This is an excerpt from the Humanitarian Innovation Project’s recently released report: Refugee Innovation: Humanitarian innovation that starts with communities. This report highlights and showcases some of the innovative capacities of crisis-affected communities.

Uganda: Innovation in emergency, urban and rural settings

Sharing borders with four other East African states, Uganda is host to almost 360,000 refugees from a range of nationalities and backgrounds. The majority of refugees living in Uganda have fled violence in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), but the population also includes South Sudanese, Somalis, Rwandans, Burundians, Ethiopians, and Eritreans. This case study is based on time spent with refugees in four locations in Uganda in 2013 and 2014: Kampala, the capital city, and three refugee settlements. Each refugee settlement is located in the rural areas of Uganda. Nakivale was established in 1959 and is now home to over 60,000 refugees, whereas the Rwamwanja settlement only recently re-opened in the last few years to support a new influx from fighting in the DRC. All of the settlements are over an hour’s travel from the nearest large town and many refugees living inside the settlements make a living from farming.

Uganda offers a relatively positive environment for refugee innovation. The Government of Uganda allows refugees the right to work and a relatively high level of freedom of movement, which has enabled refugees to engage in entrepreneurship and more directly engage with the host economy. Several refugees we met have started their own community-based initiatives. The permissive legal environment means that these initiatives could be registered as Community Based Organisations (CBO) enabling refugee leaders to openly scale their social innovations. Given the relatively open regulatory environment, innovative market-based initiatives are more common in Uganda. These enterprises enable individual refugees to earn an income, but they also contribute to building skills, services and resources in their communities, creating platforms upon which other people can also succeed.

Is refugee innovation being supported?

Despite the relatively open regulatory environment for refugees in Uganda and the many existing initiatives by refugee innovators, there are many constraints that still need to be addressed to bolster refugee-led innovation. How can bottom-up innovation be better supported? The following three examples show how projects implemented by local and international organisations were starting to make a difference to refugee innovation on a small scale in Uganda.

1. Community Technology Access Centre – a springboard for entrepreneurship:

Community Technology Access (CTA) Centres have been initiated in several countries by UNHCR. They provide basic computer training classes and an internet café, which is run by the community. In Nakivale, the CTA was a hub of activity. A handful of innovators have managed to leverage their access to this centre and use the internet to trade products, find out local market prices or, as we saw earlier in the case of Demou-Kay, use the space as an office. The training classes have also inspired a few students to start businesses copying music or providing printing and other computer services in the settlement.

2. Business grant project – inspiring neighbours: 

In Kyaka II, another refugee settlement in Uganda, one international agency is providing small business grants to groups of refugees. At the start of the project, the manager had worked hard to convince some refugees that it was worth investing in their futures here in Uganda. However, after the first round it became evident that the demand for these grants was much greater than could be provided. One group had been inspired to apply with their idea after seeing their neighbours succeed in making market sales of handmade hats – made possible through the grant.

3. Social innovation – refugees supporting each other:

Examples of social innovation existed in most of our research sites. In Rwamwanja, a youth music group helps bring people together in a productive way. In Kyangwali an education initiative by the youth has built a curriculum for leadership and supports refugees access to secondary and university education – now available nationwide and with offices started in other countries. In Kampala, several active refugee-led CBOs are operating in the city with aims ranging from human rights, psycho-social support, and skills training, to sports gatherings and social events. These initiatives provide refugees with information to navigate opportunities and to build confidence to develop their own ideas.

Refugee innovation in Uganda is rich and diverse, and is supported not only by international agencies but also through community-led initiatives. However, refugees still face many barriers to innovation. At a national level, Uganda is aware of its need to further support science and technology innovation, but does not mention refugees in its national policies. In focus group discussions with refugees living in Kampala – arguably those closest to innovation structures and resources which may be provided by the state – many felt that they either did not know about existing trade associations, training or business networks in the city, or were limited by finances to be able to access them.

Governments and the international community could help to minimise these barriers by considering how they can best support refugees to take their own ideas forward – through better access to financing for personal and business development, provision of more opportunities to bid for business grants, and by sharing information on existing services that refugees may be able to access themselves.


Photo credit: Grace Cahill/Oxfam

We’re always looking for great stories, ideas, and opinions on innovations that are led by or create  impact for refugees. If you have one to share with us send us an email at [email protected]

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