By Innocent Tshilombo
Last month at COP27, in Egypt, I saw first-hand how most refugees, like me, are excluded from climate discussions. If it wasn’t for the fact that I had won the 2022 Ashden Award for Energising Refugee Livelihoods, I too would have been talked about at COP but my voice wouldn’t have been heard.
This is particularly jarring when you consider 70% of the world’s displaced people come from the most climate-vulnerable countries, and COP27 took place against a backdrop of climate-induced extreme flooding in Pakistan and severe drought in East Africa.
Marginalised communities face a daily battle to access clean energy, and the protection and self-reliance it brings. About 80% of people living in refugee camps are thought to have minimal access to clean fuels for cooking and heating and about 90% lack regular access to electricity.
This impacts on our lives and livelihoods and restricts our ability to earn a living to provide for ourselves and our families. Activities including cooking, tailoring, phone-charging, and running small shops can generate a vital income – but these are impossible for most refugees without reliable and affordable energy.
This challenge often affects their host communities whose economies and infrastructure are simply unable to cope with an influx of climate refugees. Countries that account for just 1.3% of global wealth host 40% of all refugees – often in areas with little or no energy access. They desperately need the financial support of Global North countries to be able to help these displaced groups.
Over the next few years, the increase and severity of climate shocks will make this situation much worse. We know that more and more people will be forced to flee their homes due to extreme weather events. Conflicts linked to the scarcity of resources, such as food and water, will cause further destabilisation and effect millions of lives.
In 2009, I was forced to flee conflict in the DRC and ended up in the Kakuma, Kenya, one of the world’s largest refugee camps. I spent the first years recovering and looking, without much success, for something to do with my life. Without access to energy I couldn’t further my education and skill set so I founded Kakuma Ventures to bring solar-powered internet access to fellow residents. It allows entrepreneurs across the Kakuma camp to set up and manage WiFi hotspots in their own neighbourhood so they can earn a living and provide opportunities through internet access.
I have seen up close the difference this can make to a person’s life. Internet access has led to a rapid growth in enterprises throughout the camp – from shops to graphic designers – as well as helping to educate more than 400 students. Kakuma Ventures has given hope to more than 60 young people by providing training in computing and solar engineering skills – and helped them seek out job opportunities.
I know of other refugee innovators like Power Trust Uganda who support solar-powered business hubs in the Kiryandongo refugee camp. These offer everything from hairdressing, phone charging and computer access to milling for agricultural products.
I highlight these innovative examples because emerging solutions in energy access, particularly refugee-led projects, can lay the foundations for a more effective climate and humanitarian response.
Next year at COP28, as a member of the Power Up coalition, a campaign dedicating to widening energy access across Africa, through increased renewable energy sources, I want to see the inclusion of refugees in the design and implementation of climate solutions, at both a global and national level. Their voices must be heard.
This inclusion must inspire action amongst donors and policymakers so they immediately ensure the funds start flowing into frontline solutions. In tandem, national governments need to roll out integrated energy access solutions designed to increase host community and refugee resilience.
I want COP28 to take the necessary steps so that no more climate refugee face an uncertain future without opportunities to fulfil their potential because of our collective inaction. To address the climate impacts we face, fossil fuels must be rapidly phased out and the finance and solutions put in place to adapt to a warming world.
Next year, I want to look around and see a brighter future filled with hope where every refugee can improve their lives, through energy access, in a world where we are doing everything in our power to tackle the climate challenges we all face.
(The author is Ashden award winner and co-founder and MD of Kakuma Ventures).