Connectivity brightening future of refugees in Malawi

Burundian refugee sees his future brighten thanks to UNHCR and Microsoft's Connectivity for Refugees Project

Remy Gakwaya, a 22 year old Burundian refugee stands outside his takenoLab centre in Dzaleka Camp, where he teaches other refugee youth to programme and code. With him are Kate Krukiel, Director of Partnerships from Microsoft and Kamel Deriche, UNHCR. Gakwaya is one of the refugee ambassadors for the Microsoft Connectivity project.  © UNHCR/Amos Gumulira

“Everything about computers interests me,” says Remy Gakwaya, a 22 year old Burundian refugee who resides in Dzalaka refugee camp in Malawi.  He currently runs the only computer lab in the in camp, called takenoLab where he voluntarily teaches other refugee youth how to programme.

“Java, Python, MYSQLITE, Android Development…” Gakwaya lists the programming languages that he teaches his fellow refugees.

“I love programming,” says Gakwaya. “It is inspiring to see something that I create myself. Here in the refugee camp you are not free to do anything. We aren’t able to work outside of the camp. However, if you do programming, you can do it from anywhere in the world and be paid for that.”

“Everything about computers interests me, I love programming.”

After his parents were killed in Burundi during ethnic clashes, Gakwaya fled with his older brothers to Tanzania. When they saw that young people were being recruited to join a rebel movement they decided to flee to Malawi in 2008, when he was 15 years old.

After finishing secondary school in the camp, Gakwaya learned how to programme by taking a class in Lilongwe. He also learned through some courses offered at the online university run by Jesuit Refugee Services in Dzaleka, where he is enrolled as a diploma student.

He opened the takenoLab in 2016 because he wanted to help other youth in the camp also learn to programme. He first taught six students from the basics – how to use a mouse, how to use a keyboard and by the end of the year, they had learned how to programme and make apps.  Because the refugees had no access to the internet, he had to teach the students offline.  Initially, they also didn’t have enough computers, so Gakwaya managed to print photocopies of a computer keyboard layout and students would take that sheet of paper home to practice typing and using the keys. Eventually, he received some donated computers for the students to practice on. Another major challenge is electricity in a camp which often faces frequent power cuts. When they don’t have power to run the computers in the lab, Gakwaya uses the class time to teach theory.

  • Remy Gakwaya, un réfugié burundais de 22 ans, devant son centre takenoLab du camp de Dzaleka, où il enseigne la programmation et l'encodage à d'autres jeunes réfugiés. À ses côtés se trouvent Kate Kruriel, Directrice des partenariats chez Microsoft, et Kamel Deriche, du HCR. Remy Gakwaya est un des réfugiés ambassadeurs du projet de connectivité numérique de Microsoft.
    Remy Gakwaya, un réfugié burundais de 22 ans, devant son centre takenoLab du camp de Dzaleka, où il enseigne la programmation et l'encodage à d'autres jeunes réfugiés. À ses côtés se trouvent Kate Kruriel, Directrice des partenariats chez Microsoft, et Kamel Deriche, du HCR. Remy Gakwaya est un des réfugiés ambassadeurs du projet de connectivité numérique de Microsoft.  © HCR/Amos Gumulira
  • Quelque 30 réfugiés ambassadeurs ont reçu des smartphones offerts par Microsoft dans le cadre du projet de connectivité numérique pour les réfugiés dans le camp de Dzaleka, au Malawi.
    Quelque 30 réfugiés ambassadeurs ont reçu des smartphones offerts par Microsoft dans le cadre du projet de connectivité numérique pour les réfugiés dans le camp de Dzaleka, au Malawi.  © HCR/D. Kachitsa
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Apps benefitting the overall refugee community are already being developed by Gakwaya and his team. One of the apps will help teachers facilitate the registration of students' enrollment and registering of their grades, which currently takes up a lot of time. They are also working on an app that will map the different tribal groups and share cultural practices so that the various ethnicities and nationalities in the camp can better understand each other.  

“I want to use technology to solve local problems that big software companies do not have the time to take on,” says Gakwaya.

“I wanted to be part of the modern world so I joined the class. I originally hoped to study law but now I’m invested in learning programming,” says 20 year old Gracia from the DRC who is one of Gakwaya’s students.

“I want to use technology to solve local problems that big software companies do not have the time to take on."

This past weekend, Microsoft and C3, their contractor in Malawi installed Wi-Fi access points in Dzaleka. It is one of the pilot sites for the Connectivity for Refugees project between UNHCR and Microsoft. Microsoft also donated 1,000 smart phones, which are to be distributed to individuals or community groups chosen by UNHCR, the Ministry of Home Affairs, Plan Malawi and Jesuit Refugee Services.  Some thirty “refugee ambassadors” have been selected to engage in the project and help establish the mechanisms to roll it out.

Gakwaya was very excited and honored to be selected along with some of his students to be part of the “refugee ambassadors.” He is confident that having faster and cheaper ways to connect to the internet, he will be able to complete more online training to complement the programming skills he learned so far, but he also will be able to strengthen the training he is giving to other young people.

“My idea is to support knowledge so that this knowledge can help us today, tomorrow or in the future.” 

Dzaleka refugee camp is located some 70 km from Lilongwe and currently hosts about some 28,000 refugees and asylum seekers, mainly from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, Somalia and Ethiopia.