Telecom Giants Target New Market: Refugees - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Telecom Giants Target New Market: Refugees

Telecom Giants Target New Market: Refugees

By Nic Fildes

A Syrian Kurdish man talks on the phone after crossing the border at Suruc, in Sanliurfa province, on September 25, 2014. Tens of thousands of Syrian Kurds flooded into Turkey fleeing an onslaught by the jihadist Islamic State group that prompted an appeal for international intervention.


Refugee camps are emerging as a market that telecom firms are increasingly eyeing. 

By Nic Fildes

Nyarugusu on the border of Tanzania and Burundi, one of the largest refugee camps in the world, is an unlikely pioneer in how the telecommunications industry views refugees. Established in 1996, its population of 150,000 makes the camp about the same size as the large British town of Blackburn.

Mobile companies have long been called on to provide critical connectivity in crisis situations by building temporary networks offering free texts and calls to displaced people. Now the humanitarian sector has started to work with telecom businesses to build permanent networks by convincing companies of the vast economic opportunities this offers.

Vodacom, Vodafone’s African arm, installed a third-generation tower within Nyarugusu in 2016, which it now shares with commercial rivals Tigo and Airtel. The tower is running at full capacity, according to the GSMA, the mobile industry trade body, but more striking is the average revenue per user of $4.40. That is slightly higher than the average revenue per user for the rest of Tanzania.

Refugees are spending about a third of their disposable income on connectivity. Chris Earney, head of innovation at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), says that Vodacom had initially built one tower to test the demand and this quickly proved the business case. He says that some telecom companies are starting to realize that refugee communities represent “large untapped markets.” In northern Uganda, where there are 1 million displaced South Sudanese, Airtel experimented with temporary masts before making a formal investment in infrastructure. Money from the U.N. Capital Development Fund helped reduce the investment risk.

They [fleeing refugees] grab their kids, their clothes and [the] third thing is the phone.

Blair Levin, former executive director, National Broadband Plan

The high population density, combined with the greater demand for connectivity from refugees, has fueled pressure on telecoms companies to change their thinking about building connections for those communities. Kyla Reid, head of the GSMA’s Dignity Identity and Mobile for Humanitarian Innovation program, says that in the past two years, companies, including Turkish mobile operator Turkcell, have come to see refugees as a large and significant customer segment.

Yet progress has been slow, according to the UNHCR’s Earney. “We didn’t see the speed and agility that we expected from the private sector,” he says. “The lack of information led to hesitancy, but we think it is a competitive space.”

A change in attitude toward the telecoms sector also matters, says Reid, who argues that the onus has been on the humanitarian agencies to evolve from a view of the “nefarious private sector with questionable motives” to one based on partnership if the funding and business model can be agreed upon.


Data have also opened up the refugee business opportunity beyond simple calls and texts. The prospect of connectivity within a camp opens up those communities to a world of digital payments, education and health care, according to Blair Levin, a former technology adviser to Barack Obama and executive director of the National Broadband Plan in the U.S.

Improved connectivity creates the foundation for other services, such as tailor-made mobile payment systems. These allow U.N. agencies to deliver funds directly to refugees that they can spend in recognized local shops.

“Local food markets on the edge of refugee camps can now be a viable option for refugees to use and the refugees become potential customers for the traders,” says Rodrigo Carneiro, Vodafone’s account manager for relations with the U.N. “This is a safer, more secure and more efficient way of making a real change to refugee lives, creating a sense of dignity for the refugees and building new opportunities in the wider economy.”

A lack of digital literacy, the cost of handsets and a need for formal identification to buy a SIM card still prevent many refugees from going online.

Yet many displaced people will bring knowledge and equipment with them. “They grab their kids, their clothes and [the] third thing is the phone. It is the connection that they have,” says Levin, who co-authored the paper A Global Broadband Plan for Refugees.

Telecom companies also need to think beyond situations like those in Nyarugusu. “When we think of refugees, we think of camps,” says Levin. “That is a problem: 60 percent of refugees are now in urban areas where infrastructure isn’t a problem.” In those areas, networks need to tailor packages for people with very little income that do not cannibalize their revenue from established customers.

The private sector may be taking more chances in connecting displaced people. Yet there are still going to be situations where even the U.N. concedes it is not economically viable to build anything but temporary infrastructure. In that type of scenario, says Earney, many communities are trying to make their own cheap base stations, often using solar power, to bridge the gap: “Refugees are a snapshot of our society. They want to start businesses and feel the full benefits of connectivity.” 

By Nic Fildes

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