Africa’s mobile giants are teaming up with the United Nations to loop in refugees back into the system.

Twenty-nine years – That’s how long our fellow African brothers and sisters from about 19 nationalities have endured the furnace of hopelessness and sheer desperation at makeshift human settlements in Northern Kenya, that harbors the Kakuma and Daadab refugee camps.

Figures from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) estimate that Kenya currently hosts close to 400,000 refugees mostly from neighboring South Sudan and Somalia.

But how has it come to this?

In the 1990s a bloody civil war, accompanied by customary savagery and disregard for human life by militant groups wrenched Somalia apart. Its government, left without control of the capital city rendered the country a failed state.

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In South Sudan (mostly made up of black Africans), the people were fighting against the North (mostly made up of Arab Muslims) who used to enslave them. The South Sudanese fought for half a country to prevail against the North. It is estimated that about two million people died during this war.

But even after gaining independence from the North, South Sudan was still deeply divided. Those now in charge were former guerillas from SPLA (Sudan People’s Liberation Army) – a group united only by hatred of the North, resulting in another episode of internal atrocities by those who felt left out of the national cake.

Since 1990, the wars in Somali and South Sudan have led to an influx of refugees (mostly women and children) onto the Kenyan side.

Human suffering has its many forms, but few are as grisly as the trials and tribulations that come with being a refugee in a foreign country.

First, basic survival needs such as food, shelter and clothing, become luxuries. Secondly, tensions with local communities who stick to their traditions and refuse to co-operate with refugees become a recipe for violence and brutality.

Refugees cling to life through hope and the promise of a better tomorrow in addition to donor support offered by concerned aid agencies and organizations. 

In the schools within the camps, a critical deficit of up-to-date learning materials has resulted in an average of seven refugee students sharing one schoolbook, this is according to the UHRC.

Moreover, host countries are usually hardly prepared for the burden, given that they are already struggling to meet the needs of their own citizens. In 2016 for instance, the Kenyan government disbanded the department of refugee affairs and threatened to shut down Daadab and Kakuma camps terming them as breeding grounds for terrorists and a threat to national security.

The decision was later squashed thanks to international pressure and instead, a voluntary repatriation program was put in place. As of 2019, about 60,000 refugees have returned home.

Donald Trump’s travel bans have not been of any help either. The US president, who campaigned on the promise of locking out refugees, made good his threat by imposing a travel ban on specific countries and refugees. His policies, purely meant to “Keep America Safe from Terrorism” have seen refugees vigorously vetted.

These problems combined now represent a barrier that has seen refugees left out and unable to integrate into the global economy.

Seeing this, in 2016, the United Nations through UNHCR launched a program dubbed Tent. It sought to bring together the private sector, including organizations and individuals that are uniquely positioned to alleviate the refugee crisis by mobilizing their networks, resources, and innovation to ensure that refugees aren’t left out of the global prosperity train. So far, Tent has mobilized up to 130 companies.

Mobile operator Safaricom, which recently joined Tent, is now developing a suite of products and services to support refugees in Kenya. One of them is an e-voucher product that allows refugees to purchase food and other key items, while also helping to grow the local economy. Safaricom is also considering the use of direct cash transfers to assist refugees.

The Nairobi Securities Exchange (NSE) listed telco giant is also working with Huawei and Vodafone to bring technology to classrooms in refugee camps through the Instant Network School program (INS). The World Bank estimates that the average stay of a refugee in a camp is 17 years – which means that a child can be born, raised and go through their entire schooling in a camp.

INS will now seek to deliver technologically enhanced education and revision materials that will now offer refugee students a stage for a change, and an equal chance to grab global opportunities that come with quality education.

Kenya Refugees

A 2017 MasterCard – Western Union Refugee Settlement Research recommends that digital technology is among the most sustainable way to grow refugee camp economic systems. Furthermore, the Kakuma refugee camp alone has about 500 mobile money merchants.

Kakuma refugee camp
Vodafone CEO, Nick Read and Safaricom Foundation Chairman Joe Ogutu interact with refugee students during Nick Read’s recent visit to Kakuma refugee Camp.

But Safaricom’s effort to empower refugees and ensure they are self-sustaining has only just begun. CEO Michael Joseph says that the telco believes that no matter the circumstances, no one should be left behind.

“We are pleased to join this partnership, which seeks to restore the dignity of forcibly displaced people – who are among the most vulnerable populations in the world,” he said.   

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