Emergency Lab

Emergency Lab

Luwani FM

Using audio content to improve dialogue with refugees.

1. Define challenges

Improving communications in an emergency setting

In  July 2015, Malawi started receiving  an influx of asylum-seekers from Mozambique. The asylum-seekers claimed that they were fleeing from Mozambique due to  the fighting between the government forces and  the country’s main opposition party (RENAMO). By April 2016, approximately 10,000 asylum-seekers from Mozambique had sought refuge at Kapise transit center in the Mwanza district. Owing to the congestion of Kapise transit site, coupled with the close proximity of the Mozambican border, the Government of Malawi decided to relocate the asylum-seekers to the re-opened Luwani refugee camp. In May, the Malawi Government and UNHCR started relocating the Mozambican asylum-seekers to Luwani refugee camp. The relocation ended in June  and a total of 2,000 asylum-seekers were transferred to Luwani. By 31 August, the majority of the asylum-seekers that were hosted in Kapise, spontaneously returned to Mozambique. Meanwhile, a total of 2,185 people are currently hosted in Luwani refugee camp and there are no asylum- seekers in Kapise. UNHCR is working closely with partners and the Government to rehabilitate Kapise transit site.

Communication between UNHCR and its people of concern is crucial during emergencies. UNHCR and its partners need to keep refugees informed about their rights, the services available in the camp, as well as to communicate on health, gender-based violence, sanitation, and other issues that pertain to UNHCR’s protection mandate.

The Emergency Lab, whose primary focus is to facilitate dialogue between survivors of disasters and responders, was invited by UNHCR’s operation in Malawi to explore ways to improve communications with Mozambican refugees while taking into account such barriers as language and literacy, beginning with debunking myths and rumours about the relocation process to Luwani.

2. Identify solutions

Using radio to meet information, entertainment and educational needs.

In May 2016, the Emergency Lab headed to Malawi to run focus groups and discussions with refugees as a way to better understand their information and communication needs. Radio quickly emerged as a favored way to keep up with the news from Mozambique, in part because of its ability to reach audiences with a low literacy rate. Radio also proved to be a highly social activity among asylum seekers, who said they enjoyed listening to the news and entertainment programming in groups and later debate about current affairs. However, only few radio sets were available in the camp, which created frustration among the asylum- seekers, who expressed frustration about not being able to have sufficient access to information during their displacement.

Recognizing the power of audio content to spread information and spark discussions among people of concern, the Emergency Lab designed a two-fold program to be deployed over the coming months. First, the local UNHCR operation and one of its partners, Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), will organize and support the creation of radio content for information, entertainment, and educational purposes, to be broadcast to listening groups through playback.

Secondly, the Lab will support the creation of a community-run, community-owned radio station that would eventually take over the production of audio content and act as a hub for both asylum seekers and host communities. These two solutions would need to take into account the immediate needs that arise out of the on-going emergency, while planning for the sustainability of the radio station over the long term. Content would be produced in various languages spoken by asylum-seekers  and members of the host community.


A field test was carried out with a group of about 40 asylum-seekers youths, who recorded songs and dramas related to topics such as relocation, hygiene, religion or education.

3. Test solutions

Phasing in audio production and listening groups.

In June 2016, the Emergency Lab returned to Luwani to train UNHCR and JRS staff in basic audio production skills. A field test was carried out with a group of about 40 asylum-seekers youths, who recorded songs and dramas related to topics such as relocation, hygiene, religion or education. JRS staff later packaged the content for playback. While the Lab initially brought recording equipment in order to conduct the test, similar gear was eventually procured locally, so as to allow asylum-seekers  to keep on producing content in the months ahead.

The Emergency Lab is now in the process of supporting the operation to procure the FM transmitter and portable radios in order to increase the reach of the playback through the camp.

While looking into the technicalities of establishing a radio station in the camp, the Lab received valuable input from refugees and asylum-seekers in Dzaleka, an older camp in Malawi hosting refugees of various nationalities, including Burundians, Congolese (DRC) and Rwandese. The community there already owned a transmitter, and had made plans for programming catering to a diversity of cultural backgrounds and languages, but were seeking to establish a formal radio station to be aired in the area. The Lab opted to support the application for broadcasting licenses for both stations in Luwani and Dzaleka. The application process has been completed and there are indications that the license will be issued soon.

4. Refine solutions

From emergency needs to long-term programming.

The Emergency Lab, together with the local UNHCR operation and JRS, are now exploring ideas to facilitate the mainstreaming of Luwani’s community radio station into the camp’s daily operations, and to create revenue-generating activities so as to ensure the station’s viability. This could involve building bridges with livelihood activities implemented in the camp, or use the station for commercial purposes such as selling drinks or charging mobile phones. Sustainable energy sources will also need to be identified in order to power the station.


UNHCR’s Emergency Lab Manager records content for the radio with refugee youth.

5. Scale solutions

A “radio-in-a-box”.

Radio has been used before by UNHCR and its partners in refugee camps. However it has never been established in such a rapid timeframe – the operation hope to have the station established by the end of the year, a time period of only 4 months. With the experience of Luwani, the Emergency Lab is seeking to assess the potential of prototyping a “radio-in-a-box” that could be quickly deployed in other settings. Such a concept would be highly dependent on local context, including community preferences in terms of sources of information, literacy rates, language, and more. The Lab is currently exploring these questions in collaboration with different UNHCR units.






UNHCR Malawi
Jesuit Refugee Service


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