Portable battery connected to a solar PV and used to recharge mobile phones and power a radio in Goudoubo Refugee camp (Burkina Faso).
Portable battery connected to a solar PV and used to recharge mobile phones and power a radio in Goudoubo Refugee camp (Burkina Faso).

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Executive Summary

In recent years, clean energy access for refugees and internally displaced people has emerged as a potential method of improving humanitarian outcomes and enabling self-reliance. While recent research emphasizes the need for more quantitative data to inform energy access interventions, better qualitative understanding would also improve innovation in this area.

This ethnographic study is the first of its kind to analyse energy access and resilience strategies deployed in two refugee camps, Kakuma in Kenya1 and Goudoubo in Burkina Faso. The stories of residents in these camps demonstrate the importance of considering everyday experiences of displaced people in developing sustainable humanitarian energy interventions.

This paper highlights the need for new methodological approaches to expand the evidence base for humanitarian energy interventions and policies. Future research could usefully inform humanitarian energy projects by examining the technical knowledge and existing practices of refugees in the design of energy technologies, systems and business models. Uptake and sustained use of new systems may be more likely where interventions build on or work in harmony with these factors.

Key observations from Goudoubo and Kakuma

  • There is a clear demand for improved energy technologies and services. The lengths to which people in both camps go to procure new technologies and to improve upon available technologies show this.
  • Patterns of energy demand are deeply connected to the cultural values that refugee communities attach to specific objects. Some objects (like water-storage vessels and cooking pots) are deemed essential to people’s wellbeing and identity. People’s preferences for technologies related to cooking and refrigeration are strongly linked to their feelings about taste. Other objects (like batteries and generators) have become important symbols of social and economic status. People’s preferences for technologies related to charging batteries are strongly linked to their capacity to deploy these within wider social networks.
  • Access to energy involves cash and non-cash exchanges. In both camps, informal markets for the distribution, repair and charging of energy technologies, devices and systems are a vital part of everyday life, bringing together buyers and sellers from refugee and host communities. But in both camps non-market exchanges (bartering or gifting) of fuels, batteries, solar panels and energy-related materials or components were an equally important part of transactions between refugees and host communities, fostering livelihoods, relationships and social cohesion.
  • Preferences for energy technologies are strongly linked to the reparability of devices, as well as their affordability and availability. The re-use and repurposing of energy equipment is an important source of personal satisfaction, pride and competence.
  • Camp residents are continually reminded of their exclusion from modern energy services by the proximity of high-voltage transmission lines for regional electricity grids. In both camps, the relative experience of energy poverty is exacerbated by the visible presence of electricity in nearby towns.
  • In both camps, energy-related tasks, tools and technologies are gendered. Women drive the food–fuel exchange networks and host community meetings to buy, sell or trade food rations for firewood and charcoal. Meanwhile, men are most closely involved in electrical work, from wiring and battery charging to repair.

Key points of interest for future humanitarian energy interventions

  • Taking people’s existing knowledge and energy practices into account would, one might expect, already be central to the design of humanitarian interventions. Yet dominant approaches to energy access continue to marginalize questions about what people actually use energy for in daily life. A failure to design projects and technologies for this context may lead to unintended consequences and longer-term challenges. Closer attention to people’s existing energy practices and technical knowledge provides opportunities to do better in the design of technologies, systems and business models.
  • People’s resourcefulness in providing for their energy needs in both camps demonstrates the opposite of a culture of dependency. The repurposing of materials and technologies challenges perceptions that people in contexts of forced displacement are only reliant on forms of ‘inbound innovation’, via the provision of services and technologies from external and humanitarian agencies. Instead, there is a need to be attentive to the forms of ‘circular innovation’ – repurposing, adaptation, reconfiguration and customization – that people deploy as they seek to meet their needs.
  • Humanitarian energy interventions need to address ‘end of life’ issues for technology, equipment and materials. The life of equipment under harsh climatic conditions and the possibilities for repurposing should be considered at the outset, as part of design and procurement decisions. The component parts of energy equipment that cannot be re-used and recycled, or that may cause harm to people and the environment, should be a key concern in rethinking energy provision. The dangers of children playing with batteries, of lead and other chemical leakage during attempts to extend battery life, and of disposal are problems that new interventions need to address.
  • Labelling conventional fuels and energy practices as ‘dirty’ or, worse, ‘primitive’ clouds the understanding of the social and cultural significance that underpin them. Using these labels can widen the gulf between external agencies and displaced people, and it can risk exacerbating inequalities in wealth and gender among refugees.
1 Kakuma refugee camp consists of four sub-camps or zones (Kakuma I–IV). In the context of this paper, the term ‘Kakuma’ also includes the nearby Kalobeyei integrated settlement.