Solar-power internet downloads opportunities for African refugees

  • Solar panels and internet installed in a refugee camp in Kenya
  • Refugee-led businesses open the door to online education and jobs
  • Finding enough work for the newly educated remains a challenge

SHARM EL SHEIKH, Egypt, November 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – When Innocent Chilombo arrived in Kenya’s remote Kakuma refugee camp in 2009 after fleeing conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), he spent the early years recovering and searching without much success, something related to his life.

“The refugees are not allowed to work and be employed. They don’t have the freedom of movement to do what they want and where they want,” the 34-year-old said in an interview.

But posting some low-paying logistical work with aid groups working in the barren camp in northern Kenya gave Chilombo access to the internet, a bit of cash — and an idea.

With contributions from friends, he raised $70 to buy a solar panel, then got some small seed money to set up a $400 solar internet node, with battery backup.

This has allowed him — and other refugees — to earn online college degrees, create digital businesses and get energy, and escape the dusty camp confines, at least virtually.

Today, 17 such nodes are in operation, serving about 1,700 people, in Kakuma, a decades-old settlement of tents and tin-roofed homes where nearly 200,000 long-term refugees live, with little prospect of returning to their former homes and lives. .

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“In order to be independent, people in the camp need a stream of income. It can’t come from physical labor – but it can happen in the digital world, where there are fewer restrictions,” said Chilombo, founder of Kakuma Ventures. in an interview.

Such online work does not take away jobs from locals – often a sore point around refugee camps, he said, speaking at the UN’s COP27 climate talks in Egypt after winning a £25,000 ($30,000) prize for his work. Ashden Sustainable Energy Charitable Association. .

‘trial and error’

Building a solar and internet business, without much experience beyond what can be gained online from educational videos, was a challenge, Chilombo said.

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

But once things worked out, Chilombo and others began studying online — from web design to computer science, graphic design and education — and then looking for work, first with the United Nations and aid group partners, and then more widely.

He said that finding people willing to study is not difficult.

said the young entrepreneur, who in 2018 earned a degree in business administration from the tuition-free online University of the People.

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For now, online work for graduates is still limited, Chilombo said, and with more young people earning degrees and enhancing their abilities, finding enough work for all of them is his company’s latest headache.

“People acquire new skills but don’t know what to do next. We have to understand how to accommodate that group of people,” he said, lamenting, “Once we solve problems, more problems come.”

But for those able to find digital work — or take advantage of solar access to create other businesses, from hair salons and making clothes to coffee shops and phone charging — the payoff is significant.

Chilombo built a sturdy tin house for himself, his wife, and three children, and said that many families who earn an income now can put their children in better schools, provide better medical care, and open small businesses.

The new money, hope and basic infrastructure in the camp – especially infrastructure that connects a remote place with opportunities in the rest of the world – “brings a lot of good,” he said.

Cheap and sustainable

He said those who live near Kakuma’s 17 internet nodes can purchase unlimited monthly internet access for less than $5 per month, and clean power is also available for a reasonable fee.

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One of the advantages of solar power, Chilombo said, is that once you pay the upfront costs of installing it, the energy is essentially free, which increases 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, and we don’t have to keep buying fuel. It’s sustainable.”

Chilombo hopes over time to increase the number of internet and solar power nodes in Kakuma to about 100 points, providing access to energy and internet opportunities to a broader segment of the camp population.

He said the award he won this month from the London-based Ashden Foundation would accelerate 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 society if they are given the opportunity to do so,” he said. Otherwise, they will be abandoned forever.

Originally published at:

Covering by @lauriegoering; Editing by Kieran Gilbert. The Thomson Reuters Foundation is the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters. Go to

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