- Solar panels and internet installed in refugee camp in Kenya
- Refugee-run business opens door to online education and jobs
- Finding enough work for newly qualified trainees remains a challenge
SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt, Nov. 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – When Innocent Tshilombo arrived in Kenya’s remote Kakuma refugee camp in 2009 after fleeing the conflict in the DRC, he spent the first few years recovering and without to seek great success in something related to his life.
“Refugees are not allowed to work and work. They have no freedom of movement to do what they want, where they want,” said the 34-year-old in an interview.
But a few low-paid logistical jobs for aid groups operating at the dry camp in northern Kenya gave Tshilombo access to the internet, some money – and an idea.
With input from friends, he scraped together $70 to buy a solar panel, then landed some small seed grants to set up a $400 internet hub with solar power and battery backup.
This enabled him – and other refugees – to earn university degrees online, start digital and energy access companies, and at least virtually escape the confines of the dusty camp.
Today, 17 such hubs employ about 1,700 people in Kakuma, a decades-old settlement of tents and tin-roof houses that is home to nearly 200,000 long-term refugees, most of whom have little prospect of ever returning to their former homes and lives.
“People in the camp need an income to be independent. It can’t come from physical labor – but it can happen in the digital world, where there are fewer restrictions,” Tshilombo, the founder of Kakuma Ventures, said in an interview.
Such online work doesn’t take jobs away from local people either – often a sore point in refugee camps, he said speaking at the UN COP27 climate talks in Egypt after winning a £25,000 ($30,000) prize for his work. from the sustainable energy charity Ashden.
“Trial and Error”
Building the solar and internet business without much experience beyond what could be gleaned from online instructional videos has been challenging, Tshilombo said.
“It was a process of trial and error. We didn’t have much knowledge,” he admitted.
But once things worked, Tshilombo and others began studying online — from website design to computer science, graphic design and education — and then looked for work, first with the United Nations and aid group partners, then more generally.
It’s not difficult to find people willing to study, he said.
“There is not much to do at the camp. There are no films. People have enough time to learn great things and do great things if they get the right platform,” said the young entrepreneur, who earned a degree in business administration in 2018 at the tuition-free online University of the People.
For now, the online work available to graduates is still limited, Tshilombo said, and as more young people graduate and improve their skills, his company’s latest problem is finding enough jobs for them all.
“People are acquiring new skills but they don’t know what to do next. We need to figure out how to accommodate this group of people,” he said, lamenting that “as we solve problems, more problems come.”
But for those who are able to find digital work — or use access to solar power to start other businesses, from hair salons and tailoring to coffee shops and phone top-ups — the payouts are significant.
Tshilombo has built a sturdy tin house for himself, his wife and three children, and he said many families earning an income now could send their children to better schools, afford better medical care and open small businesses.
New money, hope, and basic infrastructure in camp — particularly infrastructure that connects a remote place to opportunity in the rest of the world — “brings a lot of good,” he said.
Those living near Kakuma’s 17 Internet Exchanges can purchase unlimited Internet access for a little under $5 a month, and clean energy is also available for a reasonable fee.
One benefit of solar power, Tshilombo said, is that after paying the upfront cost of installation, the energy is essentially free, boosting profits for small businesses like his.
“For places without electricity, green energy is the way to go,” he said. “It doesn’t harm the environment, it doesn’t require a lot of maintenance, we don’t have to constantly buy fuel. It’s sustainable.”
Tshilombo hopes to increase the number of internet and solar power nodes in Kakuma to around 100 over time, bringing access to power and online opportunities to a wider range of camp residents.
The award he received this month from London-based charity Ashden will speed up the work, he said.
He also hopes to support policy reforms to help refugees find more opportunities to become more resilient in the face of growing climate threats and embrace green energy innovations.
“Refugees can contribute to a community if they are given the opportunity,” he said. “Otherwise they are gone forever.”
Originally published at: https://www.context.news/net-zero/solar-powered-wi-fi-helps-african-refugees-to-become-entrepreneurs
Reporting by Laurie Goering @lauriegoering; Edited by Kieran Guilbert. The Thomson Reuters Foundation is the non-profit arm of Thomson Reuters. visit https://www.context.news/
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