Why community-led innovation is fuelled by risk, ambition, and experimentation

By Peter Batali, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Community Technology Empowerment Network (CTEN)

UNHCR’s Innovation Service has worked with Community Technology Empowerment Network (CTEN) since early 2017 through providing support to the Refugee Information Centre (RIC) in Rhino Camp Settlement, brokering new technology partnerships and providing guidance and documentation of their successes and learnings. Over the past two years, we have worked on a number of initiatives together, including research into the ethics of humanitarian innovation and UNHCR’s 2018 Innovation Award. We’ve definitely learned a lot through this partnership — this article is one of our latest joint-experiments, we hope you enjoy it.

It was absolute chaos. Some 9,000 people travelled over rough terrain strewn with massive, muddy potholes — riding in trucks, sharing cars, and taxis. Some were even walking, carrying everything they could with them. After their long, tiring trip, they safely arrived in Uganda and were settled in what would become their new home. Everyone had to construct their own shelter on the piece of land they were allocated. Most of it was covered with shrubs, so they had to clear it before they could begin constructing on it using poles, ropes, and plastic sheeting to protect them from the heat and rain. Those who arrived late in the afternoon had to wait until the next day before they could start building their shelters. Some built into the night, and those who weren’t strong enough to do it for themselves had to ask others to help. Everyone received a hot meal those first few days, but then had to think about how they would cook the dry rations they were given thereafter. For many, there were notable language barriers as they tried to find their bearings and figure out what would happen next. The scene sounded like hundreds of radios all playing different songs at the same time.

I was lucky enough to have my wife and children with me, and I was later joined by my mother and siblings. But many people were worried sick about loved ones they had left behind. Like my buddy Joseph — who had seen his brother captured by armed men before he fled, fearing for his own life — many were separated from their friends and families as they ran to safety. Isaac, another friend of mine, escaped to Uganda but was forced to leave both of his elderly parents behind. There wasn’t much information coming through from South Sudan, and everyone worried about the fate of those who hadn’t yet safely made it across the Uganda-South Sudan border. The settlements lacked electricity and the telecommunications network signal was poor, so even for those who had fled with smartphones, laptops and other communication devices, staying in touch with anyone outside the settlement was a real challenge.

In the midst of all this, I had an idea that kept ringing in my head like a bell, a way to help people stay connected and get the information they needed about their loved ones. I had fled with an old creaky Toshiba laptop that I later nicknamed “Grandma,” but it had a battery so weak it wouldn’t hold a charge. I knew what we needed was a generator.

So I dropped what I was doing and caught a ride in an overcrowded car to Arua town, a busy business centre situated about 52 kilometres from where we had camped. Once I made it there, I bought six iron sheets, roofing nails, some fuel, speakers, a microphone — and, most important, a portable generator. I hired a pickup truck, loaded in the supplies I’d just bought with my own resources, and returned to the settlement where my family was waiting for me.

They thought I’d lost my mind. “How could you spend money on this right now?” they asked. Helping them understand what I was trying to do was not easy, but I was determined to restore hope in the community and make everyone feel less helpless. I believed deeply in my idea.

We could be heroes

When I was a little boy, I once saw a ripe, juicy-looking mango on a tree near where I lived. Even though my mother cautioned me not to because it was dangerous, I climbed the tree to fetch the mango. Of course, I fell out of the tree and dislocated my left arm, but that didn’t change the part of me that will always go for something I want. After all, I still got the mango.

My family acknowledges this bit about me, and we understood quite well the situation we found ourselves in. We were refugees, just like everyone else. We were setting up temporary structures in Rhino Camp settlement, and the construction materials we needed were provided to us by humanitarian aid groups with support from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

This wasn’t my first time in such a situation. I had lived in Uganda as a refugee for close to ten years after the Sudan War erupted in 1992. When I finally returned to Sudan, I was so full of hope when people from the predominantly Christian South voted overwhelmingly to separate from the Arab-controlled North. I sought to give people in my hometown a way to envision and create a new future, so I started the Community Technology Empowerment Network (CTEN) in 2012 in Yei town, South Sudan. As its founder and Executive Director, I have always been passionate about using technology to improve and promote access to information. At one point, we had up to ten staff and volunteers working with CTEN in Yei. Some worked in the secretarial services bureau, while others were computer instructors and community sensitisation project personnel.

But in July 2016, South Sudan descended into chaos, when the people who had so triumphantly participated in forming the world’s youngest nation just a few years earlier began aggressively fighting and killing each other. The violence that erupted once again sent thousands of refugees fleeing into neighbouring Uganda, including me, my family and “Grandma,” the laptop I’d been using since I established CTEN-Uganda. We found ourselves uprooted from our peaceful homes in South Sudan and living deep inside Rhino Camp refugee settlement.

Everyone felt the pain of being separated from their families, with no way of knowing if they were dead or alive. We all had shelter and food thanks to UNHCR and other humanitarian aid agencies, but there was anxiety in the hearts and faces of many refugees about the fate of their loved ones, not only back in South Sudan but also within the borders of Uganda. One way to ease these fears would be to give them knowledge and a means to connect with their families.

I also believed I could use CTEN to raise awareness on important issues and encourage peaceful living not just within the refugee community, but also among the hosts. Still, my family thought I could not be serious about my idea to establish CTEN in Uganda. Many people in the settlement looked at me in disbelief. They’re busy putting up tents made of plastic sheets and here I was, spending scarce resources on supplies and equipment. I knew I had to balance what I needed to do for my family and what I wanted to do for the community. I explained to my family that I was actually investing in the future. A refrain kept playing over and over in my head: “Please work, please work, please work.”

The idea of initiating CTEN-Uganda was not mine alone. Not long after I arrived in Uganda, I reconnected with Taban James Radento, an old friend who lived nearby. We knew each other from Yei town where we had worked together at CTEN. Together, we figured out what to do about our new situation: Create a centre where refugees can share ideas, experiences and information, and interrelate in peaceful and resourceful ways. Instead of the youth spending most of their time consuming cheap alcohol and smoking tobacco and marijuana to escape from their new and difficult reality, we could use the Refugee Information Centre (RIC) we would create to teach them about computers and the Internet. We could help them learn how to interact with the outside world through email and social media — building on what we had done with CTEN in South Sudan. A very important part of this would be helping people find and connect with their loved ones, wherever they might be.

On the day I returned from Arua with the supplies, James and I ran the generator and set up the speakers. We detected an MTN Uganda network signal in the area and dialled in our modem. The signal was patchy but it worked. As soon as the generator started running, we began playing danceable music from various musicians familiar to members of the community — like WJ De King and Silver X from South Sudan and Jose Chameleone, Bobi Wine, and Bebe Cool from Uganda. We mostly chose music that would lift people’s spirits. The noise from the generator and the loud music quickly attracted a crowd. I asked those with electronic devices to bring them for recharging.

Those with smartphones and laptops were excited to access the Internet. James and I helped open email accounts for those who didn’t have one. We showed them how to search the web for information, including how to find and connect with family and friends online. Within a few weeks, youth were accessing social media and entertainment sites, while students who had enrolled in long-distance study programmes used the web to do research. Staff of humanitarian aid agencies who lived and worked in the area used the Internet link we had set up to send emails and submit reports.

Within a fortnight we were offering basic computer lectures to youth in an accessible UNHCR tent, with permission from the local leadership. I still had “Grandma” with me — she was running pretty slow but strong enough to deliver training in basic computer concepts, like how to access the Internet and use the Microsoft Office applications suite. The turnout was overwhelming. People of all ages, including children, poured into the tent. Some of them kindly let us use their personal laptops during the computer classes.

James and I recognised that momentum was building for what we had created here, but we often ran out of money to buy fuel and subscribe to Internet data. Even though we used Facebook to lobby for support from as far away as Europe, Australia, and the United States, the funds we received weren’t enough. There was a time we had to stop the computer lectures altogether because we lacked resources. About a month into the training, we had to leave Rhino Camp settlement and relocate to Arua town so we could write a project proposal to raise funds to support the RIC initiative.

I get by with a little help from my friends

A few months earlier, I had reconnected with my good friend Ajoma Christopher, who I first met in the late 1990s while studying at St. Joseph’s College Ombaci, an all-boys school located about four kilometres from Arua town. Chris, who is Ugandan, had come to the settlement in August 2016 to see how he could help at the RIC. I was very happy to see him!

Chris and I first connected as teenagers over our shared love for high-tempo Congolese music. Every weekend, we would attend what we called bull dances, which the college administration organised for students inside the school’s assembly hall. The dancing was usually spirited and good for burning off excess energy. Chris and I both studied metalwork and technical drawing, and today we both love working with computers. We were close friends in college and had quite a few adventures!

When we met again in 2016, Chris was working as a self-employed computer repair technician and Information and Communication Technologies trainer. He was always good at both written and spoken English, and however hard I tried to beat him on the subject, he always came out on top. In fact, he helped me write this story. On the other hand, I was always good at mathematics and had taken a management course with the hope of starting my own business. To make CTEN-Uganda a reality, I realised we needed the best of both our minds.

I asked Chris to join our effort and, because, as he said, “refugees were looking for some sort of hope,” he enthusiastically agreed to help write the proposal we submitted in October 2016. Even though he was often busy with his freelance work, he continued to pitch in wherever he could to package and promote the RIC and shape it into what we knew it could be. Chris and I are a good team, because I have been known to just run with an idea without thinking it all the way through first, kind of like I did with the mango. Chris will give me a look that tells me to slow down when I get excited and helps us take a more pragmatic approach to things. We complement each other pretty well and are good at making plans together.

I was determined to develop CTEN-Uganda into a stable, self-sustaining refugee-led organisation, and although many challenges still remained, we kept moving forward. Using funds from individuals and well-wishers, we built a temporary office at the RIC, which was when we first interacted with UNHCR, through a group of their field staff that had come to monitor UNHCR-funded projects in the area. The banner that read “Refugee Information Centre (RIC) by CTEN” and the refugee youth constructing the structure caught their eye, so they stopped to ask what was happening. I explained to them what the RIC was all about and they were impressed, especially because we had taken the initiative as refugees to find solutions to some of the challenges that we were facing. Before they left, they asked me to write a concept note for the RIC — the first step toward getting funding.

You’ve got to work hard

But for the time being, we still depended on contributions from individuals and groups in Uganda and abroad. None of the volunteers were getting paid for the sacrifices they made: working in difficult weather conditions — especially during rainy and dry seasons with strong dusty winds that destroy temporary shelters — often in darkness in an area where scorpions and snakes roam freely. Like me, they were spending what little resources they had on the RIC. This situation created conflict, forcing us to make difficult decisions between supporting our families and promoting the innovation we believed in.

We needed to raise funds, which meant getting the attention of people who could help us. Because I had always loved athletics, I developed the idea of organising a refugee road run event to publicise CTEN-Uganda and the RIC initiative. About 200 refugees participated in the road run, and they contributed to the community by cleaning the road they ran on. They also helped paint a life-saving zebra-crossing near Arua primary school, along the route to several refugee settlements including Rhino Camp, Imvepi and Bidibidi. The accidents around that area have noticeably reduced as a result. CTEN used the event to raise awareness on the refugee situation and described how it is necessary for everyone to collaborate in order to improve the welfare of refugees, not just in the Northwestern region of Uganda but across the entire country. It was a delightful way to show that we care about our new home and promoted the idea of peaceful coexistence among refugees and the local community.

The event helped us make progress, because other organisations started appreciating what a refugee-led organisation could do — we captured people’s attention. They could see that if we just had a little bit more support, our multi-purpose RIC could have a much greater social impact.

In January 2017, CTEN was invited to attend a Great Lakes Initiative conference in Uganda’s capital city, Kampala. At the end of the three-day conference, CTEN had received a donation of three Lenovo laptops and a projector.

Three months later, the RIC welcomed a team from the UNHCR’s Innovation Service in Geneva, which had heard about our initiative and wanted to learn more. During their visit, they donated a number of mobile devices including smartphones, tablets, and modems. They also gave us a solar power system and 100GB worth of Internet data. It was an amazing moment for all of us! Just what we needed.

Around this same time, UNHCR and the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM), the government unit responsible for the welfare of all refugees and asylum seekers in Uganda, invited us to attend their monthly interagency coordination meetings with other partners operating in the humanitarian sector. Plus, in September 2017 UNHCR officially made us their partner on mass information dissemination and mobilisation, a status we still hold and are most proud of today.

Dreams do come true

I believe the world cannot develop without innovation. It’s through innovators and experimenters that growth happens. The key to that is the environment that enables the innovation, and I’m very happy that UNHCR and all the individuals that have supported CTEN helped promote this idea.

Look where we are today: CTEN is an implementing partner to UNHCR, executing mass information awareness and mobilisation activities in the refugee settlements of Bidibidi, Imvepi, and Rhino Camp. It currently employs 17 individuals, excluding volunteers and interns. The information we disseminate to the target communities is cross-cutting in nature and includes the sectors of education, livelihoods, health, sanitation, food, and sexual violence prevention, as well as raising awareness on the spread of malaria, hepatitis, HIV, and Ebola. The RIC in Rhino Camp settlement offers free Internet access to both refugee and host community youth thanks to a partnership between NetHope, Cisco, and Airtel Uganda. In addition to accessing social media, the youth use the Internet to study free online courses on educational websites, like Alison and Coursera. CTEN has also partnered with Canada-based Eminus Academy to have up to 15 youth study an online course in social entrepreneurship at the RIC.

CTEN has continued to grow and is on the path to becoming a stable organisation through creating and maintaining strong relationships with community members, the South Sudanese diaspora, OPM, UNHCR, and its implementing partners. None of this would have been possible without the support and dedication of the team — James, Chris, and many others. Our families are now in full support of our effort, even when we have to work late. There’s no longer any doubt about what we are doing and hearing them say they believe in us is like sweet, soft music to our ears.

Refugee-led innovation is very important to humanitarian responses all over the world. It’s important to listen to the ideas that refugees have from their experience, then focus more on building up their capacity. That way, refugees take ownership of the projects the humanitarian organisation starts. They will look after everything well because they introduced the idea.

We’re very proud of where we are now. There were moments within those very fast early months when we had challenges, but because of my past experience I believed it was possible — I knew there was something sweet there. I refer to the mango. I went for it! I believe the fruits of the work we did will really develop that community and the rest of the world, by giving people the chance to contribute to their community, no matter where they come from or where they are.

This essay was originally posted in the recently released publication — UNHCR Innovation Service: “Orbit 2018–2019”. The publication is a collection of insights and inspiration, where we explore the most recent innovations in the humanitarian sector, and opportunities to discover the current reading of innovation that is shaping the future of how we respond to complex challenges. From building trust for artificial intelligence, to creating a culture for innovating bureaucratic institutions and using stories to explore the future of displacement — we offer a glance at the current state of innovation in the humanitarian sector. You can download the full publication here. And if you have a story about innovation you want to tell (the good, the bad, and everything in between) — email: innovation@unhcr.org.