In 2014, UNHCR's Innovation Unit issued the Safe from the Start Challenge to crowd-source clean energy solutions to provide economic empowerment for refugee women, and help prevent sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). Two years on, these ideas have become active programmes.

The Need

Instances of SGBV often increase during conflict and emergencies. Displaced women and girls are at particular risk. In refugee camps, for example, factors like insufficient lighting and a lack of economic independence leave women exposed to violence and exploitation.

The Challenge

Forty-one submissions were received on UNHCR’s open innovation platform, UNHCR Ideas, ranging from wearable alert devices to electricity generation from potatoes (power from a single potato can light a room for 40 days).

Among the winners was Biomass Briquette Making.

Biomass briquettes are a powerful low-emission fuel made from dried biodegradable materials such as banana peelings, groundnuts, cassava flour, sawdust and elephant grass. They burn for longer than charcoal or firewood and are less smoke-producing, making them a healthier alternative for the entire community.

The innovator Nii Ako Sowa, a UNHCR Public Information Associate, describes his idea as “an innovative energy and livelihoods intervention rolled in one”. While working at Ghana’s Egyeikrom camp, he observed that a lack of livelihood opportunities and a reliance on depleting natural resources were placing women at risk of violence as they ventured into isolated areas to collect wood.

Good things come in small packages

The briquette programme is now being implemented in Uganda, Cameroon, Chad and Ghana. Participants have improved their financial literacy and learned new skills in stock management, bookkeeping and marketing.

Nii Ako Sowa’s biomass briquettes have also paved the way for innovations in areas like solar energy and sustainable farming in refugee settings, promoting self-reliance, safety and dignity for those who have lost all.

Australia for UNHCR is currently funding vital SGBV and women's livelihood programmes in five refugee camps in the north of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

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"I am happy not to have to go in the bush anymore, thanks to the briquette project" Therese Chaban, a 45 year old IDP in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The money that she earns helps her to send her children to school. © UNHCR / Frederic Noy

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Therese Chaban (standing) holds the briquette machine, while Edith (out of image) presses the lever to push the paste in the mold that Fura holds (seated). © UNHCR/ Frederic Noy

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