Tech Innovation Must Serve Refugees in East Africa, Too

Mobile technology is often a matter of life and death for refugees. Yet innovation is skewed towards displaced populations in Europe and the Middle East.

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In order to improve technological access, we must first understand why so few mobile services have been developed for refugees in Sub-Saharan Africa. Poor or incomplete mobile connectivity across the region, lack of access to smartphones and low levels of technical literacy are all cited as factors that restrict refugees access to mobile services in East Africa.

It is important that we separate fiction from fact.

Firstly, refugees are increasingly connected. Global levels of mobile network coverage for refugees closely follow national averages. In Kenya, over 72 percent of refugees have access to 3G connectivity, while the corresponding number is 22 percent in Uganda. The rest of the refugee populations in both countries are covered by 2G. Services delivered over 2G are more restricted than 3G, and this can limit the support they offer.

Rates of connectivity increase for refugees living in urban centers. On average, 90 percent of urban refugees are covered by 3G networks.

If not connectivity, perhaps limited access to mobile phones is behind the digital divide? The answer is more complex than it seems. Refugees’ access to mobile phones in East Africa is higher than expected, but the type of mobile device matters, especially smartphones capable of running applications and browsing website

Refugees’ reliance on technology demonstrates what companies often profess: that innovation can empower people to improve their lives and society. Tech companies did not intend for their tools to facilitate one of the largest mass movements of refugees in history, but they have a responsibility to look out for the safety and security of the vulnerable consumers using their products.

Samuel Hall, in partnership with REFUNITE, has embarked on a new research project funded by the Humanitarian Innovation Fund (HIF) to explore how refugees traveling within East Africa use mobile technology and to what extent current solutions meet their needs. The study will assess the impact of mobile phone coverage, access to smartphones and technical literacy.

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