Creating an innovation ecosystem in Uganda for refugees

Photo inside YARID's social hub in Kampala.

Want to learn more about bottom-up innovation? Take a look at the Humanitarian Innovation Jam 2016 on Bottom-up Innovation. Local Challenges. Local Solutions.

Innovation in Africa is increasingly in the international limelight. The iHub in Kenya is a technology hub that has launched a plethora of new start-up projects that benefit the country, and initiatives such as M-Pesa are commonly cited as shaping the face of innovation in the continent as its mobile access increases at a faster rate than anywhere else in the world. In Uganda, there is an increase in innovation hubs, co-working spaces, and entrepreneurial activity that is also contributing to Africa’s innovation scene.

So what does this innovation movement mean for refugees and other populations of concern to UNHCR, who make up 15.1 million of the continents’ population?

In Uganda, the Humanitarian Innovation Project (HIP) spent time researching this question in 2013. Interviews with the managers and members of new innovation hubs, as well as focus groups and interviews with refugees helped to inform new insights into how inclusive or exclusive this innovation ecosystem is for refugees.

In Kampala, the country’s capital, over 10 innovation hubs and business support organisations were mapped, including for example the Hive Colab, Outbox and the Mara Launchpad. These hubs and organisations provide support to new entrepreneurs to help them launch new businesses, or find funding. Each supported its members through the process of innovation in a variety of ways.

The innovation process may be thought of as a four-stage journey of problem definition, solution identification, testing and adapting the solution and finally scaling it up. Many of the hubs offered networking events, where individuals could engage with new people and share expertise to help further define opportunities and problems they were considering as entrepreneurs. Most new innovation hubs also offered different levels of membership which offered office space, internet access, and mentorship. Access to venture capitalists and funders through the hubs networks were also on offer as initiatives were scaled up.

This specific movement of innovation hubs, however, remained exclusive to those who could afford time at the hub developing new ideas. Many of the members were recent IT graduates from the cities universities and already had some connection to the networks that the hubs were catalysing. In this regard, refugees were relatively excluded from this supporting environment. We met one university student who was volunteering at one hub, but no others who engaged as members, volunteers, or staff. In a focus group with seven refugees in Kampala, only one had heard of any of the innovation hubs on offer in the city, but none had used them.

Beyond the new innovation hubs, older business support services, funding initiatives, and institutional training institutes were also prevalent – and contributing to new skills, networks and seeding entrepreneurial activity for those living in Uganda. These also contribute to the network and environment of innovation support that makes up the ecosystem there. Again these initiatives were not commonly accessed by the refugee community.

So what was stopping refugees from accessing these innovation services?

Several key issues were raised by the refugees we worked with and spoke to on the topic. These included:

  • Limited information available for the types of services available and how to access them – information usually spreads by word of mouth within refugee communities so new information is hard to find.
  • Expensive membership fees to gain access to the hubs and associations, or for specific training courses available, are restrictive. Many private innovation initiatives are not targeted at refugees, so there is no allowance or discount to them.
  • Lack of time available for refugees to travel and attend activities – due to having several jobs or having to seek income.
  • No support is provided after trainings, so it is hard for refugees to find funding to enter the market or implement their innovations using their new skills gained from any training.

Our research at HIP has focused on refugee’s own initiatives to innovate – of which many were identified in Uganda. This indicates that refugees do engage in some way to certain innovation networks in the city and the rural settlements where they reside.  In a recent report we published on Refugee Innovation, we identified that refugees own social innovations were supporting other refugees. Organisations such as YARID in Kampala, and CIYOTA in Kyangwali refugee settlement, are refugee-led  community-based organisations which are a formidable source of support and encouragement within their immediate refugee communities. YARID offers language, tailoring, social media, and business training – providing its members with a springboard to enter the Ugandan economy and engage in entrepreneurial activity of their own. And CIYOTA has a focus on providing educational opportunities in the remote rural settlement, and has created its own leadership curriculum to encourage its members to become future leaders within the continent. Even in the early stages of a crisis, refugees’ social initiatives are supporting the community. In Rwamwanja settlement where new arrivals from the Democratic Republic of the Congo reside, a youth group has started a music and theatre group to mobilise the community and earn a small income from performances.

In the rural areas more could be done by the international community to support these refugee-led social innovation initiatives, and provide assistance that works alongside them. In the urban setting of Kampala, despite the innovation system for refugees being relatively separated from common innovation hubs and services, most refugees we spoke to argued that any services for refugee innovation simply must include services to Ugandans too. In this regard, more work is needed to bring refugees into the folds of the city. This will be vital for innovation to be successful – since some of the challenges refugee innovators face in funding new initiatives or learning language skills could be overcome with better connection and access to local innovation networks.



Photo credit: David Nibbs/Humanitarian Innovation Project

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