‘Business must see refugees as consumers’

Tina Huang leads efforts by the World Food Programme (WFP) in Uganda to engage with the retail sector

Simona Beltrami
World Food Programme Insight
3 min readNov 5, 2018


When refugees spend WFP assistance to food in markets in and around the settlements, this has a multiplier effect on the local economy. Photo: WFP/Hugh Rutherford

I have been with WFP in Uganda for nine months now. Before this, I used to work at Nike.

I was hired because WFP is engaging more and more with the private sector, so it needs people who can talk the language business owners understand — the language of sales.

Compared to my previous job, where I felt I was only marginally improving the life of someone who was already doing quite well, I have a completely different sense of achievement. With this job, I am really touching people’s lives, hopefully helping to bring them up from the bottom.

Tina (second from the left) with local retailers. WFP works to make markets more efficient so that its beneficiaries can get the best value for their cash. Photo: WFP Photo Library

When I joined my first focus group with refugees to learn about their needs and for the first time felt in touch with their lives, it hit me really hard. It is tough to hear stories of people having to cut down on meals, or how the shock changed their lives — and to think of that what we sometimes spend on one meal could feed a family for a month.

In Uganda, WFP is assisting 1 million refugees, around 220,000 of whom receive cash. By giving out part of our assistance in cash, we create demand, giving beneficiaries purchasing power to buy things they need — food and other items. At the same time, as we reduce in-kind food assistance into the community, the overall availability of food is reduced. When demand grows and supply reduces, the supply gap could drive up prices. For prices to remain stable we need to stimulate the food supply chain outside of WFP.

We aim to make markets more efficient. One problem we face is the size of the businesses where people receiving WFP assistance spend their money. Being small, they operate at high costs and buy goods at higher prices, which reflects on the prices at which they sell. If we can help them to aggregate their demand, they will be able to negotiate better prices and services from suppliers.

As of September 2018, 220,000 refugees in Uganda receive WFP assistance in cash, which they spend in local markets. Photo: WFP/Hugh Rutherford

If we manage to lower prices by increasing supply and improving the business skills of local retailers, this will eventually have a positive impact on the broader community, benefiting those who are not WFP beneficiaries that shop in the same places as them.

The main challenge we face is changing the mindset. Business sees refugees as people with small purchasing power, but the sheer number of them makes them a sizable market. We need to help them come together so that they can use their collective power.

Learn more about how WFP’s work with the retail sector