Social project helps displaced Cameroonians get into the couture business

20 July 2017 - 14:26 By Inna Lazareva
Balkisou Buba and Charlie Wandji with accessories designed by displaced Cameroonians.
Balkisou Buba and Charlie Wandji with accessories designed by displaced Cameroonians.
Image: Supplied

The chic evening clutch bags, dainty sandals and leather smartphone accessories on display in a showroom in an upscale district of Cameroon's capital, Yaoundé, would not look out of place at a smart dinner party.

But their creators come from an entirely different world - forced from their homes to escape suicide bombings, theft and killings by Islamist militant extremists Boko Haram.

Their craftwork is supported by a new social enterprise - IDP Goods - set up by a group of young Cameroonians to help internally displaced people from the country's far north. The aim is to enable them to start their own businesses, create employment opportunities - and ultimately to defeat radicalisation.

Since Boko Haram's first attacks in Cameroon in March 2014, more than 1,500 people have been killed, prompting almost 250,000 to flee their homes.

Balkisou Buba, a co-founder of IDP Goods, said displaced Cameroonians are "completely forgotten" by humanitarian agencies. "We wanted to do something for them," she said.

The group, all alumni of the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders run by the US state department, began looking for sustainable, longer-term solutions in a region where about 75% of the population lives below the poverty line.

"We wanted to capitalise on the existing skills people had," said the group's CEO, Charlie Wandji, at its small office adjacent to the showroom.

The idea is to train IDPs to produce quality goods to sell in Yaoundé, Douala and Garoua, among others. Half the profits are channeled back into the enterprise, while the other half goes to the workers, said Wandji.

Each item bears the distinctive "IDP Goods" logo, a patented trademark Wandji hopes to make into a symbol of businesses led by Cameroon's displaced.

"You don't have to work in our co-operative and stay on our sites in order to use our trademark," explained Wandji.

Even when people return home they can continue using the label.

"The only condition is that the company employs at least five IDPs," said Wandji. - Reuters

This article was originally published in The Times.