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Refugee Digital Divide: Innovation for Africa’s Displaced Falls Behind

Innovations for refugees are concentrated in Europe, even though most of the world’s refugee population lives in sub-Saharan Africa, says Ben Hounsell, senior researcher at think tank Samuel Hall. He explains how little is known about African refugees’ technology needs.

Written by Benjamin Hounsell Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Over 800 asylum seekers from sub-Saharan Africa wait to be processed after landing in Salerno, Italy. Ivan Romano/Pacific Press

Innovation is a concept that can be difficult to pin down. It is often used as a catchword for all things technological. For many, innovation conjures up images of tech giants such as Google or Apple. For others, it’s just simply confusing.

So what does innovation mean for refugees, and how are organizations and governments supporting refugee communities using innovation to solve some of their toughest challenges?

To explore the role of innovation in context of forced displacement, Samuel Hall commissioned a number of studies exploring the impact of technologically driven solutions developed specifically for refugees since the start of 2015. We filtered the list by selecting innovations that purposefully use technology, were active for more than six months and accessible through online search.

We found a palpable digital divide between refugees with access to apps, websites and internet access, and those without, based on their geographic locations.

While 30 percent of the global refugee population lives in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), compared to 14 percent in Europe, four out of the top seven countries building tech solutions for refugees are in Europe, with Germany, Greece, the UK and France leading the way.

Meanwhile, SSA countries rank close to bottom. Ethiopia, home to the largest refugee population in Africa, has just one app that purposefully supports refugees. In contrast, Germany has 19.

Based on UNHCR data, this infograph shows innovations for refugees that have been built in different geographical regions. Sub-Saharan Africa, which hosts 30 percent of the world's refugees, is clearly lagging. (Ben Hounsell/Samuel Hall)

Based on UNHCR data, this infograph shows innovations for refugees that have been built in different geographical regions. Sub-Saharan Africa, which hosts 30 percent of the world’s refugees, is clearly lagging. (Ben Hounsell/Samuel Hall)

Access to Technology

We found that around half of the innovations on the curated list have been built around smartphone applications, often supported with a website. No smartphone means no access.

This is especially true of social media apps, such as WhatsApp, Facebook and Telegram, that open up a massive online community from which refugees can draw support. While it is clear that many refugees entering Europe make constant use of such networks, the picture is much more opaque for refugees based in SSA. Simply put, research that provides an overview of refugees’ use of technology in the region does not exist.

Yet we do know that the number of smartphone users worldwide is growing rapidly, as the traditional digital divide between developed, developing and under-developed countries narrows. By 2020, it is estimated that 57 percent of Africans will have a smartphone, compared to around 74 percent of Europeans (including Western, Central and Eastern Europe). This gap will continue to close.

So, it is evident that access to mobile phone technology, especially smartphones capable of running applications and browsing websites, is crucial for these communities to benefit from many of the innovations that are meant to meet their needs. But access to mobile technology is only half the picture.

Closing the Knowledge Gap

The evidence we collected not only points to a digital divide between refugees hosted in SSA and those living in Europe, but also a knowledge gap in understanding how technology can support forcibly displaced populations in SSA and how their needs might differ from refugees heading to Europe.

Almost no hard data exists on what apps and other innovations are most needed by refugees in SSA.

This knowledge gap between refugees in Africa and refugees in Europe is partly due to the role of the international media, which has focused on migration influxes to Europe. This heightened awareness of issues in Europe has led to some notable initiatives. Social enterprises such Techfugees – which mobilizes the international tech community to respond to the needs of displaced communities – have spurred innovation, notably in Europe and North America, through regular “hackathons.”

At hackathons, participants use technology to collectively and concertedly solve challenges faced by refugees. When we classified the solutions developed at these events, we found that over 70 percent of them were designed to help refugees upon arrival to a host country and to settle into their new communities. It appears that hackers are motivated to support refugees that are located close to them.

This raises two important questions: Are the existing solutions addressing what refugees need? And can hackers living in SSA, in close proximity to the affected communities, be persuaded to take up the challenge?

African Innovation

With new initiatives taking root in SSA, we must ensure that those in close communication with refugees innovate solutions that address the specific communities’ needs.

Techfugees launches today in Kenya, the first such event in East Africa, and a number of other events are planned throughout the year – including Sahara Sparks during May. Through the MIT Solve Challenge, a number of socially minded enterprises, including Samuel Hall, will be presenting solutions for Refugee Education at the United Nations on March 7. Such events are fostering innovations for refugees in SSA and beyond. They are also shining a light on the unique needs of forcibly displaced persons living in SSA that are different to those sheltering in Europe.

Understanding the needs of refugees and determining if an innovation meets them is a challenging and extended process. The best way to start is by asking those who are supposed to benefit.

Over the next few months, Samuel Hall will be reaching out to refugees and groups supporting them in SSA, to better understand the pressing needs in some of the world’s largest refugee camps.

Our goal is to understand where technology can be of value and then work with partners to develop the solutions. If solutions already exist elsewhere, and many do, we will adapt them to local contexts.

While images of refugees on the move dominate news headlines, a majority of refugees worldwide are displaced for an average of 10 years. Many are stranded in a single location for extended periods. This requires sustained and costly humanitarian support, but also provides opportunities for technology innovation.

Bridging the digital divide for refugees in sub-Saharan Africa could foster long-term development that improves livelihoods, generates local revenues and helps break the cycle of aid dependency.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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