Refugees learn to code a new future in Malawi
Remy Gakwaya fled his native Burundi at 15 years old after his parents were killed in ethnic clashes. He made it to Dzaleka refugee camp in Malawi in 2008. Ten years later, he is now leading the charge for technology and education for refugees.
It all started with courses in computer programming supported by the Jesuit Refugee Service at the Jesuit Worldwide Learning centre in the camp, where Remy learnt computer programming languages like HTML, Java and Python.
“I love programming,” says Remy, now 23. “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.”
In 2016, Remy founded TakeNoLab, a community organization that allows him to share his love of computer languages with young refugees in the camp.
Remy started teaching his six students the basics of how to use a mouse and a keyboard. But due to lack of computers, he had to print images of keyboard layouts which students would take home to practice typing and explain theories of coding, rather than showing them on a computer screen. Frequent power cuts meant classes often had to take place in the dark.
In a joint pilot with UNHCR, Microsoft 4Afrika provided Wi-Fi connectivity throughout the settlement with the support of local internet service providers for 12 months. One thousand smartphones, 40 and laptops and 10 tablets were also provided to help students get a step closer to unlocking their full potential.
In 2017, for the first time, Remy’s students could work online with reliable internet, in proper facilities. The project started with 31 students who had passed a highly competitive aptitude test for enrolment in courses offered at the AppFactory, a Microsoft 4Afrika initiative that aims to build digital skills and coding capabilities of young people.
Apprentice developers spend up to six months working with software technicians from Microsoft, learning to design and code apps to solve problems they encounter in their everyday lives. The magic ingredients in the AppFactory are passion for software development, devotion, teamwork and empowerment.
“I want to use technology to solve local problems."
The first app developed is called Habari. It helps new arrivals find services in the camp and teaches them the basics of English or Chichewa, the national language of Malawi. Another app, Smart Mapokezi, which means “distribution” in Swahili, sends refugees an SMS informing about upcoming food and other items available that day.
“I want to use technology to solve local problems that big software companies do not have the time to take on,” says Remy.
While UNHCR is continuing to support connectivity for the AppFactory beyond the pilot, facilities for alumni remain limited and further support is required to allow graduates of the AppFactory to make the most of their new skills. Most of the students are refugees, and 5 of the 20 active students are young women.
But Remy is undeterred. He recently started a computer club called Girls’ Smart Code to encourage refugee women and girls to join the technological revolution.
Henriette Kiwele, 21, and her sisters Claudine, 18, and Josephine, 17, escaped violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2013. On arriving in Dzaleka refugee camp they wanted to nothing more than to study.
When Henriette heard that TakeNolab was looking for girls interested in learning to code, she and her sisters joined right away.
“There were mostly boys in the group, and we were asked if we would be able to keep up with them. We said yes, of course we can,” says Henriette. “When I think of the future, I think one day I will be able to have a career based on the knowledge I am getting here at the App Factory,” she adds.
Writing and additional reporting by Farha Bhoyroo in Geneva. This story is featured in UNHCR's 2018 Education report Turn the Tide: Refugee Education in Crisis.