Refugee-led business provides clean energy to camp residents

Vasco Hamisi is hard at work checking on the solar panels at Okapi Green Energy Limited, in northwestern Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp. The Congolese refugee is the brains behind this outfit, which provides clean energy to 200 businesses inside and outside the camp, as well as many refugee households.

“I decided to go into green energy because when I came here, we were really struggling to get light. If you had a torch you would have to buy new batteries every week,” he says. “When I wake up every day, I feel that I need to make a positive contribution to the community that I’m living in.”

He arrived in Kakuma 12 years ago after fleeing fighting in his hometown in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He initially started a community-based organization to help find solutions to the camp’s energy needs. He later set up Okapi Green Energy as a private company and in 2017 received US$28,000 from several international donors, including Energy for Impact UK and EDP, Portugal, to set up a 20-kilowatt solar mini-grid.

Bitisho Tusambe, a Congolese refugee and mother of three, runs a shop that offers printing and photography services and sells mobile phone accessories. Her customers used to get frustrated when the electricity was continually cut off. She is pleased to now have constant and reliable energy through the Okapi mini-grid, which is located a few metres from her shop.

“I have now bought a refrigerator. I sell cold drinks and water. I also make fresh mango juice to sell. I am grateful to have access to electricity,” she says.

Only 1 per cent of over 200,000 refugees in the camp and the adjacent Kalobeyei settlement have access to electricity through the main power grid. The rest have to rely on expensive, unstable and unreliable alternative sources.

According to a 2019 report by a coalition of smart energy stakeholders dubbed MAKE Change, around 30 informal diesel mini-grid operators serve households and businesses within the camps. The operators sell power for just a few hours a day, charging high tariffs, often with sub-standard wiring. Most households pay a minimum of US$5 to US$30 per month, with no meters to measure consumption accurately.

  • Bitisho Tusambe's printing and photography business is among 200 businesses and households connected to the Okapi solar mini-grid in Kakuma camp.
    Bitisho Tusambe’s printing and photography business is among 200 businesses and households connected to the Okapi solar mini-grid in Kakuma camp.  © UNHCR/Samuel Otieno

Although Okapi’s solar mini-grid  is currently the only clean energy option in Kakuma, in nearby Kalobeyei, 60-kilowatt solar mini-grids, installed by UNHCR partner, German Development Agency (GIZ), provide energy to four schools, two hospitals, a UNHCR field office, a training workshop, and hundreds of small businesses and homes.

Improving access to clean and sustainable energy sources is a key priority for the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, in Kenya and in many other countries hosting refugees in regions where energy is in short supply or comes at a significant cost to the local environment. UNHCR’s Global Strategy for Sustainable Energy focuses on improving refugees’ protection and well-being while reducing the environmental impact of refugee operations through a transition to clean energy solutions.

Steps are already being made in this direction. With donor support, UNHCR and partners have installed 13 new solarized boreholes and fitted two health facilities with solar systems in Kakuma and Kalobeyei.

More support is also needed for refugee-owned businesses like Okapi to supply clean energy to more refugee households.

“Any time of day you need clean energy, you should have it.”

Vasco is glad to be able to contribute towards clean energy solutions in the camp, where most refugee families cannot afford to light their houses at night.

“Solar energy will help refugees save money and use it for other pressing needs,” he says, explaining that instead of paying US$15 for unreliable power, refugees now only pay half that amount for clean energy.

He believes the Okapi project can be replicated in different areas of Kakuma and beyond, and provide much-needed jobs. Currently, the organization employs 10 staff, most of them refugees.

“Any time of day you need energy, you should have it,” he says.

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