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.