’s community there were lots of support mechanisms for entrepreneurs to discuss the challenges they were facing, both with our expert mentors and through our peer-to-peer discussion exercises. I believe the most important support for our entrepreneurs was being part of this community of resilience. Some of the entrepreneurs, like the food entrepreneurs, were hit very hard. They were serving food in their coffee shops and restaurants, so we had to support them to turn to producing packaged goods. They also had to adapt to using digital platforms.  

“I believe the most important support for our entrepreneurs was being part of this community of resilience.” 

Can you tell me about a food entrepreneur who managed to adapt? 

One entrepreneur had been doing bread-baking workshops for customers, where they come and learn how to do bread. During COVID-19 everyone started baking bread, so she adopted her workshops onto a digital platform and started doing it online, and the demand was quite high. She was also delivering packets of yeast, because she uses a traditional yeast which is brewed for 100 years. 

Did COVID-19 present any additional barriers for migrants and refugees? 

In some ways, yes. There were some support mechanisms that government activated for SMEs and businesses in Turkey, like small stipends and other forms of support for employees. But most refugee entrepreneurs are not officially registered, so they were not able to benefit. Language was also a barrier, so their access to information was not as quick as it should have been. When COVID-19 first hit, all the information was in Turkish, so many refugees didn’t know what kind of measures they needed to take to sustain their business. Many refugees and migrants are also “unskilled” workers, and unfortunately they were the first ones to lose their jobs in Turkey.

“Most refugee entrepreneurs are not officially registered, so they were not able to benefit from those subsidies.” 

IDEMA is working with YBI through the COVID-19 Rapid Response and Recovery Programme funded by Google.org. What new activities has the programme funding enabled IDEMA to do? 

We were already supporting enterprises to build their resilience, but when COVID-19 hit the demand for our services was extremely high. We already had existing tools for business continuity planning and training, but with the programme funding, we were able to reach out to a much wider audience through a new digital platform to provide support online. The businesses have found these sessions extremely useful. 

How does the digital platform work? 

Through our new digital platform, we are giving support to businesses on three main areas. One is improving their resilience and we provide training sessions and tools for that. With the programme funding, we were able to create a second component, which is a helpline for businesses to reach out to us for individual support. The third component is digital marketing: we are conducting webinars and sessions on digital tools like Google Suite, and training businesses on how to adapt those tools to their own needs. 

As part of the programme, many Google employees are volunteering their time to support young entrepreneurs. How have you found the experience of working with the Google volunteers?  

The Google volunteers are very much in touch with current trends – it feels as if they are bringing us information from the future! They have taught IDEMA about smart digital marketing strategies so we can support our businesses to reach out to more customers, which has been really useful. I believe this has given our entrepreneurs a lot of motivation and hope – during the pandemic, entrepreneurs have been very caught up with the negative news agenda and this has created a sense of positivity and hope for them and their businesses. 

Where do you think IDEMA would be today if you hadn’t been part of the COVID-19 Rapid Response programme? 

We wouldn’t have had the same focus on digital marketing and digital tools. We would still be at the firefighting and survival stage, I believe. With the Rapid Response programme funding, we were able to give more vision and hope to the businesses we support. 

“With the Rapid Response programme funding, we were able to give more vision and hope to the businesses we support.” 

Why, in your opinion, is it so important to give migrants and refugees the support they need to become entrepreneurs? 

We shouldn’t see migrants and refugees as a separate, independent ‘other’ – they are part of our community, and their wellbeing affects the wellbeing of the whole society. Having migrated to Turkey from Bulgaria myself, I know very well that migrants have specific needs to help them integrate. We need to give them some initial support to overcome the barriers they face – then they will be able to sustain themselves. 

In Turkey specifically, why is IDEMA’s work with migrants and refugees so crucial? 

In Turkey, it’s not the case that migrants and refugees are here for a couple of months, and then they will go back to their countries. In the case of the Syrian refugees, it’s now been almost 10 years since they arrived here. I see them as part of our community, and research and interviews with them show that they see themselves as part of the Turkish community. Many of them don’t wish to return to Syria, even if it were possible to. That’s why they need long-term support and development interventions rather than emergency response work. 

“I see them [Syrian refugees] as part of our community… and they see themselves as part of the Turkish community” 

What key advice would you give to other entrepreneurship support organisations who want to support more migrants and refugees? 

I would say that it’s crucial to develop integrated programmes to bring refugee and migrants and host community entrepreneurs together, so they can learn from each other. In Turkey, refugee entrepreneurs can benefit from the Turkish host’s knowledge of the market and target customers. On the other hand, host community entrepreneurs learn from the refugee community about their needs and the potential to do for business within this community. Refugees shouldn’t be seen as just passively waiting for help – they’re also potential customers. They have a life and have needs, and host country businesses should also learn to cater for them. 

To find out more about IDEMA’s work, visit their website

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