What Energy Deprivation Really Means in Refugee Camps

There are few places in the world where energy poverty is more rife than in refugee camps. About 80% of those who live in camps have absolutely minimal access to energy for cooking and heating, and about 90% have no access to electricity.

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Glada Lahn, Chatham House and Mattia Vianello, Practical Action

Displaced families can use renewable energy to create revenues, and start the journey to reclaim their lives. Women and girls are safer when they have access to a cleaner energy source for lighting and cooking.

Not having access to energy thwarts most chances of building more productive, fruitful lives. How can one pursue an education if studying is limited to daylight hours. Trying to earn a living becomes a major trial for would-be entrepreneurs, such as barbers and seamstresses, who cannot practice their trade without electricity to power their equipment.

This doesn’t even address safety. An estimated 20,000 displaced people die prematurely each year from respiratory illnesses as a result of household air pollution caused by burning wood, charcoal, kerosene and other fuels indoors. Women and girls are acutely affected. Many face physical and sexual violence when they move in poorly lit spaces at night-time or travel outside camp boundaries or collect wood for cooking.

The female face of energy poverty in refugee camps

Single women who are solely responsible for the care of children or elderly parents often suffer most from energy poverty. Malian refugee Mariama Wallet Tajouden has been living in Burkina Faso’s Goudoubou camp with her three children since 2015. She uses coal and gas for cooking but once the fuel ration she receives each month runs out, she has to resort to wood, which she collects from neighbouring areas.

Night-time brings stress too. Without streetlights or reliable energy to power lamps and torches, going out after dark — even to go to the toilet — can be dangerous for women. Mariama relies on her battery allowance to power the small torches that she uses for lighting at night. But her monthly allowance lasts for about a week and a half, leaving her to venture outside in the dark for at least half of the month, often putting herself and her children at risk of accidents, violence and harassment.

Commerce and enterprise: what role?

While there are huge levels of energy deprivation in refugee camps, camps also host large populations in need of a variety of goods and services. This can open up opportunities for business-minded refugees to earn a livelihood and rely less on allowances and rations.

While the lack of access energy can be a major barrier to enterprise in camps, simple renewable technologies can make a major difference. Haidara Hamssetou is a young Malian refugee living in Goudoubo camp. Thanks to a small grant from humanitarian agencies, she purchased a small solar panel that generates enough energy to power a fridge and keep water bags cold.

In a place where 40-degree temperatures are not uncommon, selling cool water is good business. Hers is the only ‘water shop’ in sight at the camp’s market, which is at the heart of this mini-city of over 10,000 inhabitants and almost 3,000 families. Every day, she sells about 300 bags, earning a profit of roughly CFA10,500.

Local communities can also benefit from the potential of camps to be centres of commerce. Michael Emuria is a Kenyan national who set up a business inside Kakuma camp in Kenya in 2014, knowing that a large population would entail a high demand for products.

Michael sells small-scale electrical and solar products — solar panels are his best-selling items. While earning a living, he also plays an important role in making cleaner technologies available to refugees.

Refugees as consumers of renewable energy

Recent research by the Moving Energy Initiative found that a significant number of refugees would pay for cleaner and more efficient energy technologies, such as renewable electrical supplies and cleaner cooking solutions.

The research looked closely at two large refugee camps, Kakuma in Kenya and Goudoubo in Burkina Faso. In both camps, refugees face years of protracted displacement. In Goudoubo, two-thirds of the residents surveyed expressed a willingness to pay for healthier cooking options. In Kakuma, more than one-third of residents said they would pay for high quality renewables.

However much they wish to pay for energy, most refugees lack the financial resources to cover the higher upfront costs of reliable renewable technologies. And even if they find the resources, the local markets for renewables are underdeveloped and lack financial support.

What can we do and where do we start?

The negative impacts of poor access to energy cause greatest harm to the most vulnerable. Evidence from several studies show that modern technologies and the private sector could improve energy access in camps, while reducing costs. But the humanitarian sector is not yet making the most of this opportunity. How can this be turned around?

Shifting the humanitarian status quo on energy

As the number of displaced people in the world increases, and aid budgets come under rising pressure, it’s imperative to identify cost-effective and sustainable solutions. Humanitarian actors have acknowledged the need to move from offering free handouts to engaging with local markets that can provide products and services for post-emergency response. In terms of delivering long term, cost efficient and sustainable energy solutions at scale, private sector expertise will be key. But at present, agencies such as the UN and the NGOs they work with don’t necessarily have the experience and methods established to get the best from relationships with business.

As we saw in the cases above, developing local energy suppliers and markets can offer long-term, cost-effective solutions for refugees. And they can also benefit host communities’ like Michael’s, as camps are usually located in remote, rural areas where existing access to energy tends to be very limited.

Seeing refugees as rational consumers, not passive victims

Understanding and responding to refugees’ needs, preferences and willingness to pay can improve the sustainability and impact of energy interventions. In both of the camps surveyed, projects that involved handing out energy products to refugees ran into problems. Refugees did not learn how to maintain ‘close technologies’ and repairs were not available. Eventually the products broke down, or were sold at the camp market.

These experiences question the wisdom of distributing non-open source products for free. But importantly, they underline the importance of dialogue with refugees to understand their needs and preferences and of promoting a sense of ownership over energy products and facilities.

Ultimately, better and more coordinated access to renewable energy could save thousands of refugee families thousands of dollars every year. These savings could kick-start economic activity and transform camp culture from one of dependency to one of self-reliance and enterprise. It can also bring greater economic independence to women. Haidara’s access to energy for her business has enabled her to open her own savings account in the nearby town of Dori, a major feat for a young, unmarried woman in a refugee camp.


Glada Lahn is a Senior Research Fellow in the Energy, Environment and Resources department at Chatham House. Her specialist areas include access to energy in developing countries, petroleum sector governance and sustainable transitions in oil and gas-exporting economies. Twitter: @Glada_Lahn 

Mattia Vianello is Regional Director for Practical Action in West Africa. His work focuses on promoting energy access by unlocking market systems in development and humanitarian contexts.

Learn more: www.movingenergy.earth

This article was published in The Beam #7 — Subscribe now for more