Smart solar solutions: improving energy access and empowering refugee communities in Kenya

This #WorldRefugeeDay, we reflect on the potential of solar power to transform opportunity for displaced communities in Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya

Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya (credit: SwissContact)

By Foundation Director Kate Hargreaves

Every minute, 24 people leave everything behind to escape war, persecution or terror. In Sub-Saharan Africa alone there are an estimated 4.4 million refugees and 11 million people who have been internally displaced. A couple of weeks ago, I experienced first-hand what life is like for refugees who make it to Kakuma refugee camp, 80km south of the Sudanese border.

In some ways, the camp conforms with what we might expect of a temporary refugee settlement — tents and dust —but much of it has been here for decades. There are said to be at least 5 US dollar millionaires living in the camp — having established roaring trades in hardware, clothing, food. One Ethiopian millionaire is said to remit large sums of money to his family in the USA from Kakuma. The reality of regional conflict in East Africa means that many of the communities living in Kakuma will be here for years to come, responding to the trade and services needs of 160,000 refugees and 40,000 local host community.

Whilst ingenuity and improvisation (as well as generators) can go some way to create opportunities for residents of Kakuma, true transformation requires reliable systems. I believe communities in Kakuma can develop into sustainable economies, if there is access to clean and reliable energy. However, without this, it can be impossible to meet the basic needs of life. The difference is stark.

We were taken to see the vast diesel generators supporting the health clinics in Kakuma- among the largest structures in the camp. It costs around $14,000 per month to maintain and run these pollution-emitting generators for just one small clinic. However, the whole-life cost of solar power would be considerably less, while having no negative impact on health.

Solar energy also has the potential to transform lives because it can provide power not just to meet basic needs such as lighting, cooking and clean water but also for communication, access to ICT, and training. That’s why Crown Agents’ solar team bid for a grant from the Moving Energy Initiative to provide clean energy for Kakuma camp through our Solar ICT and Learning Hub.

Providing a safe, well-lit space for the community will have many benefits. The space can host activities such as showing films and football matches which will contribute to improving local relationships with the Kenyan host community, and empower the 60% of the camp’s population who are 18–35 and looking for learning and career opportunities. We know that ICT resources have life-changing potential, because one of our partners in Kakuma is a young Congolese refugee called Muzabel Welongo, who gained online qualifications, set up an NGO called SAVIC and set up a training centre in Kakuma by gaining access to a PC through an NGO.

We are bringing our experience installing solar power to 34 healthcare centres and 170 schools in Kaduna state, Nigeria and of operating models for small scale off-grid solar provision, to this project. For Kakuma, we are working on ‘smart solar’ off-grid solutions with our partner, Aleutia, whose ’SolarEnabler’ presents a step-up in the efficiency and effectiveness of solar power. The SolarEnabler can be monitored remotely and can control the allocation of power across electronic devices according to need. In our Solar ICT hub, the solar enabler will power Aleutia’s rugged 7-watt PCs (compared with old PCs require 150 watts), lighting and a ‘power wall’ where refugees can charge their mobile phones and other devices.

Tailoring workshops run by Swisscontact (credit: Swisscontact)

Partnership on the ground will be key to the success of integrating innovative technology with existing opportunities. We are proud to be partnering with Swiss Contact, who alongside the Norwegian Refugee Council already have skills training programmes in place to help refugees establish their own businesses and earn incomes. We saw people being trained in carpentry, welding, motorbike and car repair, and even the principles of solar power. Women’s training was limited to hairdressing and tailoring though both organisations attempt to train them in computer skills and all courses are open to both sexes. Swisscontact insists on a ‘life skills’ pre-training course that equips refugees and host community beneficiaries with social skills including self-awareness, goal setting, critical thinking and healthy living among other issues. Working with Swisscontact to offer training to local population to ensure people are fully involved with the operational side of clean energy innovation will be central to ensuring that the solar technology is sustainable long-term.

Like most things, the reality of life in camps like Kakuma is complex; it stretches from dire hunger to make-shift millionaires. By providing a safe, renewable resource like solar energy, we can provide opportunities for many of the camp’s residents, sparking ideas and giving more entrepreneurs like Muzabel a chance to shape their future.

Find out more about our work to improve energy access here.

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