Benson Wereje

Ashoka Fellow
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Fellow since 2015
This description of Benson Wereje's work was prepared when Benson Wereje was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2015.


Benson’s new idea is to empower young refugee population in the conflict-prone Democratic Republic of Congo to become agents of peaceful change by providing them with entrepreneurial education and leadership training. Benson’s target is to reach 1 million youths in the region who will then drive a non-violent movement to build peace, restore the social-economic fabric that binds together the region’s different ethnic groups and ensure long-term stability and economic prosperity. For a region long plagued by war, corruption and plunder of natural resources this initiative offers a new approach that is initiated by and incorporates young people.

The New Idea

CIYOTA’s approach of using entrepreneurial education as tool for transformation is a reflection of Benson’s own life journey as a refugee from the Congo growing up in Kyangwali refugee resettlement scheme in Western Uganda. The organization’s vision of a peaceful world devoid of mass transfer of large populations (refugees) is embedded in their philosophy of non-violence and self-empowerment: “No one can give us what they do not have. We do not change people but we change ourselves and the world changes with us.”

Also new in the CIYOTA model is the idea of “economic violence” as the act of forceful prevention from access to resources such as land and education. CIYOTA’s mission of empowerment through entrepreneurial education and leadership training is centred on this understanding that economic violence is the root cause for conflict and refugee problem in the central Africa region. Benson’s own experience of being displaced from his birth place in Eastern Congo and subsequent flight to western Uganda as a refugee has continued to inform his desire, approach and vision for solving the endemic problem of ethnic violence in the central Africa region. He is also a strong believer in the role that young people have to play in order to solve this problem which is deeply embedded in the attitudes of the older generation.

The Problem

90% of young people who join rebel groups in Eastern Congo do so for economic reasons, mainly to earn a living.

Economic violence and mass transfer of populations has become synonymous with the Central Africa region for much of the modern history. As a result the region has produced one of the largest refugee populations in the world. Women and children are often the victims of such strife. Nevertheless, the lack of viable alternatives for young people to sustain themselves economically has led to their mass recruitment into the various warring factions essentially creating a multi-generational cycle of poverty and violence. CIYOTA is working to break that cycle by targeting young people, providing them with entrepreneurial education and leadership training to enable them chart alternative paths out of their economic situation.

Benson believes that the root cause for endemic violence and any form of criminal behaviour is often the feeling of disempowerment whether economically, socially or emotionally. Refugees are some of the most disempowered populations in the world, having been uprooted from their homes and forced to live in a foreign country.

The history of economic violence in the Central Africa region dates back to the colonial era when Belgian King Leopold II usurped the entire country as his personal property, looting its most valuable resources of ivory and rubber. It is estimated that more than 10 million people died during this period from disease and forced labour. Millions more were forced to flee their ancestral homes.

Even after independence, the DRC never recovered from the history of economic violence which took a tribal twist pitting different tribal factions who have since been engrossed in one of the longest conflicts in the world. The conflict has so far led to the death of more than 5 million people and further displacement of millions more including Benson.

As a young boy, Benson was forced to flee from his village in the Eastern DRC finally settling in the Kyangwali Refugee Settlement in western Uganda. Like most other refugee settlements across East Africa, Kyangwali lacked basic amenities to enable the refugees rebuild their lives and as a result poverty, disease and violence followed the refugees to the camp. Traditional humanitarian assistance has also failed to alleviate the situation of refugees primarily because of the economic subjugation of the refugee population who lack access to any economic resources either in Uganda or in the DRC. Hundreds of refugees continue to die of hunger and disease despite the influx of humanitarian organizations such as USAID, Rescue, MSF, Search for Common Ground, OCHA, UNICEF, ALARM and Congo Leadership Initiative.

The approach taken by the government and other international actors such as the United Nations has also failed to bring sustainable peace to the region despite creating the largest UN peace keeping mission (MONUSCO) in the world. Involvement of the Congolese Army in the never ending war in Eastern Congo has also jeopardized any government-led efforts to mend the differences between warring ethnic communities in the region.

For Benson, the root cause none of these existing approaches has succeeded has to do with the continued disempowerment of young people who end up being trapped in the inter-generational cycle of poverty violence. Many of the former perpetrators of violence fled together with the refugees into neighbouring Uganda and Rwanda and continue to recruit young people back into fighting. Lack of ethical leaders and endemic corruption as well as broken institutions have created a situation of complete hopelessness both in the DRC and in the refugee camps.

The Strategy

CIYOTA’s model is built around the philosophy of self-empowerment. According to this philosophy the organization is founded as a membership community comprised of young people who share the vision and values of building a movement for prosperity through non-violence approaches. Benson estimates that to-date CIYOTA has already reached over 10,000 people and directly educated over 600 people at their two schools based in the Kyangwali refugee resettlement scheme. Membership in the organization comprises of people from over 15 different tribes and 7 different countries.

The organization works through a multi-pronged strategy for empowerment through entrepreneurship education, leadership training and Agribusiness. CIYOTA has established 2 schools at the Kyangwali scheme which are open to both refugee children and those from the local community. In order to facilitate access to education for children who live further away, CIYOTA has established two hostels that host students during school days and are rented out to local communities during holidays. This cross-subsidization model enables CIYOTA to provide primary education to over 300 children every year at little to no cost. The organization also raises scholarships for needy children. The entrepreneurial education program in CIYOTA schools is based on globally recognized models in particular Educate Uganda which funded Benson’s own education through secondary school. Other models that Benson has used include the Transformative Institute and the African Leadership Academy. The curriculum is also implemented through partner schools and it includes relevant vocational training in areas such as livestock keeping, milk processing and juice manufacture.

CIYOTA’s Leadership Training program – Pamoja Kwa Maendeleo (together for development) is built around the inspiration and non-violence philosophies of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Lutherking Junior and Nelson Mandela. Working closely with the Transformative Action Institute Benson and his team are bringing this leadership training to over 1000 villages across Western Uganda, Rwanda and Eastern Congo. The progam uses innovative approaches to train leaders for example “debate under trees” which bring together leaders from warring tribes to settle their differences. The program is also implemented through churches, schools and local associations which come together in a co-sharing model to reduce the cost of implementation.

Economic self-empowerment is the third core strategy for CIYOTA and is applied at both the individual and community level. All CIYOTA members participate in communal large scale commercial farming ventures which in turn brings in a significant proportion of the $300,000 annual revenue for the organization. The organization has built hostels to house students who are attending their schools which bring in additional revenue and double-up as training facilities for young people.
So far, CIYOTA estimates that it has reached 10,000 young people through its 3 main programs, with the goal of reaching 1 milion youths in the next 5 years. The group plans to have its leadership programs implemented in 1000 villages by the year 2020 and the team is already rolling out trainings in Kyangwali in a partnership with the Transformative Leadership Institute.

The organization also aims to educate over 1000 children in their schools, up from the current 350 while partnering with 10 other schools in the region to reach an additional 1200 school-age leaders. CIYOTA school is now recognized by UNHCR as an innovative solution by refugees for refugees. Through the hostel program CIYOTA hopes to reach 2500 young leaders who in turn will reach over 20,000 other youths aross the region.

CIYOTA’s impacti s best illustrated through the individual stories of exceptional members who have become leaders in their own right and who are now championing similar change for others in the region. Joseph Munyambanza, CIYOTA’s director for education was educated through high school by the organization before enrolling at he prestigous Africa Leadership Academy. He was also awarded the Global Citizen Award together with President Ellen Johson Sirleaf of Liberia. Another member, Sukisa Ndayambaje is the District Administrator for Masisi District in Eastern Congo where he is directly in charge of over 1millon people. Another CIYOTA member, Kaboy who is currently a secondary school student founded the Kidea Community Association to support widows in his village and built the first ever school for a region covering 4 villages. Benson, as the CEO of CIYOTA recently got awarded the Echoing Green Fellowship for his leadership qualities.

Moving forward, the organization plans to build 4 Entrepreneurial Leadership Instititutes in the DRC and Uganda which will train 100 young leaders every year. The organization also aims to increase enrollment into its school from the current 350 children to 500 in 2015, while the secondary school enrollment will expand to over 1000 students. Ultimately, Benson hopes to have the entrepreneurship education replicated in refugee camps across the world.

The Person

Benson was born in one of the villages in North Kivu region of Eastern DRC to farming family. His father was a farmer, a religious and community leader. Benson fled his home in 1996 to seek refuge in Uganda following the outbreak of ethnic violence which traumatized him for years to come. Many of his friends, family, and neighbours suffered in the hands of rebels, others never made it out. Benson arrived at the Kyangwali Refugee Settlement Scheme in Uganda only to find much worse living conditions, sporadic violence, draught and regular famine. He started CIYOTA with a small group of friends at the camp and grew the organization into a movement for sustainable peace and economic development and continues to do so as the organization’s vision bearer.

The firstborn in a family of 6 (5 sisters and 1 brother) Benson assumed the leadership of his siblings from an early age. He fondly recalls growing up happily in a village with other children learning about the different cultures of the tribes that inhabited the region and constantly learning new things from the village elders. He spent most of his early years playing, studying and working on the farms with his parents. He also attended the local primary school, going to church every Sunday until when war broke out just after he had joined secondary school.

Even at an early age, Benson showed signs of entrepreneurial disposition, founding a football team that dominated the local league with him as the best player in over 50 villages. This team later united to become the initial seed for CIYOTA. At age 15, Benson was already funding his own education working in small agribusiness and tourism ventures to raise about $100 a month.

These entrepreneurial pursuits followed him to Kyangwali Refugee Camp where he was selected to be a village leader (Local Chairperson 1) leading over 2,000 people at the age of 20. He also founded KYACO, an agribusiness cooperative that brought together families in his church to pool together their resources and work on on large scale commercial farming projects.

In 2005 Benson received a full scholarship from Educate Uganda, a program of Ashoka Fellow Eric Glustrom, to attend secondary school. That same year he mobilized his close friends to start CIYOTA, raising $0.50/day by working on farms to help other youth to go to school. Later, he convinced the government of Uganda to donate large pieces of land to CIYOTA for their farming projects, which now provide a majority of the organization’s revenue.

By and by, Benson built a core leadership team of 20 like-minded young leaders who have constituted the leadership body of CIYOTA in Uganda and DRC for over eight years. He has also mobilized an international team of mentors and supporters who continue to support CIYOTA today.

From an early age, Benson became conscious of violence motivating his family to adopt a refugee orphan after the genocide in neighbouring Rwanda. When war broke out in his village, he witnessed mass killings of close relatives and friends and was lucky to escape unhurt to neighbouring Uganda. He was separated from his parents and became a refugee orphan at the age of 17. The violence left over 5 million people dead and many more maimed and traumatized.
Nevertheless he put to use lessons he had learned from his earlier years on resiliency, entrepreneurship and self-care, raising over $2000 for his own education through football scholarships as well as working on people’s farms. It is these same values that he used to mobilize other youths and form what is now CIYOTA.