When Esteeri Kabonero got back to Uganda after being raised in the United States and working in Rwanda, her focus was on energy access for under-served communities. She did not realize how badly refugees, especially from South Sudan had been living.
“Headlines throughout the world had been talking about how Bidi Bidi refugee settlement, one of the largest settlement in the world located in northern Uganda, was at a breaking point.” Esteeri says.
Bidi Bidi refugee settlement is home to thousands of refugees with 64% being children under 18 and 86% women and children benefiting from Uganda’s open refugee receiving policy that has seen her become one of the leading countries in the world with high number of refugees.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees by the end of May 2017, Uganda was home to 1,233,966 refugees, originating from South Sudan (947,427), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (204,413), Burundi (34,241), Somalia (25,321), Rwanda (13,907), Eritrea (4,310), Sudan (2,549) and Ethiopia (1,798). Still, by the end of 2016, Uganda had the fifth-largest refugee population after Turkey (2.9 million), Pakistan (1.4 million), Lebanon (1million) and Islamic Republic of Iran (979,400).
Esteeri during one of her recent visits to Bidi Bidi Refugee settlement
“Even when Uganda is one of the most hospitable countries for refugees, we do not have enough resources to provide to them. Families in Bidi Bidi for example live in huts or UNCHR tents and many are living in darkness, school children, that found a little bit of home in school, can’t study, hospitals are left in darkness. Thus, this is where I knew we wanted to start.” Esteeri explains.
This led to the founding of Powah, a last mile distribution and community development company with a mission to provide access to products and services that will better energy, education, health, and entrepreneurial activities in refugee settlements in Uganda focusing on Bidi Bidi.
“We went to Bidi Bidi Refugee settlement to understand how refugees live. I had told people I wanted to help the refugee crisis in northern Uganda, but how could I help if I had never been there. I think sometimes we hear about crisis but do not understand it. After visiting and seeing poor energy connection we came up with the PowahAll campaign.” She says.
The social enterprise is providing solar lights to school children in Bidi Bidi Refugee Settlement, one the largest settlement in the world. This is being done through raising funds via crowd funding and a social media campaign (using the hashtag #PowahAll).
“The campaign aims to power 1000 refugees in Bidi Bidi refugee settlement giving them solar lamps. We have just launched our crowd funding campaign whereby anybody around the world can donate using mobile money or Credit cards at akabbo.ug/campaigns/powah/. “ Esteeri explains.
So far, the social enterprise has managed to raise 300 solar lamps out of the 1000 target that it seeks to deliver to the Refugee settlement in Northern Uganda.
But it has not been an easy ride for the team. The biggest challenge Esteeri and team has faced, is finding people that also have that motivation and vision, who are also looking to make an impact in the community.
“You can have the best idea in the world but if you do not have a good team to do it, it will never reach fruition. So, while I might have been the founder I have had a team behind me as well.” She notes.
Financing the project also remains a big challenge- which many entrepreneurs have face. Esteeri notes that many grants and funding opportunities are based in western countries, until Uganda can create funding opportunities and angel investing a lot of entrepreneurs will never see growth.
But despite the challenges, Esteeri has a vision, which is a message she wants every young person to know and believe in.
“What discourages people (especially young people) is a short term focus. If you have a vision or purpose, an end vision you want to achieve, you can create mini goals to get to that vision. If you have a purpose even when things go wrong those failures just teach you to take a different road or strategy.” She says.
Powah believes in an access to renewable energy for all. (Photo credit: Powah)
Esteeri also believes in the need to have many more female entrepreneurs to change the narrative- the few numbers of women in business. According to her, its hard being an entrepreneur in general, but when you are in the minority it’s even harder. Entrepreneurs solve problems in our communities, if we do not have females solving problems we miss out on innovations, new ideas, women centered problems that men may never realize need to be solved.
“Uganda has supported refugees from all over the world, its time the world supports Uganda. How? We must engage and support those that are making an impact and changing the face of the country.” Esteeri concludes.
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