Don’t Have to Live Like a Refugee: Solar Light for Somali Refugees

It’s the worst famine in East Africa since the 1980s.  And like most famines, it’s mostly political: thousands of refugees fleeing Somalia, where Western aid organizations are banned from entering to relieve starvation and disease, and desperate people are prevented from leaving the country to find food.

Those who do escape—and who survive the journey—make it to Dadaab in Kenya or Dollo Ado in Ethiopia, where they may spend the next several years in refugee camps.  Already more than 120,000 have arrived in Dollo Ado, with 700 more arriving every day, many on the brink of death (or already too late to save).

In these camps there is no light.  Of course there is no electricity, but even worse, there are not even kerosene lamps.  After all, with so little rain, conditions are very dry: in a land of tents spaced scarcely a few feet apart, a single spilled lamp could spark a conflagration that burns the entire camp down.

As a result, when the sun goes down, inhabitants live in bleak darkness, unbroken by even a flickering kerosene lamp.

Imagine the quality of life: when the sun goes down, you cannot do anything.  No reading, no craft-making or other work, cooking in darkness, and great difficulty walking around.  Even socializing becomes more difficult.

Moreover, the darkness is dangerous: in a camp full of desperate people, the night becomes a haven for crime, making it unsafe for refugees to walk around at night.

How to break the darkness?

Flashlights/torches are nice, but the problem is batteries: not only shipping in thousands of batteries each week on uncertain roads that turn to impassable mud with the slightest rain, but also their disposal.  If not trucked out, the camp would be littered with tens of thousands of mercury-leaching batteries within just a few weeks.  And the expense would be high: if you assume $1 per pack per week, plus another $0.50 for shipping, and $5 for the initial flashlight, supplying 6,000 households with batteries would cost $246,000 within 6 months.

Hand-crank lamps?  These sometimes take 15 minutes of cranking for one hour of charge: not a viable solution for half-starved refugees who barely have energy to move.

Generators?  This would require wiring thousands of tents to a few generators, plus weekly shipments of fuel.

The solution that the German NGO Humedica arrived at is solar lamps.  After the initial cost of buying and shipping them, solar lamps provide two years of free, waste-free light, dramatically improving quality of life and productive capacity for refugees living in camps.

With solar lights, children can do whatever studies available to them at night.  With solar lights, it is safer to walk around at night. With solar lights, socializing and reading become possible, bringing some spark of hope to lives otherwise darkened by desperate conditions.

And not just any solar lights: to be effective, they must be able to withstand harsh conditions present in refugee camps.  If someone drops a lamp and it breaks, it is not easy to resupply a replacement.

So this week ToughStuff has flown to southern Ethiopia to help distribute 6,000 emergency solar light kits which Humedica has purchased from ToughStuff Solar.  We’re supported logistically in this effort by ToughStuff’s commercial partner in the country, Equatorial Business Group (EBG).  We’ve hired refugees to conduct a baseline survey of the need for light in the camp, and to distribute the kits to the 6,000 households who desperately need them.

There are so many pressing problems in refugee camps: shelter, starvation, disease, exhaustion, and the complete absence of light.  By breaking the darkness, we hope to make life more human for the people in these camps.

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