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A refugee household in Goudoubo camp, Burkina Faso that has benefited from solar lighting. Credit: Moving Energy Initiative.

Refugees across Africa are often in national energy plans. The involvement of various players including the private sector working on green and renewable energy could be welcome news to refugees living in big camps such as Kakuma, Kenya. 

Energy poverty is a persistent problem for refugees. Isolated from the national grid and lacking reliable access to renewable power, the search for alternative energy is a struggle refugees are often confronted with. The Moving Energy Initiative (MEI) – a partnership between Energy 4 Impact, Chatham House, Practical Action, the Norwegian Refugee Council and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees – is promoting pioneering approaches that involve private sector players, as well as market-oriented solutions, in order to alleviate this challenge while improving the livelihoods of refugees and host communities.

Kakuma refugee camp in north-western Kenya is home to 185,000 refugees from neighbouring countries and others in the region including South Sudan, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Ethiopia, Uganda and Rwanda. The camp is located in a marginalised region where only 2.7 percent of the population has access to electricity (2015) according to the Kenya Off Grid Solar Access Project. In the camp, many refugees do not have any form of lighting at night. A reliance on firewood for cooking also exposes countless households to health problems. Women and girls in particular face extreme risks when leaving the camp in search of firewood. For schools, healthcare centres, businesses and local facilities, access to inexpensive and sustainable energy sources is also crucial yet it is sorely lacking.

Some of the MEI’s initiatives in Kenya, Burkina Faso and Jordan aim to address these challenges by incorporating the private sector in the implementation of low carbon projects and to help reduce fossil fuel use while establishing local market-based solutions for energy access and creating energy markets and livelihood opportunities.

According to the report, “Prices, Products and Priorities: Meeting Refugees’ Energy Needs in Burkina Faso and Kenya”, thousands of refugee families expressed the desire to pay for better energy supplies that would improve their lives. Researchers from MEI found there is a huge demand in refugee camps around the world for modern renewable electrical supplies and cleaner cooking solutions. Better, and more co-ordinated access to renewable energy could save thousands of refugee families thousands of pounds annually, kick-starting economic activity and transforming camp culture away from one of dependency, the research states.

Some of the major findings of the report include a significant number of refugees who would pay for cleaner and more efficient energy technologies but many lack the financial resources required, and the development of markets for such products lacks financial support. In Kakuma, more than one-third expressed a willingness to pay for high quality renewables – a potential customer base of 5,000 families with a market worth $300,000 per year. In Goudoubo, Burkina Faso two-thirds of residents surveyed expressed a willingness to pay for healthier cooking options – a potential customer base of 2,000 families with a market worth up to $270,000 per year.

A good number of refugees earn a living through various ways including employment as aid workers, engagement in petty trade, cash remittances from relatives and friends abroad as well as engagement in small and medium scale business enterprises (i.e. vendors, motorcycle riders, tailors, etc.). Some of those with higher levels of education work as teachers and as social workers with humanitarian agencies operating in refugee settlements. Their desire would be to use part of their earnings for purchase of the modern, more efficient energy products such as solar lanterns or solar home systems, as they already spend a substantial amount of their income on the carbon-heavy fuel and energy sources such as firewood, charcoal or candles. There is also an innovative Pay-As-You-Go mechanism, which allows them to pay for the solar products over a period of time in manageable installments, say for six or 12 months. Most of these products could be availed by private sector players, seeking to do good for the refugees and the environment by delivering clean energy, while making a return on their investments.

However, refugees are often ignored yet they are important economic actors with the potential to make a significant socio-economic contribution to host communities. Few organisations working in energy access initiatives pay sufficient attention to the energy needs of refugees due to uncertainties around their relocation from the camp. In addition, refugee camps are normally located in places far from major economic areas, making them unattractive to investors. Governments also have not been proactive enough in extending electricity coverage to refugee camps or surrounding areas. For example, although the Kenyan government plans to install a power line in Kakuma to serve locals and camp residents, the process could take a long time. Furthermore, some donor-funded approaches focusing on hand-outs, while delivered with the best of intentions for enhancing the lives of refugees, have proven ineffective and unsustainable and have undermined attempts to introduce viable markets in refugee settings. The MEI attempts to change this by working with markets and reducing dependency on hand-outs.

“We are challenging the hand-out approach by ensuring our low carbon and market development projects have long term sustainability financially and in terms of local ownership,” says Joe Attwood, MEI Programme Manager.

The MEI’s approach also seeks to lessen hostilities between refugees and host communities over competition for scarce fuel and resources. By bringing theory into practice, the MEI has so far commissioned a series of projects to test its model of private sector engagement. For example, a partnership with BBOXX, a private company, has occasioned plans to establish a distribution outlet for the sale of solar home systems (SHS) in and outside Kakuma camp. Additionally, BBOXX and Energy 4 Impact have lined-up consumer awareness activities to educate refugees and host communities on the benefits of solar products. By supporting them to establish enterprises such as solar kiosks or service centres, refugees and host communities will be actively involved in clean energy value chains as distributors of energy products such as SHS, solar lanterns and improved cookstoves.

Other private sector players involved include Crown Agents, which has constructed a solar-powered information and communication technologies (ICT) and learning hub equipped with low-energy consuming computers, internet access, printers, photocopiers and stationery, and where at least half of the hub’s users will be women. Kube Energy is also solarising two healthcare clinics managed by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) at Kakuma camp, which, among other things, will offer psychological support to vulnerable groups such as survivors of gender-based violence. Once complete, the clinics are expected to cut IRC’s diesel fuel consumption and operational costs by 80 percent. These savings, estimated at US $63,000 annually, will be redirected to expanding existing healthcare programmes, including the purchase of x-ray equipment for hospitals and the installation of refrigerators to help keep vaccines cool at the facilities.

“The hub will allow children to learn and develop confidence in ICT skills from an early age. It will also accord refugees and the host population an opportunity to acquire skills in trades such as leather craft, computer repairs, horticulture, weaving, plumbing, carpentry, mechanics and baking,” Sarah Hare, Senior Practice Specialist, Crown Agents.

These pioneering initiatives hope to inspire increased private sector participation in scaling up cost-effective and sustainable energy solutions, while actively involving refugees and local communities in the adoption, distribution and maintenance of renewable energy products.

* Joshua Masinde can be contacted via [email protected]