Mobile is a Lifeline: Research from Nyarugusu Refugee Camp, Tanzania

Today, at the GSMA’s Mobile 360 – Africa we are launching a new report documenting the socio-economic impact of mobile connectivity for refugees in Nyarugusu camp in Tanzania.

At the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) 10 months ago, we embarked on a journey to capture and highlight where and how mobile technology is making a difference to the lives of refugees. Since then we have launched a portal, published research on refugees and connectivity, humanitarian cash transfers and identity issues. As the number of forcibly displaced populations continues to rise (65.6 million at end of 2016), the pressure on the humanitarian sector to find more effective and efficient ways to meet the needs of affected populations is intensifying. Mobile technology is not only a tool for improving humanitarian service delivery to beneficiaries but it can also be a tool for refugees themselves, enabling them to communicate with separated family members and receive vital remittances whilst also offering them more dignity in the process.


Download the report



This is the first, large-scale end user research study we have conducted, alongside UNHCR, to provide robust evidence of the current use, value and impact of connectivity, and the barriers and challenges that refugees face in accessing and using mobile devices, in a large, rural camp setting. This research provides mobile network operators (MNOs), humanitarian agencies and governments with key insights on the opportunities and barriers to enhancing the provision of mobile services to refugees.

Nyarugusu is one of three large refugee camps in the Kigoma region hosting more than 136,000 refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Burundi. In 2016, Vodacom installed a 3G tower in Nyarugusu camp for the first time. Today, Airtel, Halotel and Tigo also provide coverage. Nyarugusu remains the only camp in the Kigoma region with access to 3G.


The key findings from the report are as follows:

  • There is a significant business case for extending mobile coverage to refugee camps.


Vodacom’s tower, currently shared with Tigo and Airtel, is reported to be operating at full capacity, with a call volume of up to 180,000 calls per day. Refugee mobile phone users report spending an average of 9,856 TSH (4.40 USD) per month on credit and data – a monthly spend which exceeds the estimated average revenue per subscriber in Tanzania (9,744 TSH, 4.35 USD). These findings suggest that extending coverage to refugee camps can be a sustainable business for MNOs due to the camps’ typically high population densities and refugees’ considerable demand for connection to the outside world.



  • Two thirds of households in Nyarugusu have access to at least one mobile device, but access is notably lower for more vulnerable population segments.


Two thirds of households have access to at least one mobile device and 56% of respondents report regularly using a phone, presenting humanitarian agencies with an opportunity to reach a large number of households through mobile communications. The disparity of phone access, however, between men (75%) and women (58%), and between Congolese (79%) and Burundian (54%) populations, highlights the importance for all stakeholders to consider approaches to improving affordability and enhancing access to connectivity to those without access to mobile devices.


  • Humanitarian agencies are beginning to digitise their services to meet the needs of refugees, but there is great potential to further leverage mobile technology.


As refugees are increasingly connected, every area of humanitarian work can benefit as communication with communities and individuals becomes easier and more reliable. A number of humanitarian organisations are partnering with MNOs to leverage mobile money to deliver cash to refugees. Such partnerships provide MNOs with the commercial opportunity to expand their bulk payments offerings while attracting new customers. Digitising services can provide more efficient ways of delivering assistance for humanitarian agencies and more choice and dignity for beneficiaries.



  • Refugees have specific needs that are being addressed by MNOs through their commercial and philanthropic offerings.


Refugees are using mobile devices to address challenges they face in four key ways:

1. Connecting with family: 96% of users make calls to friends and family members living in the camp and 81% call friends and family outside of the camp. Refugees are using social media to find missing loved ones; connect with friends and family; relay news and information; and as a safety net during emergencies.

2. Economic opportunity and mobile money: Establishing informal business activities can increase resilience and give refugees greater agency and choice. In Nyarugusu, 52% of phone users access mobile money for remittances, informal payments, savings, or humanitarian cash transfers, with 49% of mobile money users using the service at least once a month.

3. Education: In 2016, the Vodafone Foundation launched its ‘connected classrooms’ project in six schools in Nyarugusu, providing a Wi-Fi connection, projector and tablet devices for teachers and children. In addition, 28% of adult internet users are using phones to access informal education opportunities, including language learning and further education. MNOs and humanitarian agencies can work together to use digital technology to meet the growing demand for digital education services.

4. Connectedness and wellbeing: The importance of news and entertainment for refugees should not be underestimated. 65% of internet users go online to search for news and information and 35% to access entertainment. These applications can alleviate the distinct stresses and vulnerabilities experienced by confined camp populations.





  • The barriers to getting and staying connected are more acute for refugees due to their specific circumstances.


The research found that the vast majority of respondents would like to increase their use of mobiles and of the internet. Major barriers include the ability to meet SIM registration identity requirements, cost of handsets, credit and phone charging; digital literacy; and poor network quality. Gendered barriers to access also exist, with women significantly less likely to use or own a phone (62% of men report owning a phone, compared to 36% of women).

Although each refugee context is unique, a number of the barriers highlighted in the research are similar for refugees in other camp settings. MNOs, humanitarian organisations and governments can overcome barriers and continue to improve the lives of refugees by thinking creatively about how they can collaborate to: extend and improve 3G coverage; achieve enabling policy environments in which refugees can gain reliable connectivity access; and deliver innovative ways of ensuring refugees can use and afford the range of mobile services they demand.


Read the full report to view our recommendations to stakeholders to accelerate the journey towards achieving digital inclusion for refugees and improved delivery of dignified humanitarian assistance to millions of affected populations.


The Disaster Response programme is funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and supported by the GSMA and its members.

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