REFUNITE harnesses the power and scale of mobile technology to reconnect refugees and displaced people with their missing loved ones. The non-profit tech organisation’s family-tracing platform is described by REFUNITE as global, safe, anonymous and free of charge on any device.
REFUNITE co-founders David and Christopher Mikkelsen are two Danish social entrepreneurs bridging the gap between the non-profit and the corporate worlds.Together their achievements have been recognised by Monocle Magazine and DAS Magazine as well as being featured in TIME, The Economist, The Huffington Post, The BBC, WIRED and National Geographic. In 2010 and 2011, they were members of the Clinton Global Initiative.
The GSMA Disaster Response programme has followed the work of REFUNITE over the past few years, producing both a Case Study and a life story on the platform. We caught up with the Mikkelsen brothers to find out how REFUNITE has been growing, how they’re adapting to the challenging displacement landscape, and their priorities for 2017.
How REFUNITE works:
At the centre of the work that REFUNITE undertakes is the tracing platform, a database of all of the refugees and displaced who have registered to use the service. This platform has been developed through a partnership with Ericsson and is accessible via the official website, https://m.refunite.org/, and in selected countries via SMS or USSD. Through partnerships with MNOs, REFUNITE runs text messaging campaigns to subscribers in targeted areas. REFUNITE’s algorithms use whatever details the person in question is comfortable sharing – name, clan or sub-clan, village name – and sends information back with a list of people who could be potential matches. REFUNITE do not disclose whereabouts, phone numbers or emails. Users get in contact through the platform and, once they establish a genuine match, they exchange details.
How did REFUNITE start and when? What was the impetus behind it?
Chris: REFUNITE was founded after David and I helped an Afghan refugee, named Mansour, in 2005, try and find his missing family members after they left Afghanistan, fleeing the Taliban. In the process of tracking down his loved ones, we discovered that none of the major organisations had created any kind of IT infrastructure that could collect and distribute knowledge on separated families, which meant that for us to try and find Mansour’s family was extremely difficult. We eventually located one of Mansour’s younger brothers in a small city in Southern Russia and helped reunite the two in Moscow after six years of separation. Although it was a happy ending for Mansour, the experience showed us that there needed to be a better way to help the world’s hundreds of thousands of refugees who desperately wanted to reconnect with long-lost relatives and friends. To fill this void, we created REFUNITE.
“What started as an agency focused organisation, with a platform that agencies could use to streamline their operations, has now grown into becoming an organisation focused on refugee to refugee assistance – where people can use mobile phones to share information to obtain knowledge and reconnect.”
This is what makes REFUNITE unique in that other organisations continue to use top-level driven efforts where they collect, hold, distribute and share information amongst themselves to see if they can find family members who may be searching for one another. Whereas for us, instead of going into a camp and having 3 people help 600,000 people with finding missing loved ones, we use the 600,000 to help the remaining 600,000 in an exponential system where they all collect information to help one another to reconnect.
You work closely with a number of partners – why are these partnerships so important to you?
David: Through the years, we have partnered with a wide range of organisations who support our mission: from local refugee groups in conflict zones to leading mobile companies. As a technology organisation that was established to serve the world’s displaced people, we continue to believe that this approach — partnering with refugees, NGOs and private-sector companies alike — enables us to reconnect families more rapidly. Without the mobile network operators and without Ericsson there would be no REFUNITE. This is a way for us to get out there and reach the refugees that we need to reach. Without these partners we would need to be a much bigger team and a different budget.
“Without the mobile network operators and without Ericsson there would be no REFUNITE.”
Ericsson is your global technology partner. What are their roles and responsibilities?
David: Ericsson’s roles and responsibilities have shifted over the years, but they have truly been a very significant part of REFUNITE from the early days. When we realised that we had to go all mobile, we got in touch with Ericsson and haven’t looked back since. We have only been able to build our tools and core software, and had the level of impact around the world that we’ve had, because of Ericsson. When you enter into a new country with Ericsson, it opens a lot of doors, because they already have the infrastructure that is so needed in our work. It would be impossible for us to build an organisation that could have the impact we have if Ericsson wasn’t with us. Put simply, without Ericsson we wouldn’t be here, or we’d have a very small impact compared to what we have now.
What about some of your other key stakeholders?
David: Our exciting news for 2016 was our collaboration with Free Basics, an initiative by Facebook, Ericsson and partners, that aims to provide free access to lifesaving Internet services to a billion people globally. Thanks to this partnership with Free Basics, displaced families in 16 countries with access to smartphones or feature phones can now search for their missing loved ones free of charge, through their respective mobile network operators, via m.refunite.org.
Chris: We also have different types of partnerships with mobile network operators and are currently partnering directly with five MNOs; Asiacell (Iraq), Safaricom (Kenya), Vodacom (DRC), Hormuud (Somalia), and Telesom (Somaliland). These partnerships are crucial. In DRC for example, Vodacom is our partner on the ground who can facilitate REFUNITE’s visits which is a very difficult thing when you get to conflict areas like Goma, if you’re a small organisation like REFUNITE.
“Displaced families in 16 countries with access to smartphones or feature phones can now search for their missing loved ones free of charge, through their respective mobile network operators, via m.refunite.org.”
What is the driving factor for MNOs to partner with you?
Chris: The driving factor for the MNOs is multi-fold. People tend to think that because we work so closely with the private sector, it’s all profit driven. We actually see that the MNOs we work with in the field in these countries are concerned with helping their communities – they want to give back. We believe as a strategy and philosophy of REFUNITE that charity is not sustainable in the long-term; we need to find business models around this where it makes sense in a triple bottom line situation for the operators as well. They can point to the fact that when they help members of their communities reconnect with family it creates incredible brand loyalty. Simply by extending – by a miniscule percentage – what they already do, operators can contribute to solving a humanitarian problem as well.
“Simply by extending – by a miniscule percentage – what they already do, operators can contribute to solving a humanitarian problem as well.”
How do you communicate with ‘last mile’ mobile phone users?
Chris: Nobody knows more about how these people communicate than the MNOs. We therefore rely on MNOs for localisation of services, so when we enter new markets – for example Pakistan and Afghanistan – it’s crucial that we have conversations with the communications departments of the MNOs to discuss how best to forge the outreach and how to localise the languages that we use. Tailoring our services to each context is so crucial for success.
How are you adapting to new displacement contexts and changing technologies? And what are your priorities for 2017?
David: The reality is that even though a smartphone revolution is happening in the depths of Somalia for example, what REFUNITE continue to focus on is that the world still holds about 8-900 million illiterate people who are not benefiting from this revolution – at least not to the degree that they could or should were they literate.
“In 2017 we are focusing on voice driven platforms and finding out how we can combine IVR into our work so that we can engage with illiterate people using only their voice.”
For us a big ticket item for 2017 is therefore focusing on voice driven platforms and finding out how we can combine IVR into our work so that we can engage with illiterate people using only their voice. We’ve recently partnered with the H&M Foundation on this and will be focusing on Pakistan to see if we can create a hybrid between a digital analogue service that refugees and the displaced can use through a combination of voice and possibly numerical inputs.
What has been your impact to date and how do you measure it?
David: We are currently helping over 600,000 registered people looking for loved ones and we are rapidly seeing iterations towards 1 million people on the platform. In 2016 alone, we estimate to have reconnected around over 3,300 family members. In terms of measuring impact – to us – from a data perspective, it’s really a question of how we heighten the percentage of people on our platform who are reconnecting. We cannot be a one size fits all solution and it therefore takes a lot of man power to understand what the existing communication models are for these groups. So instead of trying to replace those, or introduce something entirely new, we figure out how our existing methodology can be amplified by the technology we provide.
“In 2016 alone, we reconnected over 3,300 family members. These are very high numbers – and numbers we are very proud of – and we expect them to grow even more.”
How do you market your service and what methods have you found to be the most successful?
David: When it comes to direct marketing, SMS campaigns have been the most successful way – it’s so easy for us when we have MNOs that support us to target an area, and when people receive a text message right there on their phone telling them about REFUNITE, how much better can you get than that?
What role do you see for the GSMA in the field of connectivity?
Chris: The role of the GSMA is as a governing body. One of the key things that happens in the aftermath of a conflict is complete confusion; and you have a host of organisations who want to utilise the strength of the infrastructure of MNOs. So instead of having 50 NGOs negotiating individually, the GSMA has a powerful role in convening and being the representative voice of the humanitarian sector as we try to navigate difficulties of suddenly having to shift into an entirely new landscape in whatever new country the conflict or natural disaster may arise.
“GSMA has the infrastructure, the partnerships, the relationships, and through those I think GSMA can serve as a broker in between many of these situations, thereby creating much more streamlined impact.”
David: Imagine that a small organisation like REFUNITE didn’t need to have 17 individual different partnerships but just one with GSMA. That would then facilitate the partnerships with the MNOs directly which would save us a ton of resources and could of course be replicated for many other organisations. GSMA has the infrastructure, the partnerships, the relationships, and through those I think GSMA can serve as a broker in between many of these situations, thereby creating much more streamlined impact.