Refugees and Connectivity

Souktel is a Palestinian technology company, which designs and delivers customised digital solutions for vulnerable people across the globe. Over the last ten years, Jacob Korenblum has led the Souktel team in leveraging mobile and web technology to deliver numerous services to refugees.


Jacob KorenblumJacob Korenblum is the President and CEO of Souktel, leading their growing team and building on his past experience managing economic development and emergency relief projects for the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). Fluent in Arabic and French, Jacob has worked in the aid and development sectors in the Middle East, East Africa, South Asia, and the Caribbean. He is a frequent panelist on technology and development, with speaking engagements ranging from the GSMA Mobile World Congress to the World Bank Human Development Forum. Jacob holds an Ed.M. from Harvard University.


What is Souktel’s experience of working in the development sector, and with services for refugees in particular, and what makes your company unique?

Souktel exists solely to serve the development sector. For close to ten years now we have been building customised digital solutions for the aid and development provider community, typically for the organisations that are the first in the country responding to refugee crises. This includes UN agencies and on-the-ground implementers such as the IRC (International Rescue Committee), ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) and Mercy Corps. We have been able to assist in a multitude of refugee crises; primarily the Syrian crisis and various other crises in the Middle East region, which is where we are based. Most of our team (30 in total) are based in Ramallah, Palestine – and as a result it gives us a unique perspective into the ongoing multiple refugee situations in that part of the world. Because of the experience we’ve had here in Palestine, we have also been called in to assist with refugee crises in other parts of the world; in Sub-Saharan Africa, mainly.


What projects have you undertaken in Sub-Saharan Africa for refugees?

We have a large number of projects in the region. Some of these pertain to refugees in the Horn of Africa – looking at Somali refugees, who are internally displaced persons (IDPs) within Somali regions or in Kenya. We have undertaken a number of different projects over the years to address this situation – everything from working within the Dadaab camp, to developing mobile phone based information services where refugees can both receive information and also give their feedback on the provision of local services.

“This is a project that really demonstrates the power of a mobile service in achieving scale and impact across the largest refugee camp in the world.”

We partnered with a local radio station in 2013 that was broadcasting out humanitarian information to Dadaab camp and set up a system whereby refugees in the camp could text in with comments or questions relating to the radio broadcasts. The comments were received in real time on the air and the host of the radio show could interact and respond to people’s questions. This is a project that really demonstrates the power of a mobile service in achieving scale and impact across the largest refugee camp in the world. The project was MNO agnostic to ensure that anybody on any network could use the service.

In a different project, we undertook remote mobile monitoring of UN OCHA’s Common Humanitarian Fund, which delivered 100+ different interventions to help internally displaced Somalis within south central Somalia. We did the tracking among 10,000 people via mobile device remotely through Computer Assisted Telephone Interviews (CATI) – an automated audio interview to determine the effectiveness of the aid that was delivered.

In West Africa, we are currently delivering services for IDPs in north eastern Nigeria – where people have been forcibly displaced by Boko Haram. We give them information services via text and audio.




What sort of services have you provided for people closer to home in Palestine?

We’ve delivered many services within Gaza and the West Bank that have addressed the needs of refugees in protracted refugee situations. There are many long-term Palestinian refugees who have been refugees since either 1948 or 1967, and they live in long-term refugee camps which are different to tent camps. Any time there is a conflict in Gaza we work directly with aid providers to help provide assistance for internally displaced people. We’ve worked with the two MNOs in Palestine to deliver our services. In many cases the MNOs will waive the messaging fees, especially when there’s active conflict going on.

One example of a life-saving service we deployed in the West Bank was an alert system, in direct partnership with mobile network operator Jawwal, to be able to get urgent blood supplies to places that need it most. When conflict broke out in 2009, Souktel was approached by the Red Crescent who needed a way of contacting people to encourage them to donate blood. We created an alerts platform to enable the Red Crescent to send customised bulk messages to thousands of people in Gaza. In the first two hours of sending an alert, 500 people responded by donating blood.

“In the first two hours of sending an alert, 500 people responded by donating blood.”

What sort of partnerships with mobile network operators do you have for these services?

Everything is built bespoke for its purpose and therefore the nature of the partnership varies across projects. Tailored services are particularly important because of the wide-ranging device types and access options across geographic regions. For example, Syrian refugees generally have access to more advanced mobile technology than people in north eastern Nigeria – although this is changing with smartphone penetration and 3G coverage expanding in Nigeria.

In terms of partnering directly with MNOs – in Turkey – we have a direct partnership with a mobile network operator. In Nigeria, we are MNO-agnostic so we work with an aggregator across all the MNOs. In the Horn of Africa, we have direct partnerships with Telesom, Golis, and with MNOs in south central Somalia. The nature of the partnership therefore varies across markets.


Your Mobile Legal information project with the American Bar Association’s Rule of Law Initiative (ABA-ROLI) is the first of its kind. Can you explain the service?

Syrian refugees arriving in Turkey – the only non-Arabic speaking country in the region – do not speak Turkish; they have no knowledge of the Turkish legal system and so they don’t have a good grasp of what their entitlements are with the law. As a result, they’re vulnerable to human rights violations and lack knowledge on everything, from being able to register their children for school to understanding what their employment rights are. This service enables Syrian refugees to send legal questions in Arabic to a platform that we custom built for this purpose. The legal rights related questions are tagged and sorted based on the content, i.e. whether the question is health or education related etc. The web-based content management platform that we created is accessible to a pre-selected group of Turkish lawyers. The content is translated into Turkish, and the lawyers then respond to the requests by providing information, which then gets translated back into Arabic and is uploaded onto the mobile of the refugee.


How did this project come about? What were the main challenges in developing the service?

The project was delivered in partnership with the American Bar Association (ABA), who then partnered with the Turkish Bar Association. So ABA came to us, as we’ve worked with them previously in Tunisia and Libya on similar kinds of services.

While the technology side was complex and time consuming – requiring tagging, sorting, translating and other functions – it was not the biggest challenge. Actually the toughest part was the notion of bringing together refugees and lawyers and ensuring the service could provide advice, but at the same time not be misconstrued as providing formal legal counsel. It was necessary to be clear in portraying the fact that this is not a service that provides individualised legal representation to anyone, so a refugee cannot be engaging in obtaining legal services for a specific case of theirs. This is more of a general information hotline that has some personalised aspects to it. It is, however, a really important first step in that refugees can be educated on what their rights are and, in many cases, can obtain comprehensive answers to basic but crucial questions, such as ‘can my children go to school in Turkey? If so, what are my rights?’


How was the service promoted to Syrian refugees, particularly in urban environments?

The service was primarily marketed through points of contacts where refugees were already receiving assistance. To raise awareness of the service further, Souktel and ABA-ROLI also launched an SMS outreach campaign to promote local legal awareness sessions, offering short tips on basic rights, encouraging Syrians to respond via SMS to find out more. Also, in the first few months of the project we looked to analyse responses through the platform itself – which allows one to enumerate what the most frequent request types are. It became clear early on what most people were asking about and education ranked highest on the list.


How many refugees have used the service so far and is there potential for this service to be replicated elsewhere?

Around 10,000 individuals have used the service since its launch in the summer of this year. Due to the fact that outgoing messages are subsidised, there is a cap on the number of users, due to the amount that could be financed through the donor funding that was available. There are approximately 2 million Syrians in Turkey, so there is huge demand for the service.

There is widespread replicability for this service. Anyone in a new setting may not know what their legal entitlements are and so there is widespread applicability for the service, and all the partners are interested in taking this elsewhere. Whether it be for other Somalis in Kenya, Burundians in Tanzania – or any displaced community for that matter, there is always a need for accurate information. The ability to provide this information and have it personalised enough that you can actually get feedback from a real lawyer is really compelling.




Have you come across refugees perhaps not wanting to use mobile phones due to security concerns?

As long as the services are presented in a way that indicates the security aspects clearly–where they’re anonymised, fully encrypted and so forth–then this is not a concern. It’s a major advantage that many major messaging applications are encrypted and refugees can use them securely. Security and privacy concerns are not a major deterrent as long as the services are presented in this way.


In your view, why should MNOs partner with organisations like yours to serve refugees?

Individuals who happen to be refugees today will be consumers of mobile services tomorrow and so it’s important for MNOs to understand that – and to see refugees as a significant customer base. Some MNOs have already recognised this opportunity, confronting the misconception of refugees as helpless recipients of aid and understanding that they are in fact individuals with purchasing power. However, there is still some way to go in improving the perception of refugees. Governments are sending a message that – in many cases – refugees are not assets, and so that trickles down to the MNOs as well, in how they approach this segment of the population.

“Individuals who happen to be refugees today will be consumers of mobile services tomorrow and so it’s important for MNOs to understand that – and to see refugees as a significant customer base.”

What are the main recommendations you would give to tech companies and the humanitarian sector who want to engage with MNOs?

The partnership study which Souktel published with the GSMA earlier this year talked about common misconceptions, focusing on the stereotypes that MNOs and the humanitarian community hold of each other. The key is for the aid sector to understand how to speak to operators in more commercial terms that make sense to them, and for MNOs to understand how the aid sector works, with an awareness that this is a real opportunity to make an impact within communities. Understanding the two sides of the coin is important.

What role do you see for the GSMA in the field of refugee connectivity?

The key role that the GSMA can play is to be an advocate for the aid sector to the telecom sector, to help raise awareness among MNOs as to the value that these services can provide to refugees. MNOs listen to and trust the GSMA in many cases more than they do the aid sector, because they just don’t know the aid sector, and so if GSMA can mobilise and advocate among the MNOs, and show that this is a really important priority, then I think this is something that helps everybody.

Where do you see the future of this idea of connectivity and refugees and also your role as Souktel in this area?

The Syrian crisis has shown us interesting realities, in the sense that this was really the first ‘mobile first’ refugee crisis that we’ve seen–in which the role that mobile technology plays in facilitating migration and ensuring that refugees stay safe, via access to key information, is really significant. It’s a question now of how we leverage that reality to help mitigate the impact of the refugee crisis going forward.

“The Syrian crisis has shown us interesting realities in the sense that this was really the first ‘mobile first’ refugee crisis that we’ve seen… It’s a question now of how we leverage that reality to help mitigate the impact of the refugee crisis going forward.”

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