Solar-powered Internet loads opportunities for African refugees

  • Solar panels and internet installed in Kenyan refugee camp
  • Refugee-led business opens doors to online education, jobs
  • Finding enough jobs for new graduates remains a challenge

SHARM EL SHEIKH, Egypt, Nov 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – When Innocent Tshilombo arrived in Kenya’s remote Kakuma refugee camp after fleeing conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2009, he spent his early years trying to recover and explore, but to no avail. . for something related to his life.

“Refugees are not allowed to work or get a job. They don’t have the freedom to do what they want, where they want,” the 34-year-old said in an interview.

But landing some low-paying logistics work with aid groups operating in an arid camp in northern Kenya gave Tshilombo internet access, some cash and an idea.

With contributions from friends, he scraped together $70 to buy a solar panel, then chipped in a few small bucks to build a $400 solar-powered internet hub with battery backup.

This allowed him and other refugees to earn university degrees online, start businesses with access to digital and energy, and escape, at least virtually, the confines of the dusty camp.

Today, 17 such hubs, serving around 1,700 people, operate in Kakuma, a decades-old settlement of tents and tin-roofed houses where almost 200,000 refugees have lived for a long time, most of whom have little prospect of returning to their former homes and lives.

“People in the camp need an income stream to be independent. It can’t come from a physical job – but it can happen in the digital world where there are fewer constraints,” said Tshilombo, founder of Kakuma Ventures. in the interview.

This kind of online work also doesn’t take jobs away from local people – often a sore point around refugee camps, he said after winning a £25,000 ($30,000) award from sustainable energy charity Ashden for his work at the UN’s COP27 climate conference in Egypt. he said while speaking in his talks. .


Tshilombo said it was difficult to build a solar and internet business without more experience than can be gained online from instructional videos.

“It was a process of trial and error. We didn’t have a lot of information,” he said.

But after things picked up, Tshilombo and others began studying online — from website design to computer science, graphic design and education — and then began looking for jobs, first with the United Nations and aid group partners, then more widely.

He said that it is not difficult to find people who want to study.

“There is not much to do in the camp. There are no movies. People have enough time to learn great things and do great things if they are given the right platform,” he said. tuition-free online People’s University business administration degree.

For now, the online jobs available for graduates are still limited, Tshilombo said, and as more young people earn degrees and upskill, finding enough jobs for them all is the newest headache for his business.

“People are acquiring new skills, but they don’t know what to do next. We need to think about how to accommodate this group of people,” he said, adding that “as soon as we solve problems, more problems emerge.”

But for those who can find a digital business – or those who are able to use solar power to build other businesses, from hair salons and tailoring to cafes and phone charging, the returns are significant.

Tshilombo built a sturdy tin house for himself, his wife and three children, and he says many families who now have an income can put their children in better schools, get better health care and start small businesses.

In the camp, new money, hope and basic infrastructure — especially infrastructure that connects a remote place to opportunities in the rest of the world — “does a lot of good,” he said.


Those who live near Kakuma’s 17 hotspots can get unlimited monthly internet for just under $5 a month, and clean energy is also available for a reasonable fee.

One advantage of solar power, Tshilombo said, is that once the upfront costs of installing it are paid, the energy is largely free, increasing profits for small businesses like his.

“For places without electricity, green energy is the best way,” he said. “It doesn’t hurt the environment, it doesn’t require a lot of maintenance, we don’t have to keep buying fuel. It’s sustainable.”

Over time, Tshilombo hopes to increase the number of internet and solar power nodes in Kakuma to around 100, giving a wider range of camp residents access to energy and online facilities.

Ashden, based in London, said the award he won this month from the charity will speed up the work.

He also hopes to support policy reforms to help refugees find more opportunities, become more resilient in the face of growing climate threats, and take advantage of green energy innovations.

“Refugees can contribute to a society if they are given the chance. “Otherwise they will be abandoned forever.”

Originally published here:

Report by Laurie Goering @lauriegoering; Edited by Kieran Guilbert. The Thomson Reuters Foundation is a charity of Thomson Reuters. visit the site

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