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Refugee-run business provides clean energy to camp residents – Kenya

A Congolese refugee is providing a lifeline to thousands of refugees and their hosts in Kenya’s Kakuma camp with sustainable, reliable and affordable energy.

By Samuel Otieno and Charity Nzomo in Kenya | June 05, 2022

Vasco Hamisi works hard to check the solar panels of Okapi Green Energy Limited, in Kakuma refugee camp in northwestern Kenya. The Congolese refugee is the mastermind behind this company, which provides clean energy to 200 businesses inside and outside the camp, as well as many refugee households. “I decided to get 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 like I have to make a positive contribution to the community in which I live.”

He arrived in Kakuma 12 years ago after fleeing fighting in his hometown in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He first started a community organization to help find solutions to the energy needs of the camp. He then 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 solar mini-grid of 20 kilowatts.

Bitisho Tusambe, a Congolese refugee and mother of three, runs a shop that offers printing and photography services and sells cellphone accessories. His customers used to be frustrated when the electricity was continually cut off. She is delighted to now have constant and reliable energy thanks to the Okapi mini-grid, located a few meters from her store.

“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% of the more than 200,000 refugees in the camp and adjacent settlement of Kalobeyei have access to electricity through the main power grid. Others have to rely on expensive, unstable, and unreliable alternative sources.

According to a 2019 report by a coalition of smart energy players called MAKE Change, around 30 informal diesel mini-grid operators serve households and businesses in the camps. Operators only sell electricity for a few hours a day, charging high tariffs, often with substandard cabling. Most households pay a minimum of US$5 to US$30 per month, without a meter to accurately measure consumption.

Although the Okapi solar mini-grid is currently the only clean energy option in Kakuma, in the neighboring town of Kalobeyei, 60-kilowatt solar mini-grids, installed by UNHCR’s partner, the German Development (GIZ), provide power 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 many other countries hosting refugees in areas where the energy is scarce or has a significant cost to the local environment. UNHCR Global Sustainable Energy Strategy focuses on improving the protection and well-being of refugees while reducing the environmental impact of refugee operations through a transition to clean energy solutions.

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

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

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

“Solar power will help refugees save money and use it for other urgent needs,” he says, explaining that instead of paying $15 for unreliable power, refugees don’t pay now only 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 people, mostly refugees.

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