Solar cooperatives give refugees and locals in Ethiopia clean energy and livelihoods
In south-eastern Ethiopia’s arid and remote Somali region, energy is not something that can be taken for granted, either by the more than 168,000 Somali refugees staying in five camps in the Dollo Ado and Bokolmayo areas, or by the communities that surround them.
The areas are not served by the national electricity grid, firewood is scarce, and many households cannot afford the small solar phone chargers and batteries sold at local markets. Until recently, the only option for locals and refugees running small businesses and shops, were diesel-powered generators.
“Without electricity and lighting, refugees struggle to refrigerate their food, charge their phones, study or work after sunset,” says Muhammad Harfoush, a protection officer with the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, in Melkadida, where one of the camps is based. “Women and girls are also more exposed to gender-based violence.”
Globally, more than 90 per cent of refugees live in rural areas like Dollo Ado that have very limited access to reliable, and clean sources of energy.
In 2017, UNHCR and the IKEA Foundation provided equipment for solar-powered grids to be established in all of the Dollo Ado camps. In a region increasingly affected by climate change, solar power answered the need for energy in the camps to be clean and sustainable, while the establishment of cooperatives to run them is generating much-needed income.
Since 2018, the solar grids have been managed by five cooperatives, one based in each of the camps, made up of both refugees and host community members. They are supported by the Ethiopian government’s Agency for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA), UNHCR and the IKEA Foundation, which together support a wider livelihoods, self-reliance and energy strategy in the area.
After going through training at a local college, the cooperatives maintain the grids and handle the supply of green, affordable electricity to households in and outside the camps. They have become the main local energy providers, transforming daily life for hundreds of families who can now access energy for cooking, lighting and running businesses.
At the same time, the cooperatives’ 62 members have become less dependent on aid and have built strong working relationships with each other.
"It has restored my dignity and self-esteem"
Ahmed Hussein, an Ethiopian national, and Ali Mohamed Hussein, a Somali refugee, co-manage the energy cooperative in Buramino Refugee Camp as chairman and vice chairman.
“I decided to join the cooperative so that I could provide for my family,” says Ahmed. “Now, it’s my responsibility to guide and motivate the cooperative to focus on generating income and investing the earnings.”
Ali describes becoming part of the cooperative as “the best decision I ever made”. “It has restored my dignity, self-esteem and improved the welfare of my family,” he adds. “It has really been an eye-opener and made me realize I can be more self-reliant.”
While the cooperatives are generating an income for their members through the sale of electricity, they are also providing free power to vulnerable households who could not otherwise afford it. The number of such households has only increased since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. In return, UNHCR helps the cooperatives procure spare parts for the grids that are difficult to find in local markets.
Among those benefiting from free electricity is 38-year-old Somali refugee Fatuma Farah who has lived in Buramino camp with her 10 children since 2014.
“This electricity has really improved life. We now have light at night, which helps my children to be able to study and do homework, and we can use it to charge our cell phones and fans,” she says. “I’ve also been able to help my neighbours when they need electricity.”
Since the pandemic struck last year, the energy cooperatives have been helping to power health centres in the camps, enabling them to better respond to the emergency. They also supply power to the newly constructed quarantine centres, UNHCR’s food distribution centre, and the reception centre for newly arrived refugees in Dollo Ado.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a lot of damage to the whole world, but we have been trying to continue the business and serve the community by taking preventive measures, raising awareness and providing the needed energy,” says Ahmed.
The project embodies the objectives of the Clean Energy Challenge, an effort by businesses, governments and organizations, steered by UNHCR and the UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR), to bring affordable, reliable and sustainable energy to all settlements of forcibly displaced people, and nearby host communities by 2030. Increasing access to sustainable energy and work opportunities for refugees and host communities were also among the pledges made by the Ethiopian government during the Global Refugee Forum in December 2019.
With a growing number of clients and increasing demand for electricity, the cooperatives’ income has increased significantly over the past year, enabling them to invest in new equipment.
“With this income, we have been able to buy a brand-new generator as backup to use during the rainy season, so the customers get a consistent power supply,” explains Ahmed.
He and Ali have various other plans for expanding the Buramino cooperative. One is to buy a motorbike so they can more easily reach far-away areas where they want to install new solar systems and maintain existing ones, as well as to collect customer payments. They plan to spend some of their earnings on donating learning materials to orphaned and disabled children in the community.
The potential for further growth is limited not by demand, but by the size of the solar mini-grids in the camps, which are currently close to their maximum capacity.
“With a system upgrade, we could maybe electrify the entire community,” says Ahmed.
Addition reporting by Mohamed Ahmed Issack