SHARM EL-SHEIKH: When Innocent Tshilombo arrived in Kenya’s remote Kakuma refugee camp in 2009 after fleeing conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, he spent the first few years recuperating and searching, without much success, for something to do with his life. .
“Refugees are not allowed to work and take a job. They don’t have freedom of movement to do what they want, where they want,” the 34-year-old said in an interview.
But landing some low-paying logistics jobs with aid groups operating in the arid countryside of northern Kenya gave Tshilombo internet access, a little money and an idea.
With contributions from friends, he raised $70 to buy a solar panel and then got some small seed money grants to install a $400 solar-powered, battery-backed Internet node.
That allowed him, and other refugees, to earn college degrees online, set up energy access and digital businesses, and escape the confines of the dusty camp, at least virtually.
Today, 17 of these nodes, serving some 1,700 people, operate in Kakuma, a decades-old settlement of tents and tin-roofed houses where nearly 200,000 refugees live long-term, most with little prospect of ever returning to their old homes and lives.
“People in the camp, to be independent, need an income stream. It can’t come from physical work, but it can happen in the digital world, where there are fewer restrictions,” said Tshilombo, founder of Kakuma Ventures. In an interview.
Such online work also does not take jobs away from local people, often a sore spot in refugee camps, he said, speaking at the UN COP27 climate talks in Egypt after winning a £25,000 prize ( $30,000) for his work for the sustainable energy charity Ashden. .
‘TRY AND FAILURE’
Setting up the solar and internet business, without much experience beyond what can be gleaned online from how-to videos, was challenging, Tshilombo said.
“It was a trial and error process. We didn’t have a lot of knowledge,” he admitted.
But once things worked out, Tshilombo and others began studying online, from website design to computer science, graphic design and education, and then looked for jobs, first with the United Nations and aid group partners, and then more broadly.
Finding people willing to study was not difficult, he said.
“In the camp there is not much to do. There are no movies. People have enough time to learn great things and do great things if they are given the right platform,” said the young entrepreneur, who in 2018 earned a tuition-free, online business administration degree from Universidad del Pueblo.
For now, the online work available to graduates remains limited, Tshilombo said, and as more young people earn degrees and improve their skills, finding enough work to go around is the new headache for her business.
“People are picking up new skills, but they don’t know what to do next. We have to figure out how to absorb that group of people”, she said, lamenting that “as soon as we fix the problems, more problems arise”.
But for those who can find digital work, or harness access to solar energy to set up other businesses, from hair salons and garment manufacturers to coffee shops and phone charging, the rewards are significant.
Tshilombo has built a sturdy house out of tin sheets for himself, his wife and their three children, and he said many families now earning an income are able to send their children to better schools, pay for better health care and open small businesses.
The new money, hope and basic infrastructure in the camp, especially the infrastructure that connects a remote location with opportunities in the rest of the world, “is bringing a lot of good,” he said.
Those living near Kakuma’s 17 internet nodes can buy unlimited monthly internet access for just under $5 a month, he said, and clean power is also available at a reasonable price.
One of the benefits of going solar, Tshilombo said, is that once the initial installation costs are paid, the power is essentially free, boosting profits for small businesses like his.
“For places without electricity, green power is the way to go,” he said. “It doesn’t cause harm to the environment, it doesn’t require a lot of maintenance, we don’t have to keep buying fuel. It’s sustainable.”
Tshilombo hopes to expand the number of solar and internet nodes in Kakuma to around 100 over time, bringing access to power and online opportunities to a broader swath of camp residents.
The prize he won this month from the London-based charity Ashden will speed up the work, he said.
He also hopes to support policy reform to help refugees find more opportunities, become more resilient in the face of growing climate threats, and harness green energy innovations.
“Refugees can contribute to a community if given the opportunity to do so,” he said. “Otherwise, they will be abandoned forever.”