Phone technology gives refugees in Uganda a cash lifeline
Agreements with telecoms operators are helping South Sudanese families in the world's biggest refugee settlement connect with essential services.
BIDIBIDI, Uganda – Brian Dinga, his sister-in-law and her six children fled their South Sudanese home in September 2016 after his brother was shot dead in fighting.
They trekked across the border into Uganda and were accommodated in the world’s largest refugee settlement, Bidibidi, where they struggled to make ends meet. Brian, 62, had no job and no money, and prospects for the family were not good.
A donated mobile phone has given them a lifeline. Brian was identified by the non-governmental organization DanChurchAid as a vulnerable case and he now receives an electronic cash transfer via the donated phone to buy food for his family.
“I get 10 dollars every month, which is sent to me on my phone, and we can buy whatever we want,” he says. “We spend it on food, buying fish, rice and vegetables. We even bought a hen so we could eat the eggs.”
More than one million people from South Sudan have fled to northern Uganda in the past year and the country is hosting a further 355,000 refugees in the south, from other countries.
Refugees were in danger of being left behind by the digital revolution, especially those in rural areas where connectivity is poor.
Jens Hesemann, a senior field coordinator for UNHCR, said the UN Refugee Agency was seeking innovative ways for refugees to use technology to reunite with family members, have access to education and jobs and even call for protection assistance.
“We hope they will be able to define their own destinies and become less dependent on humanitarian agencies.”
UNHCR has turned to the private sector for help. At the beginning of the year, it reached agreements with the Ugandan mobile network operators MTN, Africell and Airtel to provide connectivity for settlements in the north.
In July, MTN replaced a mobile tower in Bidibidi with a permanent tower to provide mobile phone connectivity for more than 500,000 refugees and the host community. Africell has set up another mobile tower in the neighbouring settlement of Imvepi to boost phone reception for a further 200,000 people.
Zein Annous, chief executive at Africell, said the company was “following the lead of the government’s generous policy towards refugees” by selling phones in the settlements at reduced prices and providing SIM cards free of charge.
“Providing telecom services to refugees is a business but we also see it as part of our corporate responsibility,” he said. “We want to improve lives in a sustainable way.”
Working with the private sector to provide connectivity and improve the delivery of aid to refugees is one of the key themes of a new comprehensive response being applied in Uganda and is among topics being discussed at a two-day conference in Geneva this week designed to find ways to strengthen the international response to refugees.
The meeting, on 17 and 18 October, aims to devise suggestions for a programme of action, which will form part of a new global compact on refugees. The High Commissioner for Refugees was given the task of developing a global compact on refugees in last year’s New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants by the UN General Assembly.
A panel will consider how to achieve greater effectiveness in humanitarian aid, such as through cash assistance and ensuring refugees are connected.
It is proposed that the programme of action could include ways to work with internet and mobile service providers, for example, to ensure refugees have access to mobile phone service and the internet at a reasonable cost.
"My little girl’s health has really improved and she’s looking very well.”
With five sprawling sectors, connectivity is crucial in Bidibidi, which has a population larger than most Ugandan cities and extends over an area of 250 square kilometres.
UNHCR is providing phones to refugee representatives so they can report on issues such as protection, water supplies and other services.
Abed Beligeya, 21, uses his phone to make calls to his extended family at home in South Sudan. “My father is sick and has no medicine,” he said. “It’s expensive, so I only call twice a month to make sure everyone is all right.”
MTN and AirTel have formed partnerships with NGOs such as DanChurchAid, Mercy Corps and the International Rescue Committee to transfer cash to refugees with specific needs, such as the elderly, people with disabilities, pregnant women, mothers who are breast-feeding and female-headed households.
Sarah Kiden, 19, her husband and their 22-month-old baby arrived in Bidibidi from South Sudan in September 2016. She is one of 12,000 refugees receiving cash for food from DanChurchAid, using a monthly electronic voucher card provided by AirTel.
“Before I got the card it was a challenge to have a balanced diet, we were just living on beans,” she said. “It was hard for me to produce milk and my baby was very thin. Now I can buy fresh food, like meat and greens. My little girl’s health has really improved and she’s looking very well.”
“I can buy medicine for my family and pay school fees for my son.”
Better phone connectivity is also having a positive effect on the lives of local people in host communities, who have donated land to refugees.
Bako Diana, 32, from the nearby town of Yumbe is one of four Ugandans who were trained by DanChurchAid to use the e-voucher application. She sells her fruit and vegetables directly to refugees using e-voucher cards.
“I have a more stable customer base now and make a better income,” she said. “I can buy medicine for my family and pay school fees for my son.”
UNHCR, NGOs and the phone operators have plans for more towers to be built in the northern settlements of Palabek, Pagorinya and Rhino. DanChurchAid and Mercy Corps plan to distribute 21,000 basic phones in Bidibidi by the end of the year. UNHCR will distribute 1,500 smartphones to refugees in the south, from Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda.
At a cost of US$12 per phone, being connected was too expensive for Brian Dinga and his family. Now, with the ability to make purchases through his donated phone, he is no longer reliant on humanitarian food distributions and life is more dignified.
“I thank God for the money we get, and if we could get a little more it would be the answer to all my prayers.”