Clean Power and Job Creation: Improving the Lives of Somali Refugees in the Vast Ethiopian Desert

As part of our ongoing relationship with United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the IKEA Foundation, EWB-USA’s Engineering Service Corps volunteers and staff have been working to bring clean electricity to the Dollo Ado camps since September 2017. To date, we’ve installed approximately one-third of 52 planned solar micro-grids. These small 3kW solar-battery power systems are transforming life in the camps.  

In the Dollo Ado desert region of Ethiopia, less than 30 miles from the border with Somalia, UNHCR operates five refugee camps. Collectively, these camps are home to approximately 220,000 Somali refugees who fled Somalia in recent years to escape famine, drought, civil war and violence.

The camps are difficult environments to live and work in by any measure. In the desert, temperatures soar up to 120F during the day. Rain falls only a few days per year, making getting water both a priority and challenge. Blowing dust gets into everything, damaging equipment and contaminating water and food. And as the sun goes down another obstacle emerges: the absence of reliable energy sources.

The Ethiopian electrical grid stops hundreds of miles away from these camps, meaning that any electricity here must be generated locally. At night, only wood fires and the occasional battery-powered flashlight light the camps. It’s the kind of pitch-black that we in the West only experience when traveling to rural areas or national parks.

Lack of electricity may not sound like a big deal when compared to other threats facing refugees. But, without reliable power, even the smallest activities become challenging. Simple tasks like doing homework, storing food safely, communicating with loved ones or neighbors, getting news from the outside world, or even visiting a latrine can be both difficult and dangerous.

Shop owners only run their refrigerators a few hours a day, relying on the embedded energy to “carry over.” Cell phones are charged during the day at local kiosks, but if your phone battery dies at night or you don’t have the money to pay to charge, your means of communication is cut off. Seeking medical services or giving birth at night are filled with risk. If the medical clinic runs out of fuel for its generator, there is no alternative but to wait until the morning.

All of this is starting to change.

Installing Solar Micro-Grids

This spring marked the installation of approximately one-third of 52 planned solar micro-grids. These small 3kW solar-battery power systems are transforming life in the camps.  

The micro-grids are powering medical clinics, supporting businesses and shops, and providing energy for other essential community needs. The first phase of grid installation targeted local clinics, which primarily serve mothers and children, and are seeing immediate impacts. Clinic staff report that they can now more reliably deliver nighttime births with the guarantee of lighting and that they no longer have to turn away patients because the generator isn’t working.

“This is an exciting day of independence,” said a health care worker at the Bokolmanyo Clinic. Dr. Yared Henock agreed, adding, “We are very happy to have the solar to keep the lights on and our sterilizer working here.”

Solar power is proving to be an affordable, quiet, reliable and eco-friendly alternative to diesel. But that’s only part of the story. With the installation of the micro-grids comes jobs, and job creation is a meaningful and lasting byproduct of this clean power project.

Meet a Clean Energy Ambassador

As part of this work, the Engineering Service Corps is also training local electricians in solar technology. These solar technicians perform the majority of the micro-grid installation work and form technical cooperatives comprised of residents of the camps and host communities that will maintain and operate the micro-grids. This structure ensures that the grids will provide the camps with reliable power for years.

Abdullahi Mohomed Adow is the energy ambassador and head of the solar technicians at the Bokolmanyo Camp. He has been living in the camp for eight years and is excited about the micro-grid project and its possibilities. “Solar is a new, safer technology … From a professional side we learn new skills, and we can receive good wages with solar. From a business level, we see it is safer than the generators all the business use.”

Because the government of Ethiopia does not currently allow most refugees to work or travel outside the camps, formal jobs are few. Work provides dignity and purpose for refugeesmost of whom have spent between 7 and 9 years in these camps and have little certainty of returning home.

Many of the (predominantly male) technicians I worked with spoke of the boredom of staying at home with no work and nowhere to go, of the desire to provide for their families and their feelings of distress in not being able to do so, and of the need to supplement their UNHCR food distribution with income to provide better nutrition for their children. Having workand, even better, having transferable skills and an opportunity for entrepreneurshipis one small step toward addressing job creation.

Through fall 2018, EWB-USA’s focus is on supporting a smooth transition as the cooperatives take over full management and operation of the micro-grids. With clean power, hospitals can better function, children can do their homework at night, residents can move about the camp safely and an evening trip to the bathroom is no longer a perilous journey into the dark desert night.

Our thanks to Lisa Sim and EWB-USA volunteer Swee Sim for their help in sharing refugees’ firsthand accounts. You can read Lisa’s full account of their time in the camps in The Epoch Times.