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Big change starts small: Energising futures for refugee communities

By Practical Action On 12.06.2023 EnergyBlog

Big change must start small to work for those who need it. This belief was central to the philosophy of our founder E.F. ‘Fritz’ Schumacher. This philosophy is as relevant now as when Fritz was working. 

This is the fourth in a series of articles written by Practical Action staff from around the world, about our ‘Big change starts small’ ethos. In this post, Denyse Umubyeyi, our Country Director in Rwanda, explores our work with refugee communities in Rwanda. 


We believe no-one should be left behind from the benefits of clean, reliable energy. Only a few years ago, providing electricity for cooking, lighting, heating and powering businesses, to support people living for the long term in refugee settings, was not a priority for humanitarian organisations. Our work is challenging this status quo and improving life for thousands of refugees and the communities surrounding them. 

More than 895,000 people live as refugees in Rwanda and Jordan. Among the many challenges they face each day is a lack of access to safe, affordable energy – and with this, a struggle for warmth, light, cooking, communication, and the tools to earn a living.  

Working with the IKEA Foundation, the UNHCR, the Government and others, Renewable Energy for Refugees (RE4R) set out to rewrite the rule book. The project, which began in 2017 and ended in March 2022, has shown the transformative effect of renewable energy for over 83,000 refugees and their host communities.  

Heating, lighting, cooking, mobile phones, tools, and appliances, enable camp residents to do business, moving from reliance on aid to economic independence. Many people assume refugees want free things, but they don’t – they want jobs and secure futures. Many of them are living for decades in this situation with their lives on hold.  

“There is evolution in our business and we work in a safe place” 
Esther, Gihembe camp 

Esther’s business is thriving now she has electricity to power her sewing machine.

Esther (pictured) is a tailor, but without electricity, she struggled to earn enough money to feed her children and buy their clothes and household necessities. Now she’s joined a cooperative supported by the project. Members can buy electric machines and set up their operations in the camp business centre. Here, Esther can take clients from inside and outside the camp, grow her income and support for her family. 

Learning from communities and sharing our knowledge  

We consulted with refugee communities as partners, co-designers, customers and evaluators throughout the project so we could understand their most pressing needs and their ideas for solutions.  

Streetlights quickly became a priority. People told us outdoor lights would make them feel safer, as well as meaning they could run their businesses after dark. Before streetlights, the camp residents, especially women and girls, said they felt like a dark island in the middle of a well-lit surrounding area. After the streetlights were installed they told us they felt like they were living in a ‘proper’ city.  

“Now we have light and this gives us hope.” Streetlights are key to helping refugees feel safe after dark.

At the end of the project, we brought the problems faced by refugees and their host communities to the attention of decision makers and shared our learning through a series of high-profile presentations.  

Following on from the success of RE4R, we’re starting a new phase of work in Rwanda, while continuing to bring the issue of clean, affordable energy for refugees to the world’s attention. Two new projects are planned. One will take place thanks to funding from the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA). The other project will be funded by the People’s Postcode Lottery and Kilburn and Strode. 


Simple interventions like these can make a huge difference for individuals. When they are replicated and scaled up, so is the impact. This is Practical Action’s ‘Big change starts small’ philosophy in practice. 

This is at the heart of why we’re committed to building the commitment and investment needed to scale up solutions like these. They have the potential to deliver the big change that’s needed to build a sustainable future.