Refugees arrive at settlement camps trying to escape the numerous challenges they face in their respective countries. But while they might be successful in escaping these problems, they are faced with many new challenges when entering the camps. One of these challenges is a lack of access to electricity.
We have interviewed Joshua Byenkya, Project manager of the Solar Adoption RCT project, about the project and how it relates to the problems stated above.
Below is a transcript of the interview:
You are the Project Manager of the Solar Adoption RCT project in Uganda. Could you tell us what this project is all about?
In Uganda, there is a very low penetration of electric grids. This lack of electricity is particularly a problem in refugee settlements. The World Bank team conducted a pre-fieldwork study between September 2019 and February 2021 in two refugee settlement camps in Uganda. These camps were Rhino and Kyangwali Refugee Settlement camps. During this first study, the World Bank team mapped out issues to do with access to electricity and alternative sources of energy, specifically the utilization of solar energy within the camps. They found that the uptake of solar energy was very low and the few solar energy harnessing products that were available were very unreliable, short-lived, and didn’t have enough capacity to fulfill the people’s needs in the camp. There was another study to map the barriers to solar uptake more and it concluded that people may be convinced or enabled to adopt solar if they get an awareness of quality solar, if they get support on how to save, or if they have a better understanding of the costs of traditional light sources like kerosene.
So the Solar Adoption RCT project is a project being implemented by L-IFT on behalf of the World Bank. Its goal is to find out what is the most effective way to support refugees in settlement camps to adopt solar energy to replace other sources of energy. The project started in April of this year and is expected to end in March of next year, with a 6 month intervention period. The study is an RCT, Randomized Controlled Trial, where the participants will be divided into three groups in a random way so that the groups are fully comparable. Then two groups will each get a distinct intervention (activities/advice/information, etc.) and the third group is the control group that will not get an intervention. The study will establish how effective each of the two interventions is.
When we dive deeper into the project we can find that the project makes use of Village and Loans Savings Associations (VSLAs) or saving groups. The project will only invite participants who are part of the VSLA groups since the World Bank believes that the savings of these VSLAs will help the refugees to eventually buy solar products by the end of the saving life cycle.
The project is being implemented in two refugee settlement camps, Nakivale and Kiryandongo Refugee Settlement camps in Uganda. The two camps were selected because they have different demographic characteristics. Kiryandongo is mostly for South Sudanese refugees while Nakivale is comprised of refugees primarily from Congo, and Burundi.
What I can add is that the commissioning agency of the project is the World Bank as I said before, but it is specifically the Behavioral Approach Unit of the World Bank. Because we are going to be testing specific behavioral approaches and how those approaches can stimulate savings within VSLA groups and encourage the refugees to use their savings to buy specific solar products, this of course feeds into Sustainable Development Goal #7 which is, “Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all.”
You mentioned that the project was being conducted in refugee settlement camps so that means it is focused on refugees. Were there other criteria you used to choose project participants?
One of the criteria, as you have mentioned, is that you should be a refugee living in these settlement camps. But we have been guided by the office of the prime minister, the agency that is mandated to manage the affairs of refugees in Uganda because there is a policy that mandates implementing partners to include host communities in their refugee projects. So even though the original design did not include host communities, we were told that we should include them when we provided our explanation about the project. This means that while the majority of the participants are refugees, a small percentage will be from host communities within the vicinity of the settlement camps.
The second criterion for participation is belonging to a VSLA. So a person is eligible for selection if he/she is part of an active savings group, whether formal or informal, as long as the group has a leadership structure and specific rules and procedures on how to save or how much money you should save per a specified time. Though we have these selection criteria in place, we haven’t reached that stage of the project where we select participants. That will be our next step.
So these are the two criteria for selection.
What is your step-by-step plan to conduct the project?
The project has many steps so I will speak in broad terms. The first step was to conduct a qualitative feasibility study. When the project started in April 2022, I went out to the two refugee settlement camps and tried to get context-specific information with respect to how many VSLAs are working with existing implementing partners, how are these VSLAs structured and managed, what are the challenges of accessing solar energy, what are the concerns of people when it comes to the prices of solar products, how are they managing to pay for them, who are the existing solar product supplier companies in the camps, etc. So we tried to understand all these contextual issues about the project and how it can be implemented effectively by listening to the voices of the VSLA members, solar companies, and some operating partners. Of course, the World Bank team designed the project so my role as a project manager is to implement what has been agreed upon but I also advise them on context-specific issues.
The second step is the selection of field researchers, which began in May of 2022. Some of the researchers were part of the outgoing project called RISE that we wrapped up recently. This made recruitment a bit easier as we didn’t have to go through the process of interviewing these researchers. We finished this recruitment stage after advertising, accepting applications, and interviewing new additions to the research team. We now have 8 field researchers and 1 field supervisor per settlement.
The third step, which we are now completing, is the pre-pilot phase where we tested the actual interventions that we will implement starting from about now, September. We got feedback on whether these interventions will work, what can be improved, and what is best suited for different contexts due to the pilot phase. We involved about 120 participants in this phase and the World Bank team has been working iteratively with us and the field team to modify the interventions based on the feedback from these participants.
After this, the next stage is to get the list of active VSLAs from implementing partners that work with them. There are various agencies that are working within the settlement camps. For example; we have Save the Children, Action Against Hunger, BRAC, and other organizations in Kiryandongo; and in Nakivale we have Alight (formerly the American Refugee Committee), Opportunity Bank, Ugandan Foundation, and Finnish Refugee Council. These organizations have already started working with the VSLAs, so we established relationships with them such that these organizations provide us with the list of the VSLAs and the contact information of their leaders. We plan to find out more about the VSLAs using this information and create a large sampling frame because we need 200 VSLAs per settlement.
So after we verify that all these VSLAs exist, the next step is randomization. We will choose 4 participants per VSLA through randomization, meaning that there will be 800 participants per settlement.
After the participants have been selected, the next step is to train the field researchers. After the training is done, the researchers will interview the people who have been selected to participate in the project. Only then will we start the actual intervention that will last six months and end in February or March of 2023.
The last step is to conduct an endline survey to evaluate the effectiveness of the interventions we shall have implemented by then. So these are the major steps that are part of the project timeline.
What problems have you faced until now and what problems do you expect in the future?
One of the initial problems that we faced was the fact that we were told to include host communities in the project while the initial design only focused on refugees. The reason for the inclusion is that tensions are created between host communities and refugees when the host communities notice that projects are only focusing on refugees, which leaves them with feelings of missing out. This change to the design has caused some delays because the intricacies of working with host communities are different from refugees. When you work with the refugee community you are under the mandate of the UN and the office of the prime minister, but when working with the host communities you get into other political structures from the government of Uganda that you have to get permission from.
The delay in acquiring the lists of the VSLAs was also another major problem. Since I started working on the project in April of this year, it took a lot of time to explain to other organizations and convince everyone to work with us. This problem has been alleviated somewhat after we held an inception meeting and gained recognition from the camps’ commandants. For example, we have received information on around 400 VSLA groups in Nakivale, which is a big achievement. Stakeholder engagement is always a process and trust can only be achieved with consistency and time.
What do you hope to find by the end of the project?
I think it would be better if I first took you through the activities or ‘interventions’ this project has been trialing. As I said before, we are going to implement behavioral approaches and then determine which of these approaches is better in stimulating VSLA members to save more and eventually acquire solar products. The following are the approaches that we tested in the pre-pilot phase. There is no decision yet on what will be the final two interventions.
One approach that we will probably be using that is not a behavioral approach is distributing leaflets that contain information on the types of solar equipment, how much people have to save per certain periods of time to purchase them, and who is selling this equipment. We are working with certified companies, not the retailers that are selling faulty equipment.
Another approach that we are likely to include is a behavioral approach that we are calling “Commitment Saving”. This is where participants stand up and announce, during VSLA meetings, their commitment to save and purchase solar equipment. When a participant announces this commitment, the rest of the VSLA members in turn say, “We are committed to helping you” and the idea is that the entire VSLA group helps this person to achieve their goal, for instance by reminding them at the meetings.
We also considered showing participants videos of role models, people that have been successful in using solar energy for their businesses.
Another component of the behavioral approach that has been reviewed is Habit Forming. Field researchers will be visiting the participants and asking them about specific reminders of saving. For example, one participant told us that her TV was stolen recently and that every time she sees the empty space that her TV used to occupy, she is reminded to save money for a new TV. So we are going to help identify these reminders and track whether these reminders have made a change in the participants’ saving habits.
The last intervention that we have trialed is a behavioral approach where we help the participants track their energy expenditures so that they know how much energy costs them over time. This will help them identify that, in the long run, buying solar equipment is much cheaper than what they are practicing now.
We will also likely show participants how they can use solar energy to be productive. For instance, showing them examples of people that use solar energy for the business of charging phones, showing films in cinemas, and operating hair salons in the leaflets that we provide. Not only this but we also show them calculations of the profit margins they might expect from using solar in different businesses.
So going back to your question, by the end of the project, we hope to see which approach leads to the most change and the desired change is participants acquiring genuine solar products from certified distributors who sell high-quality solar home systems.
Lastly, on a broader level, this project directly fits into The Energy Access Scale-up project of the government of Uganda being managed by the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development. This project will be feeding from the results of our project to potentially scale-up solar adoption and utilization in host communities and refugee settlements. So the entire community may be benefiting in case one or more approaches are effective. In addition to this, various implementing partners can pick up on the successes of this project, if any, and implement the approaches in refugee settlements across the country.
Interview by Adonay Negash