Refugee-led co-operative brings solar power to Ethiopian refugee camp

The co-op has received support from a partnership between UNHCR and IKEA Foundation

A solar co-op, set up by residents of Ethiopia’s Melkadida Refugee Camp, is supplying the camp’s households and businesses with clean, reliable energy.

Iftiin, which means ‘light’ in Somali, helped to build the area’s first solar mini grid in 2020 as part of a partnership project between UNHCR, the UK Refugee Agency, and the IKEA Foundation

There are five refugee camps around Melkadida in southeastern Ethiopia, home to over 210,000 refugees. Most of the camps’ residents were forced to flee conflict and drought in Somalia over the last 12 years. 

Iftiin co-founder, Elias Nunow Hirab, arrived in the camp in 2011 when he was 14 years old. After three years in the camp, Hirab received training in electrics via a UNHCR partner, the Norwegian Refugee Council. 

Then in 2017, Elias and a group of fellow refugees formed Iftiin co-operative to install and manage solar-powered streetlights, as part of the IKEA Foundation sustainable energy programme. 

UNHCR says that electricity from the solar mini grid since established by Iftiin has so far reached around 31,230 refugee and host community households, helping to create dozens of businesses serving the wider population. 

Additionally, two 30-kilowatt solar pumps now bring water from a nearby river to irrigate 45 hectares of land for local farmers in the Melkadida area. 

Iftiin has now taken its earnings from the first electrical system and built a second solar mini grid that will serve hundreds of additional customers. 

“We have good teamwork, we are very committed […] and we have a good relationship with the community,” Hirab told UNHCR. “We always get support from UNHCR and its partners, and we save for the future.” 

In 2012 a partnership between UNHCR and IKEA Foundation was established to help foster socio-economic inclusion, sustainable livelihoods and self-reliance in the Melkadida area. Since then, IKEA Foundation has supported the five refugee camps around Melkadida that are being turned into integrated communities, through initiatives such as the Melkadida Refugee Compact, with more than US$100m (£79m).

UNHCR said that IKEA Foundation’s investments into services and infrastructure have “benefited both refugees and host communities” and provided “valuable evidence that has helped inform Ethiopia’s progressive refugee policies and inclusive local development approach known as the Melkadida Compact.”

The role of the private sector is set to be a key area of focus at the Global Refugee Forum (GRF) taking place in Geneva, Switzerland from 13-15 December.