Jacob Augustine has been a farmer for more than four decades. During the past two months, however, he’s switched to shoe repair.
“I used to work on a farm, but that was before Boko Haram,” he says, sitting cross-legged on a blanket covered with broken shoes, painting glue onto the sole of the leather sandal in his hand.
Augustine was forced to flee when the militant group attacked his hometown in northeastern Nigeria late last year. Along with about 200 others, he and what remains of his family now live in a building that was once an elementary school. Classified as internally displaced persons (IDPs), they bide their time in rooms with peeling alphabet posters on the wall as stacks of textbooks collect dust in every available corner.

But they aren’t waiting for handouts. Augustine and many like him have launched businesses, creating an impromptu economy among the more than a million people who have dispersed through northern Nigeria on the run from Boko Haram.
According to the Nigeria’s National Emergency Management Agency, roughly 85 percent of IDPs are staying with host families or in informal camps, rather than in official government camps, which are reputed to be not only disorganized but also unsafe.
Most of the more than 200,000 men, women and children who have settled here in Yola have chosen the informal route, which means they are hard to find for aid organizations. However, their approach provides a unique advantage. Unlike their counterparts in government-run facilities, where movement is restricted, these residents are able to pursue other activities beyond simply waiting for news and collecting food donations. That’s creating the right conditions for a kind of informal economy that’s helping feed the refugees.
For most of these refugees, who are frequently farmers, side businesses are ways to help make extra cash, while waiting for news of home.
Boko Haram now controls a vast swath of land stretching across Adamawa, Borno and Yobe states, where most of the population lives below the poverty line. However, the area also is responsible for the vast majority of Nigeria’s agricultural output. Hundreds of thousands of farmers left their crops to spoil as they attempted to escape the violence, and aid groups such as the Famine Early Warning Systems Network warn that 3 million people could face food consumption gaps within the next few months. Estimates indicate 60 percent of Nigeria’s farmers left their cropsbecause of the Boko Haram insurgency.
Here in a dusty yard once used for recess and sports, children gather around a chalkboard for lessons, as Augustine and a handful of other newly minted entrepreneurs display their wares.
Visitors are not faced with the white tents that signal a refugee camp all over the world. What they see instead is a line of merchants and stalls. One table features dozens of cigarette boxes bought wholesale in town, another is piled with sweet-smelling fried snacks, and still another holds a locked case packed with at least a hundred mobile phones, their charging lights blinking in the sun, under the watchful eye of a nearby attendant.
Augustine never knew much about shoes before, and never imagined himself doing this job, but a friend let him borrow some tools, and he managed to learn the trade by watching others. He would rather be doing something else, but his family needs the income.
“When you don’t have any money, you have to be creative,” he says with a shrug, setting the sandal down amid the others with a satisfied flourish.
Almost as soon as they are formed, most camps develop an informal economies, says Eric D. Werker, an associate professor in the business, government and international economy unit at the Harvard Business School who has studied the economics of IDP and other refugee camps. Even in the situations where authorities restrict movement and trade, displaced people usually find some way to make extra money. “Even when aid organizations offer food and shelter, they are unable to provide the full basket of goods and services that displaced people demand,” he explained.
“I enjoy the business now because I’m making money,” Damboy James, 23, says as he plugs and unplugs a couple of white Blackberry phones and rearranges them to make room for the bulky charger of a Nokia handset.
Originally from Lassa, 150 miles to the north, he has no immediate family here with him: They lost track of each other during a Boko Haram attack. But he’s keeping occupied. Business for James is swift, riding the rising wave of cell-phone use that’s swept Nigeria and the rest of sub-Saharan Africa in recent years.
Within 10 minutes, about five people come to him with their cell phones and pay the 30 Nigerian naira (15 cents) apiece required to access his chargers. James’ charging station is hooked up to a generator under a nearby tree that provides a constant, rumbling soundtrack to the informal soccer game going on in the dusty yard behind him.
James, who also formerly worked as a farmer, says he can bring in a few thousand naira per month this way. It’s not a lot, but it’s something. And he hopes to save some of it to eventually get back to his home and find his parents once the crisis is over.
Across the path, Isa Jouro, 50, sits at a wooden school desk arranging packages of cigarettes in a pile. He used to work as a custodian at the general hospital in Lassa before Boko Haram attacked. Now he helps a friend purchase cigarettes in bulk from town, and sell them by the stick inside the camp, for profits between 20 naira (10 cents) and 30 naira (15 cents) each, depending on the brand.
“It’s about producing money,” said Jouro, who has been living in the camp for five months with his wife and five children. “The little I came with, I decided to use it for business instead of just spending it.”