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“Is that Phil Collins?” I asked as I jumped into a shared Matatu taxi to head out with my research team to Rubondo, part of Nakivale refugee settlement in southwestern Uganda. John, our driver, nodded with a smile.

‘Another day in paradise’ played on a continuous loop throughout our journey. John is a long-time fan. The song is about the hardship of London’s invisible homeless, that stands in stark contrast to the city’s affluence.

It seemed a fitting soundtrack to our nine-month research project on how refugees in East Africa use mobile technology and the internet to rebuild their lives, under difficult circumstances and with little outside support.

Surrounded by rolling hills and termite mounds, Rubondo is a world apart from London. It could be almost anywhere in rural Uganda and many other parts of East Africa; a region that hosts millions of displaced people. These places are home to low-income communities that often live in similar conditions to their refugee neighbours: poor infrastructure, limited access to quality education and few opportunities for fulfilling long-term employment.

From Uber to M-PESA, mobile technology and the internet have a proven history of disrupting traditional business models and delivering innovative solutions in East Africa, often more efficiently and at lower cost.

Such innovations provide business opportunities for local entrepreneurs to break the cycle of dependence on external funding. If innovations in mobile technology can leverage domestic business models in the region, these same solutions can be delivered to both refugees and low-income families across East Africa and beyond.

Our research

Conducted from March to December 2017, our research, took place in Kakuma refugee camp in Northern Kenya and Nakivale in Uganda. Although very different in terms of climate and population densities, we found striking similarities in the needs identified by these two refugee communities and the role mobile tech and the internet can play in meeting them.

These needs are also shared by low-income households across the region.

Refugee students studying online in one of the computer labs at Arrupe Learning Center, Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. Credit: Samuel Hall.

According to our survey of almost 2,000 refugees, access to quality education was one of their most important needs.

While it is clear that better education leads to greater job opportunities, many refugees in East Africa are unable to work outside designated camps. Given such restricted job opportunities, we sought to understand how young people can acquire skills that generate income beyond refugee camps and rural settlements.

What is possible?

Helping young people access an education could be possible by combining disruptive technology, with education on technology-driven skills. A majority of younger refugees, looking to improve their job opportunities through new skills, agreed that education tools could successfully be delivered over a laptop or mobile phone, making them accessible outside traditional classroom settings.

We can help foster a new generation of youth with access to the global information and communication technology (ICT) job market through the development of websites, mobile applications and outsourcing graphic design. Because these services can be delivered online, workers can earn income beyond the confines of their communities.

While only 35 percent of refugees in our study completed secondary education (which is comparable to national averages in Kenya), the idea is not as outlandish as it might first seem. In fact, a quiet revolution in ICT education is already underway in low-income communities in East Africa and showing some remarkable results.

Tunapanda is a social enterprise that teaches young people in Nairobi’s impoverished Kibera slum ICT and business skills that are normally not available through local schools. Over three months, students learn the basics of coding smartphone apps and developing websites. They also learn soft skills such as identifying market opportunities.

Originally from the United States, brothers Mick and Jay Larson co-founded Tunapanda in 2013. Together they have helped over 100 students graduate from their programme. “None of our students own a laptop, some have never used a computer or a smartphone, but they quickly get accustomed to the tech and with support of their fellow students, begin to code” says Mick.

The business model works. Last year Tunapanda almost entirely funded its activities through consultancy work completed by developers who graduated the course and are now on the payroll. Graduates not only consult on projects such as website design, they also help train the next cohort of students in the programme. The company’s clients span East Africa and beyond. Mick and Jay see no reason why Tunapanda’s learning and business model cannot be replicated in refugee communities. They have recently launched another training facility in the remote county of Turkana in Northern Kenya, where Kakuma refugee camp is situated.

Tunapanda is just one of a growing number of social enterprises and grass-roots initiatives that build ICT skills in refugee and low-income communities in this region. Others, such as Nairobi-based Bits Academy, have already begun to scale, with new schools across East and the Horn of Africa. They are proof of the demand for technology-driven learning in communities where skills training is often limited by gender stereotypes; carpentry for the boys, seamstressing for the girls.

One of several streets that make up the trading area of Kakuma Zone 2. Kakuma is home to a relatively young population of refugees. Credit: Samuel Hall

Our research points to the potential for an ICT-driven learning and livelihood revolution in this region. The main impediment is the lack of dependable infrastructure, including access to energy and internet connectivity, which is notoriously poor in rural refugee settlements. Yet by recognising the value of refugee and rural economies, governments can build business cases that incentivise the installation of more mobile network towers and access to dependable energy through off-grid solar operators such as Kenya-based M-Kopa. This could foster the adoption of ICT services within refugee camps, acting as a catalyst for service providers such as Tunapanda to invest in innovations that help refugee and low-income communities.

Returning from Rubondo, with Phil Collins on relentless repeat, the 3G on my smartphone connected again and messages streamed in as my connection to the outside world was restored. A colleague of mine checked his phone but had no luck: “I need to top-up again,” he sighed, joking: “It’s just another day in paradise.”

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