Guest Articles

June 19

Katrina Pielli  / Sasha Kapadia

Serving Refugee Communities with Tech, Energy Access, Entrepreneurship: Mastercard and USAID’s Collective Approach

As we mark World Refugee Day 2019 (June 20) and reflect on the fate of displaced communities all around the world, we are convinced, now more than ever, that cross-pollination of experience and expertise is the only way we will surmount the major challenge in front of us. Others increasingly seem to agree – last week the World Bank, European Investment Bank and Danish Confederation of Industry hosted a conference on the private sector’s role enabling refugees. This need for collaboration is precisely why USAID and Mastercard established the Smart Communities Coalition (SCC) last year. A network comprised of 35+ public and private organizations, the SCC seeks to demonstrate a new way of working, to show that companies, NGOs, governments and United Nations agencies can co-design and co-implement programs that empower people and enable growth. We chose to focus on energy access, connectivity and digital tools; all inadequately addressed by the humanitarian system but in today’s economy are as essential as food and shelter to people in need.

How did we go about it all?


First: Narrow the scope

We picked Uganda and Kenya as pilot countries, which collectively host over 1.5 million refugees. In Uganda, the government has been lauded for its progressive policies towards the displaced, which include the right to move freely and work as well as access government-managed schools and health clinics. In Kenya, refugee communities contribute significantly to the local economy, even though they live in more restrictive environments. In Turkana County in northwest Kenya, refugees have helped boost the county’s Gross Regional Product by over 3% and increased total employment by about 3%. By working in two very different environments, we aim to prove that our model for public-private partnership could be relevant in all kinds of contexts.


Second: Understand needs, identify gaps

The humanitarian and development system is structured in such a way that every entity has a role and carries out specific functions. Organization A is in charge of education, while Organization B covers health and Organization C tackles livelihoods. The private sector is often only engaged during the procurement process. The SCC is a (necessary and critical) break from tradition.

To delve into the needs and identify compelling projects, we held two design workshops in Nairobi, convening 40+ participants. We want to encourage companies to serve refugees and host communities, not just because it is the right to do, but also because it is good business. To that end, we created market profiles for our focus camps and settlements in Kenya (Kakuma and Kalobeyei) and Uganda (Bidi Bidi, Kiryandongo and Rwamwanja), aggregating data that we believed would make the business case clearer. We consult with key local stakeholders, review reports and publications, and aggregate learnings, all in the spirit of facilitating connections that can improve programs, or serve as the spark for new ideas.


Third: Implement

This year, we will test our model through a number of pilots:

  • Digital Agents for Energy+ – Norwegian Refugee Council, International Trade Centre, SNV, Total Access to Energy, BioLite and Mastercard will work together to strengthen local small businesses and entrepreneurs to act as last mile distribution points for clean energy products in Kakuma. By deploying a Mastercard application that connects energy suppliers with local youth empowered to sell and service products, refugees and host community members will more readily access affordable, reliable energy.
  • United States African Development Foundation (USADF) SCC Grants – The program supports refugee and host community-owned businesses’ innovative efforts to address energy access gaps while leveraging the internet and digital technology, thereby helping the local private sector improve the quality and scale of their services.
  • De-Risking Pay-As-You-Go (PAYGO) Solar Home Systems Grants – Grants awarded to Fenix International, BrightLife and SolarNow will enable them to sell products in two Ugandan refugee settlements and host communities, keeping product costs at the market rate. We believe this will demonstrate the viability of commercial distribution models for off-grid energy products in protracted humanitarian settings.
  • Rwamwanja Mini-grids and CE3+ – Advancing market-based community energy solutions with USAID support and internet infrastructure, coupled with market development and livelihood programs, will bring new opportunities to Rwamwanja refugee settlement and host community in Uganda.


Collaboration is everything

Through these programs, we aim to validate that multi-party, multi-capability programs should be the norm. Moreover, to encourage further adoption of our model, we have chosen to expand our focus to all refugee camps and settlements in Kenya and Uganda, and are looking to other geographies to replicate our model. We want to enhance and scale what’s working and help innovate where we can do better. Collaboration is key to solving our most pressing problems. Want to be a problem-solver? Join the SCC!


Katrina Pielli is a Senior Energy Advisor and Lead for the Smart Communities Coalition with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

Sasha Kapadia is Director, Humanitarian & Development, and leads the Smart Communities Coalition for Mastercard.


Image: Kakuma Refugee Camp, Turkana County, Kenya. Photo courtesy of author.




Energy, Technology
energy access, global development, public-private partnerships, refugees