Energy Access and the Changing Nature of Refugee Work During COVID-19

In Rwanda the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly affected the ability of refugees to pay for energy services, to fix problems, and to access new products. But those with access to energy have also felt safer, more productive, and more connected to their families and to the outside world.

Mustafa is an energetic 17 year old refugee with big dreams and ambitions. He lives in Nyabiheke refugee camp with his mother and 7 brothers and sisters in an unlit home with no electricity.

“I am someone new. I have a vision and see everything is possible. From my business under this street light, I plan to buy a solar home system for my family … My young peers should not despair. Think big and hope for a better future. It's all in the head. Let people work hard and create opportunities”

His family got by on a limited budget when his mum was able to travel for work but since the COVID-19 stay-at-home-order refugees are unable to leave their camps and she cannot find work. Instead the family rely on food assistance from the World Food Programme and there were times when Mustafa considered begging.

Gihembe refugee camp lights up at night allowing vendors to continue their sales after sunset.  Credit: Yves Sangwa/Practical Action

The COVID-19 restrictions have been incredibly challenging for the family in other ways as well; schools are closed so Mustafa’s siblings spend more time at home which increases the household’s consumption of food and other basic amenities, and they struggle to find space in their small house. There is little money available for anything beyond the basic essentials and without electricity studying at night is impossible. The whole family worry about their safety when leaving their home after dark.

However, Mustafa is inquisitive, determined and a fast learner. Inspired by entrepreneurs who recently set up businesses in the camp, he found a solution: “One night, I approached my mother and tried to think how to work hard to overcome our problem: poverty. I saw the solution under the solar powered street lights near the road”. His mother encouraged him and found some small savings to buy a trading stand for him to sell biscuits and coconuts in the day and maize in the evening. They set up a small shop under lamp 28 which is in a visible location where friends and neighbours would not miss them.

Within 3 months, Mustafa had made 90,000RWF($90). He bought a mattress for his siblings, and bought them new clothes. He plans to save enough to buy a solar home system so his family can benefit from light and power in their home. After lockdown, he plans to return to school and hand his business over to his older sister so that the family can continue to benefit.

The need for a focus on business and employment

Mustafa’s case highlights the need for a shift which is happening at the global level to support the economic inclusion of refugees. Access to decent work for refugees is a top priority for many humanitarian agencies and hosting governments. The Global Compact on Refugees -affirmed by the UN General Assembly at the end of 2018 - provides a global call for economic inclusion to ensure “access to labour markets, finance, entrepreneurship and economic opportunities for all, including non-citizens in addition to vulnerable and underserved groups” (UNHCR Refugee Livelihoods and Economic Inclusion- 2019-2023 Global Strategy Concept Note). Rwanda is one of the most progressive supporters of this strategy and in 2016 the Ministry of Disaster Management and Refugee Affairs (MINEMA) and UNHCR set an ambition to ensure that “by 2020 all refugees and neighbouring communities are able to fulfil their productive potential as self-reliant members of Rwandan society who contribute to economic development of their host districts”. The joint strategy for economic inclusion promotes refugee self-employment and called for the private sector, social enterprises and NGOs to enhance refugee employment and business opportunities.

Having access to energy is a central part of creating this enabling environment for business. A significant body of evidence is emerging highlighting the market potential of refugee communities – in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya for example – there are 2,000 businesses across various markets within the camp and in its peripheral host community, where people spend some $56 million a year. But the Rwandan refugee camps we are working in are still some way away from this and a raft of measures have been necessary in order to incubate and encourage new livelihoods and businesses.

When we started working in Nyabiheke refugee camp – for example – the main street had a range of small businesses and vendors, but almost none of these had access to electricity. Now new businesses like Mustafa’s are taking advantage of communal facilities to expand opening hours. Others are using power in order to create new business (for example for cafes to keep milk and cold drinks cool; for the barber to power an electric razor; for the tailor or seamstress to power a sewing machine (or work by light in the evening). Energy champions who have experienced the benefits of access to energy share their experiences and inspire future uptake of similar products and opportunities to become connected to a source of energy.

By March 2020 when the full extent of the pandemic was becoming evident, Practical Action’s Renewable Energy for Refugees (RE4R) project had established 346 jobs for refugees living in Nyabiheke, Kigeme and Gihembe refugee camps in Rwanda. The jobs were facilitated by Practical Action’s private sector partners working on RE4R (BELECOM, BBOXX and Solektra) who employed refugees as sales agents, solar home system technicians and security guards, but also through interventions – run by our project partner Energy 4 Impact – which deliberately targeted the creation of new businesses which could thrive with this new access to power.

Supporting business through COVID-19

On a global level, a survey conducted by Global Distributors Collective between March-April 2020 highlighted that 69% of last mile distributor members experienced reduced sales due to customer income and/or reduced access to communities, 10% reported experiencing supply chain disruptions and 17% said they had ceased operations completely. In Rwandan refugee camps, businesses are experiencing similar problems to the last mile distributors. BELECOM and BBOXX, the two solar home system suppliers working with RE4R, have experienced a plateau in sales since lockdown restrictions were put in place, as shown below in Figure 1:

Figure 1: Number of SHS systems sold

Reasons for this downwards trend can be associated with:

Access to camp - private sector suppliers were not authorised to access refugee camps and as such prevented the movement of personnel for technical and maintenance support.

Supply chain restrictions (internationally, nationally and district-wide) - Restricted travel has halted international imports, transfer of goods and supplies across the country thereby limiting the access to spare parts and supplies.

Market uptake - many households who are interested in owning a SHS have already been reached by RE4R, therefore reaching those who want a SHS but need further targeted awareness and affordability strategies becomes the priority.

Focus on repayment - a decision was made between the NGO and private sector supplier to focus on refugee repayment rather than more sales. It was seen to be more sustainable to support on-going payment and introduce financial support mechanisms rather than focus on achieving sales targets.

COVID-19 challenged business-as-normal but this has not stopped RE4R’s suppliers from adapting in order to continue to meet the needs of their customers. BBOXX permitted refugee customers to pay in weekly or bi-weekly installations rather than just on a monthly basis. This degree of flexibility was welcomed at a time when household finances were stretched.

While BELECOM were unable to enter the camp they took the opportunity to think differently about their service delivery model. To overcome the lack of in-person presence in the refugee camps BELECOM introduced an online ‘training of the trainer’ programme for 10 refugee candidates (4 women and 6 men) to learn about their operations for both the delivery of solar home systems and the revolving fund (micro-finance support initiative for vulnerable households). Participants were able to join the training using different devices so as to comply with government COVID-19 regulations. The training was endorsed by camp managers as an opportunity for refugees to gain skills to drive energy access in camps within their daily lives and further afield. The training was well received and offers an inclusive way to support the recovery of sales:

“I got advanced knowledge in terms of understanding the frequent technical issues of solar home systems and how to attend some minor issues. Also, I understood the revolving fund model, and how it works following that it has not yet started in Kigeme camp”

Image Gallery

A woman making and selling mandazi (deep fried pouch like bread) in the camp.   Credit: Edoardo Santangelo/Practical Action
Jimmy Bahati is a barber who lives with his young 4 siblings who lost their parents, his business helped him after they were removed from the cash assistance in Marc  Credit: Berthille Kampire/Practical Action
Diane Feza’s husband works at a laptop to support her money transaction business. She received training and mentorship from E4I and a laptop to use in her business.  Credit: Edoardo Santangelo/Practical Action
Sekayange Bujyecyera, is the president of Tuberwe, a tailoring cooperative of 14 females and 4 males. RE4R helped him find a room in the business centre which has electricity to power their machines.   Credit: Berthille Kampire/Practical Action

Despite the pandemic, new roles and employment opportunities have continued to be created across the refugee community, and as Figure 2 shows below, the total number of those employed across the project has now reached it’s highest number – 413, with a majority of these being women:

Figure 2: Total number of employed people since the pandemic began

However, fluctuations in the availability of long-term stable jobs has been observed. As figure 2 illustrates, the pandemic initially severely impacted employment opportunities for refugees employed through business established by E4I’s business mentorship programme. Originally, only “essential” businesses were allowed to stay open when the first lockdown measures were introduced. Only those selling food and basic needs items (oil and fuel etc) were permitted to open but were subjected to reduced working hours. Small-scale trading of food stuffs continued, including informal stalls set up under the solar street lights. Commonly, “essential” businesses were owned by women.

The closure of non-essential businesses and the restrictions on movement for refugee’s and Rwandans had an immediate effect on business earnings, incomes and work opportunities. As the months went on, other services, such as hair-dressing, were deemed essential and could open if they adhered to strict covid-19 prevention measures (mask wearing, social distancing, and strict hand washing).

The introduction of RE4R’s revolving fund, a micro-finance initiative providing a group loan and savings scheme to support vulnerable households to purchase a solar home systems, has been an economic boost, providing much needed access to finance for many families in both Nyabiheke and Gihembe refugee camp. Due to covid-19 restrictions, the activity was not permitted in Kigeme as group gathering were banned. As part of the revolving fund, participants must establish a small business or income generating activity to make fund repayments. As at May 2021, 420 people have registered and are benefiting from the revolving fund. 68% of participants are women. As at May 2021, 255 food traders, 64 small enterprises (tailoring, mobile money and micro-restaurants) and 101 commodities traders have been set up. At the time of writing, 84% of participants could successfully make their monthly their solar home system payments. This initiative demonstrates the demand for financial support and ability to establish small scale economic opportunities despite the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

What can we learn?

The experiences shared in this blog illustrate the changing and unstable nature of work for refugees but also their resilience. Major lessons can be learnt from these experiences:

· Energy access and income generation support each other, and consequently lead to more sustainable outcomes for individuals, household and communities.

· Champions are an excellent way to inspire wider change across communities. These change makers are a good way to promote positive behaviour change and inspire future uptake of renewable energy services and products

· There is a demand for financial-support mechanisms to include inclusive programming and services. Future programmes and services should ensure financial inclusion and support measures, such as flexible payments, micro-financing, employment opportunity.

· Private sector actors operating in displaced settings should remain flexible and adapt payment mechanisms to ensure customers can continue to benefit from energy access products and services during external shocks

· Local refugee employment is essential for business operations when camp access or travel is restricted. Private sector suppliers should facilitate in-camp, refugee-led operations.

It seems unthinkable that when we began this work, COVID-19 was not a factor in how we lived our lives. As refugees, governments and businesses bounce from restrictions to relaxation to restrictions again, it is crucial to consider how access to energy is both an enabler and a buffer for refugees to manage shocks. Energy access - and access to business opportunities - are essential and will support long term recovery from COVID19.

But these market opportunities do not emerge in a vacuum and a long-term focus on productive use and business support is crucial if we are to ensure that benefits delivered through this project are sustainable and truly embedded within the communities in which we work. This is perhaps even more true in humanitarian settings than it is in the classic development arena since the vulnerabilities are greater – and the barriers for private enterprise are taller. Although it is too early to know if the innovations that we have embedded in Rwanda refugee camps will truly transform these settings, we hope that we have set up processes and platforms that give people like Mustafa the greatest chance of succeeding in the long-term.

This blog is the second in a series of three which will examine the impact of COVID-19 on how refugees in Rwandan camps are using energy.

For more information about the RE4R project, please visit https://practicalaction.org/our-work/projects/energy-for-refugees/