Solution: How Data Helps Bringing Clean Energy to Refugee Camps

Today, gathering data on energy in refugee camps is quite a tough job…

Most of the statistical data on energy in refugee camps that is available today has been collected in recent years. To do so, a handful of dedicated staff of the large humanitarian or development aid agencies, governments, or researchers working for international academic institutions went to selected refugee camps, usually taking stock of the existing electricity infrastructure, measuring devices to gather data over time and using surveys to capture the situation of camp residents and staff. Due to this ad hoc and fragmented approach, despite the considerable effort it is not ensured that data is being collected in a consistent way, neither for the same institution (e.g. UNHCR camp database and borehole database use different country and camp IDs), let alone across agencies. However, consistency is required to compare measurements from different camps, and decide whether insights can be transferred between them. In addition, only a small portion of the data collected so far is publicly available, and virtually none of it has been communicated beyond a small community of dedicated experts on this topic. This is especially irritating given that top-notch inter-agency information sharing portals (e.g. for the Syria crisis) are in place for many camps and regions, and succeed in keeping a diverse range of players in domains from food security to education up to date.

…however, good ideas are being implemented!

Recent discussions have shown that the development and implementation of a standardized energy accounting for all refugee camps managed by UNHCR appears to be several years down the line. However, there are several solutions provided by private sector entities that are readily available and hold the potential to be applied in the refugee context.

For instance, the Berlin based company SolarKiosk has developed and implemented a network of small-scale retail stores, so called “E-HUBBs” that supply remote communities in the developing world. The firm concentrates on serving the 1.5 billion Bottom-of-the-Pyramid (BoP) customers, many of whom live on less than 1$ per day and in regions that are not connected to the electric grid. The basic E-HUBB module is about the size of a small container (3m x 3m), but it comes in decomposed, pre-fabricated parts to allow for easier transportation. Based on this standardized building block, which can be locally manufactured, the E-HUBB is highly modular and can easily be expanded if demand of the local community grows. The energy needs of the E-HUBB, usually a pay desk, lighting, a copy station, a computer, radio/TV, cooling, and metering are covered by a rooftop PV system that is attached to a battery pack stored underground. This configuration allows the E-HUBB to be energy independent and even export excess electricity either to customer loads, e.g. to charge mobile phones, or to neighboring facilities, e.g. as part of the local market. Local entrepreneurs and their respective staff (usually four people) act as SolarKiosk franchisees and run the E-HUBB, which is regularly resupplied through SolarKiosk’s own supply chain. To optimize logistics for their retail network, every E-HUBB is equipped with measuring devices on the commercial side, e.g. tracking stocks to order re-supplies in time, and on the technical side, e.g. measuring energy supply and demand to detect inefficiencies or failures. These data streams are aggregated via remote communication and feed into a centralized data platform that is used to optimize daily operations, and to conduct market research. With currently 230 E-HUBBs in 12 countries, and about 12 million customers served per year, SolarKiosk has shown that it is capable of collecting, processing, and using a substantial amount of data to meet its purpose of providing a gateway to communication, energy and development for BoP customers, while creating a profitable business.

How can we bring all these ideas to refugee camps?

In light of the fact that refugee camps in the developing world are often located in rural areas, they face the same challenges as their surrounding communities. Due to this resemblance, it seems reasonable to assume that the SolarKiosk model could be adopted by the humanitarian sector. Thereby, UNHCR could outsource some data collection and sharing to the private sector, contracting players like SolarKiosk under an “energy accounting as a service” model to conduct regular surveys among camp inhabitants to gain feedback on living conditions and needs assessment, or to share weather and electricity generation data with the camp administrators. Alternatively, UNHCR could make sharing of non-sensitive data a prerequisite of providing a “license to operate” in the camp. These “data sharing agreements” could be expanded to other private sector players such as Mobisol, a firm that offers small-scale “pay-as-you-go” solar PV systems to individual households or small businesses. Since these systems, which among others are distributed via SolarKiosk’s E-HUBBs e.g. in Rwanda, are remote controlled and can be switched off when rent payments are delayed, Mobisol has very accurate financial data on their customers in terms of their willingness to pay, preferred payment cycles, and default rates, information that could be invaluable to spur entrepreneurship and economic development in refugee camps.

As indicated in in the graphic, the business idea of providing “energy accounting as service” outlined above creates a win-win solution for a wide range of different stakeholders. The game changing aspect is the fact that data collection occurs “on the side” of commercial and entrepreneurial activity, and is thereby not a primary goal in itself but the key means to the end of creating a profitable business. Among others, the global retail industry is particularly well positioned to become data service providers, since digital processes have become part of their DNA in recent years. In fact, data collection, processing, and sharing are pivotal to running lean supply chains and maintaining customer relationships.

By outsourcing some data collection and sharing to the private sector, humanitarian agencies could save the time and resources to build up similar capabilities internally, and focus on leveraging the data for making informed decisions about how to make the energy infrastructure in refugee camps more sustainable. For example, information on energy needs and disposable income on the customer level would allow UNHCR and other players to target their humanitarian interventions, e.g. in terms of education and vocational training on clean energy technologies, much more precisely, further increasing the impact of existing programs. In addition, if included in the “data service” contract, impact assessments – through which non-profit organizations report to their donors – could be conducted on an ongoing basis, e.g. being seamlessly integrated into the regular purchasing activities of households. When shared, the energy accounting data could spur competition between existing and alternative energy technologies, potentially attracting other private players to enter the emerging markets in refugee camps. Refugees would then see the difference and be able to choose between alternative energy technologies. Governments would benefit from increased market activity that spurs jobs and creates tax income, potentially turning some of the black market activities prevalent in most camps into regular markets. Host communities would see know-how and technology transfer into their region, which in turn, could increase their acceptance of refugees as their new neighbors and business partners.

Open questions

Even though the chain of events outlined above is stylized in many ways and the sketched approach should not be mistaken for a silver bullet solution, it could provide the basis for a number of promising, and much needed changes to current energy supply and demand practices in refugee camps. Some of the items that need to be addressed are:

– Which energy service demands (1. critical infrastructure, 2. shared facilities, 3. shelters) should the private sector be allowed to provide?

– How to reduce market entry barriers for private players seeking to enter the humanitarian space?

– How to enforce private sector players to share their data? Via carrots (e.g. a monthly compensation) or sticks (e.g. a license to operate, or explicit conditions in the Terms of Reference)? In case of the former: who pays for it?

– Which platform should private actors feed their data into? An existing one (e.g. Energypedia, UNHCR or ENERGYCoP) or a new one? Which interfaces are necessary? Should all the be openly accessible?

– Which interfaces and toolkits, i.e. devices and apps, are needed to collect “customer surveys”? Who develops, adapts, and develops the tools further? (e.g. UNHCR could organize a dedicated hackathon event to have highly skilled, intrinsically motivated labor develop a low-cost but robust pilot solution that can be tested and further developed in the field)


The author would like to thank the organizers and participants of the Energy for Displaced People conference for inspiring the author to re-frame his original article on PV in refugee camps. The views expressed are his own.

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