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As the sun shrinks into a red ball steadily disappearing beyond the horizon, residents of Kakuma refugee camp in Turkana County, north-western Kenya, adjust to their evening routines. Late shoppers rush out to food stores, school children pick up their books and mothers start preparing the last meal of the day.
Darkness quickly envelopes the camp – which is administered by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) – and only a few businesses and homesteads are in the fortunate position of possessing diesel generators or solar and kerosene lanterns to provide lighting.
Like most places in northern Kenya, Kakuma refugee camp – home to some 170,000 refugees from neighbouring South Sudan, Burundi, Somalia and Congo among others – is off grid, meaning that access to electricity for lighting and other uses is limited.
Even for those refugees and displaced people who might have heard talk of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), goal 7 on “access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all” may seem like a faraway dream.
Indeed, living without access to electricity is something that refugees like Diana Byulwesenge from Rwanda have learned to live with since the camp became her home five years ago. She complains that the paraffin she uses for cooking and lighting emits smoke and is not the safest source of energy for her health and that of her children.
She says would welcome access to solar energy but is concerned about the price. “The money I receive from the UNHCR is only sufficient to feed my family. For cooking, I use fire wood and briquettes or charcoal.”
Najma Hassan, another refugee, says she uses a diesel generator to power her home and due to the high fuel cost she only uses it for lighting. She is forced to buy charcoal for her cooking needs.
However, Diana and Najma now seem set to benefit from a project that will ensure greater access to affordable, clean energy for their camp, and this energy will be sufficient for domestic use and the powering of micro-businesses.
The Moving Energy Initiative (MEI) has unveiled projects that will benefit the refugees in Kakuma, including a solar-powered information communication technology (ICT) hub in the camp and health clinics that will serve refugees and the host community with solar power.
MEI is a partnership involving several organisations: Chatham House, Energy 4 Impact, Practical Action, UNHCR and the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC). The programme is funded by the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DfID) and its main partner is UNHCR which is working closely with the Kenyan government.
Under the projects, solar power will be used for delivery of education services and creation of opportunities for local entrepreneurs. These include mobile phone charging businesses and small shops. Refugees and locals will also be trained on the use and maintenance of clean energy technologies.
The consortium already has similar projects under way in Burkina Faso and Jordan aimed at sustainably addressing the energy needs of refugees and displaced persons, and the communities hosting them.
Two firms in Kenya, Kube Energy and Crown Agents, have been selected to implement the Kakuma camp projects, with Kube Energy to instal solar systems at two primary health care clinics operated by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in the camp. Crown Agents will build a solar-powered ICT and learning hub for the displaced community living within the camp and for its host community. The hub will be used for skills training and provision of commercial services for local entrepreneurs.
It is envisaged that the projects will use the learning hub as a location for selling pay-as-you-go (PAYG) solar home systems to local residents. One significant aspect of the one-year project is that reductions in CO2 emissions and access to services and livelihood opportunities will be enhanced.
Joe Attwood, MEI Programme Manager explained that the goal of MEI is to help address challenges that the humanitarian community faces in delivering affordable and safe energy to refugees. “Many attempts have been tried before and many have failed, we are using a new approach that brings the skills and experience of the private sector into providing energy to camp occupants,” he said.
According to Attwood, who did not reveal the cost of the projects, several sustainable energy solutions will be offered, including photovoltaic cells to provide electricity to one of the clinics in Kakuma and also to an education/community hub.
He said that the projects are eventually expected to finance themselves. “Many of the energy projects fail in refugee camps because there is no long-term thinking in order to develop the finance to keep systems running. We want to change that using private sector skills in creating revenue and using it to keep the systems afloat,” he explained.
Attwood also stressed that the initiative will also lessen dependence on firewood for cooking, improving people’s health and curbing deforestation, while is terms of social development, it will help improve livelihoods.
“Our education and community hub will help train refugees and local community members in vocational/jobs skills.” said Atwood, adding that MEI is putting in place interventions to ensure vulnerable populations are not taken advantage of because “the two organisations we are financing recognise the socio-political vulnerabilities of refugees.”
Kate Hargreaves, director of Crown Agents Foundation, said it intends to establish a solar-powered ‘one-stop shop’ in Kakuma for access to the internet, computer equipment, skills training and social events which will be available to refugees and the local community.
She echoed Attwood in noting that care has been taken to ensure that facilities are affordable for both refugees and local community. He adds, “because of the technology we are using we can keep costs low”.
According to Hargreaves, the project will stimulate a reduction in household pollution and lower the carbon footprint at Kakuma.
When informed about the project, Diana and Najma were enthusiastic, with Najma saying that her prayer is that MEI introduces a multi-purpose solar appliance that can be used for the provision of energy for lighting and cooking.