Bidibidi Refugee Settlement, 8 May 2023 – Confisase Wani Hadi and his family sit and chat under the shade of a tiny tree in the middle of five grass-thatched huts to shield themselves from the scorching sun. Not far away, a solar lantern is charging on top of Wani’s old, abandoned car.

“I took my lamp to our local shop, but they could not repair it, so I decided to keep it. We have no access to electricity here, we depend on solar lamps but most of these sold here do not last long. So, we must keep buying new ones, which is costly for us,” says the 46-year-old resident of Bidibidi Refugee Settlement’s Zone 2.

Solar lanterns are the only source of light for the more than 270,000 refugees residing in Bidibidi settlement in northwestern Uganda.

Wani’s solar lamp is one of thousands so far repaired free of charge and handed back to their owners, under the International Organization for Migration (IOM) project “Greening Humanitarian Responses Through Recovery, Repair, And Recycling of Solar Products in Displacement Settings”.  

The disposal of these solar products is, however, a challenge, and they pose serious health risks.  When not properly disposed of, they interfere with soil quality which resultantly leads to poor crop yields and forest regeneration. This is because of the highly hazardous metals and elements they contain like lead, cadmium, and chromium.

Yuma John Elly, a community mobilizer based in Zone 1, tags solar lanterns due for repair in Bidibidi Refugee Settlement. Photo: IOM/Abubaker Mayemba

According to the UN’s 2020 Global E-waste Monitor, 53.6 million metric tonnes of electronic waste was generated worldwide in 2019. Of these, just 17.4 per cent was collected and recycled. The report predicts that e-waste will reach 74 Mt by 2030 globally, making it the world’s fastest-growing domestic waste stream. It is fueled mainly by higher consumption rates of electric and electronic equipment, short life cycles, and few options for repair.

IOM is piloting a project to minimize the risks of e-waste in Bidibidi, by repairing and repurposing disused solar lanterns and lithium-ion batteries, whilst creating jobs and supporting livelihoods. The project is also raising awareness on the dangers of improper e-waste disposal as part of efforts to protect the environment. 

IOM has partnered with Mercy Corps to set up product-collection and awareness-creation systems, employing 10 community mobilizers across Bidibidi’s five zones and the host community. The team uses household visits, community meetings, and road drives to collect broken lanterns, and to sensitize the communities about the dangers of poor e-waste handling.

The collected items end up at the main repair centre, where technicians, using spare parts from Norwegian solar product company BRIGHT, repair the lanterns. Using a circular economy model, they pick viable parts from spoilt lanterns to extend the life of others. Old lanterns get new batteries, while the old batteries are tested by technicians, who then assemble any viable cells into second-life battery packs. 

“We didn’t know where to take them [solar lanterns] for repair and we didn’t know the risk related to poor use of electronic products on health and the environment,” says Confisase Wani.

Project technicians handling SunBell repairs at the Mercy Corps Innovation Centre, the project’s main repair centre located in Bidibidi Zone 4 Annex. Photo: IOM/Abubaker Mayemba

Local authorities have hailed IOM’s e-waste project for supporting communities with alternative energy and easing access to repair and recycling services. 

Reida Kiden Moses, 21, is one of the seven technicians who have been trained by project partners in lantern repair, battery testing and assembly. She works in the Batlab, a specialized battery testing and repurposing facility. For Kiden, working in the Batlab not only presents her with the opportunity to provide for her mother and four siblings, but also keeps alive her dream of attaining higher education.

“People always tell me this is a man’s job, but every woman is capable of doing this because God has given us the gift and the talent. My dream was to be a nurse, but I know I am going to pursue a course related to my current work,” says Kiden, who now wants to be an electrical engineer.   

In close coordination with project partner Solvoz, IOM hopes to enhance knowledge transfer and information sharing on the procurement aspect of the solar e-waste value chain. Key issues like e-products sustainability criteria focusing on toxicity, quality, repairability, resource management, corporate responsibility, and local production of solar products, among others, have been discussed in close coordination with key humanitarian and private sector stakeholders.

IOM also hopes that the findings from this pilot project will feed into sustainable procurement programmes within government, the private sector, and the United Nations. The project could also feed into broader initiatives such as the Global Plan of Action for Sustainable Energy Solutions in Situations of Displacement and the Safe Access to Fuel and Energy (SAFE) global working groups.

Twenty-one-year-old Reida Moses Kiden, a technician working in the Batlab, testing battery cells for assembly. Photo: IOM/Abubaker Mayemba

“The impacts of climate change are being faced globally and with such approaches, we as humanitarian partners can put in place strategies to mitigate these effects. We are informing beneficiaries on both the health and environmental risks waste from end-of-life solar products pose, which will go a long way in reducing the dangers these wastes pose to human health and environment,” says Sanusi Tejan Savage, IOM’s Chief of Mission in Uganda.

 To date, the e-waste project has repaired 3,412 solar lanterns out of the targeted 5,000. IOM and partners target to collect over 8,000 lanterns by the end of the project. The project also aims to assemble 260 battery packs sourced from viable lithium-ion cells salvaged from the repaired lanterns. The second-life batteries will be used to power small businesses, provide lighting to clinics, and educational institutions.

 “We have been using the new lamp to study each night. Now I know my schoolwork will get better,” says one of Wani’s children.

The project is funded by Innovation Norway.

This story was written by Abubaker Mayemba, Communication Assistant, IOM Uganda.

SDG 7 - Affordable and Clean Energy
SDG 10 - Reduced Inequalities
SDG 13 - Climate Action