Solar Powered Internet Downloads Opportunities for African Refugees

Solar Powered Internet Downloads Opportunities for African Refugees

  • Solar panels and internet installed in a refugee camp in Kenya
  • Refugee-run company opens door to online education and jobs
  • Finding enough work for new graduates remains a challenge

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

“Refugees are not allowed to work and take jobs. 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 a poorly paid logistics job with aid groups operating in Kenya’s arid northern camp gave Tshilombo access to the internet, a bit of cash – and an idea.

With contributions from friends, he raised $70 to buy a solar panel, then landed small seed grants to set up a $400 solar-powered Internet node, complete with battery backup.

It has allowed him – and other refugees – to earn college degrees online, build digital and energy access businesses, and escape dusty camp borders, at least virtually.

Today, 17 such nodes, serving around 1,700 people, operate in Kakuma, a decades-old colony of tents and tin-roofed houses where nearly 200,000 refugees live long-term, most with little chances of one day returning to their old homes and lives.

“People in the camp, to be independent, 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 said Tshilombo, the founder of Kakuma Ventures. in an interview.

Nor does such online work take away jobs from local people – often a sore spot around 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 sustainable energy charity Ashden. .


Setting up the solar and internet business, without much experience beyond what could be gleaned online from instructional videos, was a challenge, 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 started studying online – from web design to IT, graphic design and education – and then looking for work, first with 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. form,” said the young entrepreneur, who in 2018 graduated. University of the People degree in business administration online without tuition fees.

For now, online work available to graduates is still limited, Tshilombo said, and as more young people earn degrees and improve their skills, finding enough work for everyone is the new headache. head of his business.

“People are learning new skills but they don’t know what to do next. We have to figure out how to absorb this group of people,” he said, lamenting that “as soon as we solve problems, other problems arise” .

But for those who are able to find digital work – or take advantage of access to solar power to start other businesses, from hair salons and tailoring to cafes and phone charging – the gains are significant.

Tshilombo has built a sturdy tin house for himself, his wife and three children, and he said many families now earning an income can send their children to better schools, afford better medical care and open small businesses.

New funds, hope and basic infrastructure in the camp – especially infrastructure that connects a remote location to opportunities in the rest of the world – “does a lot of good,” he said.


Those living near Kakuma’s 17 internet nodes can purchase unlimited monthly internet access for just under $5 a month, he said, and clean energy is also available at a reasonable price.

One of the benefits of solar power, Tshilombo said, is that once the initial costs of installing it are paid, the power is virtually free, increasing 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 need to keep buying fuel. It’s sustainable.”

Tshilombo hopes over time to increase the number of internet and solar nodes in Kakuma to around 100, bringing access to electricity and online opportunities to a wider range of camp residents.

The prize he won this month from 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 to growing climate threats, and take advantage of green energy innovations.

“Refugees can contribute to a community if given the opportunity,” he said. “Otherwise, they are abandoned forever.”

Originally posted at:

Reporting by Laurie Goering @lauriegoering; Editing by Kieran Guilbert. The Thomson Reuters Foundation is the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters. Visit

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