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3 social enterprises pioneering light, connection, and livelihood for FDPs

Three founders share how they built their businesses around the needs of Forcibly Displaced Peoples and their host communities in East Africa
August 26th, 2022

Image provided by Derrick Hosea


For more than 20 years, an armed conflict between the government and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) caused devastation in the Gulu District of northern Uganda, displacing over one million people and forcing them to leave their camps and villages. 

To support the rising displaced community from war and other events like climate change throughout Africa, many entrepreneurs have invested in products, services, and systems to make their circumstances more sustainable. 

This year, Acumen Academy launched the Accelerator for Ventures Serving Displaced People, a new program for enterprises that are advancing sustainable livelihoods in refugee camps and host communities in East Africa. During the 10-week program, the cohort has been diving into lessons, workshops, and experiments to uncover opportunities and identify barriers as they scale their business and impact.

Despite the challenges that come with infrastructure, climate, and navigating camp settings, working with forcibly displaced people (FDP) has the potential to unlock new sources of capital. For example, development agencies and local nonprofits can ease the entry to camp settings by providing service contracts and partnerships and granting funding. Additionally, about 54 percent of funders are actively applying a “refugee lens” to their investments, according to Refugee Investment Network.

The ventures in our cohort offer a complementary approach to humanitarian assistance. While aid is intended as an immediate response to acute crises, social enterprises are positioned to create durable livelihoods and supply critical services to build resilient communities for the long run.

Some of the companies engage with displaced people as customers, providing clean energy products, internet access, and electronic devices that are sorely needed in post-conflict and camp settings. Others engage with displaced people as employers or suppliers, like sourcing produce from smallholder farmers for a fair and reliable price.

We spoke with accelerator cohort members from Kakuma Ventures, One Lamp, and Pelere Group Unlimited, the first two of which are run by former refugees. We learned about their backgrounds, business models, their experience with the accelerator, and the road ahead.

Kakuma VenturesCopy-of-IMG_9582

Photo provided by Kakuma Ventures

Innocent N. Tshilombo is the Co-Founder and Managing Director of Kakuma Ventures, a refugee-run platform located at the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya.

The venture serves two main functions: installing public wifi in Kakuma camp neighborhoods — which provides both FDPs and their host communities internet access — and offering free training sessions in digital literacy, e-commerce, and hotspot maintenance. Kakuma’s goal is to expand their energy and internet outreach throughout this camp and into others, creating a wide network of jobs, FDP entrepreneurship, and community development. 


Since his displacement from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Innocent has been living at the Kakuma camp for the past 13 years, where he came up with the idea to start Kakuma Ventures. After struggling to get internet connectivity while studying to get his education, Innocent realized that bringing affordable and fast internet services to his camp could provide opportunity and a source of income to refugees like himself.

"Everyone around me was having the same challenges, and it was very important for me to take the initiative so that I could help my fellow refugees." In response, Innocent took action to drive change in his community when he realized that he couldn't rely only on outside resources. "The fact is, not everyone will come to our rescue. And that’s what motivated me to release this initiative."

Challenges they're addressing

"To be displaced is just a temporary status," Innocent stated. "There’s life after the refugee camp and there was life before the refugee camp. I used to enjoy life like anyone else who is living in [an] urban area. But suddenly I found myself in a remote area, which was very complicated, and there are a lot of services that we lack access to." 

Innocent shared that most refugees are systematically excluded from the larger system, including the market. "This is what we want to show to the world," he said, "that the refugee settings are also a market that should be addressed."

To be displaced is just a temporary status. There’s life after the refugee camp and there was life before the refugee camp.

Innocent N. Tshilombo
Co-Founder and Managing Director of Kakuma Ventures

"To offer internet service," Innocent continued, "it’s very hard for people who don’t have access to electricity and for people who don’t have access to a digital tool such as a laptop or a smartphone. It doesn’t make sense for them." He also expressed how members of his community lacked digital literacy, which prevented them from using digital tools productively. "People have been disconnected from the digital world for decades."

By approaching roadblocks not just as a company but also as members of the community, Kakuma Ventures is deeply connected to the pulse of their customers' needs. "We don’t only look at the service that we’re offering to people directly, but at the underlying issues that affect them in order for them to access our services." This can include their legal inability to work in the new country that they’ve been displaced in, thus preventing them from affording those services. 

The venture then discusses those challenges collectively, putting their efforts into training for digital literacy, offering loans, and providing their refugee trainees with work opportunities. "I thought, we can afford to give the people green energy and digital tools on loan so that they can pay slowly. If you’re not allowed to work where you’re living [as a refugee], you’re at least able to work and train online to become freelancers and earn an income."

Screen Shot 2022-08-25 at 2.40.56 PM

Photo provided by Kakuma Ventures

Innocent noted that both refugees and host community alike are able to access Kakuma Ventures' internet services at the camp, which is a welcome advantage in a rural, inaccessible area like theirs. "The refugees live in harmony with the host community, so it’s very important to make sure our services are touching them," said Innocent. 

Accelerator impact

Much like their community members, Kakuma Ventures also struggles with feelings of isolation. "Yes, we have access to the internet, but we lack visibility without interaction with like-minded leaders. But through this accelerator, that’s what we’re receiving. The program is also helping us refine our processes." 

Through the program's one-on-one mentorship, Innocent was able to better analyze and refine his company's goals. "The opportunities we get through the program will help us to be ready for the next step of our enterprises." Finding himself changed by the program, Innocent observed that he wasn't the same person as when he joined. "I learned something new, I’ve added value to my personal leadership and aspirations, and it helped me refine my vision." 

With increased visibility from the Accelerator, Innocent is hopeful for a more independent future and more awareness when it comes to refugees. "In the past years, we used to see enterprises coming from outside to address problems, but now we’re addressing our own. People should know that it’s okay from now on, that refugees are addressing their problems by themselves. It’s very important for that story to reach the widest possible audience, [to] change the narrative and stereotypes about refugees, their needs, and how those should be addressed."


One Lamp

OneLamp Solar Retailer

Photo provided by One Lamp

CEO Derrick Hosea Opio’s passion for clean energy and social entrepreneurship led him to develop One Lamp, which addresses the dangerous and unsustainable use of Kerosene lamps throughout Africa. 

Around 620 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa do not have access to electricity, cutting them off from medical and economical opportunities and clean energy resources. One Lamp addresses this crisis by providing solar energy solutions and solar refrigeration to households in Uganda, offering affordable access through a lease-to-own model. 


Derrick knows personally what it means not to have access to electricity. Born in a low income rural household in Eastern Uganda, he recounted a time in his life where the occasional source of light for dinner was a kerosene lamp. "So we really know what it means for forcibly displaced communities to lack access to energy, which can mean the difference between safety and fear, freedom and servitude, poverty and wealth. It is important to think outside the box."

"In a country like Uganda where there are over 1.5 million refugees, this presents a very interesting opportunity for social enterprises in the private sector," said Derrick. "If you look at it in terms of a business like One Lamp, this presents an opportunity to grow the business, to serve refugees as a unique customer with unique needs." He also pointed out that it can provide another opportunity to hire FDPs with different skills. "So we look at it as a win-win situation serving refugees and also looking at them as beneficiaries."

We really know what it means for forcibly displaced communities to lack access to energy, which can mean the difference between safety and fear, freedom and servitude, poverty and wealth. It is important to think outside the box.

Derek Hosea Ojio
CEO of One Lamp

Challenges they're addressing

The most difficult task that One Lamp faces is limited access to affordable financing. Without it, social enterprises like One Lamp are unable to serve new customers. "We can't expand our market coverage. We can't broaden our products and we can't even build the financial capacity to serve displaced communities." 

While One Lamp does provide access to customer financing for FDP's and customer segments, the FDPs are new to the country and don't have credit score history to rely upon. "So what we did was develop a credit scoring system for serving our displaced communities." This system has helped One Lamp increase the adoption of solar systems and reduce the cost of serving FDPs by 60 percent, benefitting their customers and the impact of their outreach.

OneLamp Solar Delivery

Photo provided by One Lamp

Host communities have also struggled with keeping their food safe and their water cool. Access to solar refrigeration systems like the ones One Lamp provides is essential for food security, and it will consequently bring more employment opportunities for both women and youths. Additionally, "small enterprises within the FDP communities that are running businesses at night are going to be able to earn more money," Derrick explained. "Our solutions go beyond basic lighting and mobile charging. We are providing solar refrigeration systems that are changing the entire ecosystem." 

Accelerator impact

"Refugees are not only in Uganda, so as we scale this impact we’re also looking beyond Uganda, and this is where Acumen comes in." By the end of the program, One Lamp plans to map out a solid business strategy with short and long-term growth plans. 

Through the program curriculum, Derrick also learned how to build a customer-centric social enterprise — one that listens to customers to better understand their needs and aspirations. "I think as a founder and as a leader, this is a very big lesson that is going to help me to manage my teams better."


Pelere Group Unlimited 

farmers photo

Photo provided by Pelere Group Unlimited

Sandra Letio is the Managing Director at Pelere Group Limited. Founded in 2012, Pelere offers a wide selection of various premium quality shea nuts products in Uganda that are available to customers worldwide and managed in a sustainable way for the long term well-being of Uganda’s forest resources and community. Pelere works alongside forcibly displaced people both as suppliers and as customers.



The area that Pelere Group works in has been affected by the LRA for over 35 years. "This was a vulnerable area where about 1.5 million people were displaced, especially from South Sudan," Sandra explained. Pelere Group's inclusive business approach enables them to operate alongside FDPs — 20 percent of the staff members are displaced and have a direct impact in both their communities and Pelere Group's work.

"We started training the displaced farmers in quality, GAP, HACCP, and post-handling practices of shea fruit," noted Sandra. Pelere Group emphasizes conserving shea trees and using them as a revenue stream for farmers, increasing the company's growth in the region. 

Farmers training-Sharon

Image provided by Sandra Letio, Pelere Group Unlimited 

Challenges they're addressing

In the areas where Pelere Group sells their shea products, transportation is difficult to find and the journey can be long. "The accessibility is really hard sometimes, especially in the community that we serve in Northern Uganda," shared Sandra. "We also have to ensure that the products are quality but that prices are flexible for them. You’re making a product that can also fit in their budget.” The other barrier is language. "Most times when you have to move to such communities, you’ll have to work with an interpreter." 

The company is able to provide their teams with some funds to travel to refugee camps. "You want to have four wheels because the roads are not the best, and the motorbikes are expensive, but it’s the best we can afford now to reach such communities." 

In spite of these challenges, the positive outcomes make Pelere Group’s efforts worthwhile. "The main opportunity is to give them a source of hope," Sandra expressed. "I think the time when I thought about this seriously was when a [refugee woman] came and said, 'I’m able to pay for my kids’ school fees, I’m able to take my kids to school, I’m able to meet my basic needs now.'" Sandra explained that a majority of these refugees are women who may have lost their husbands in the war. "It’s such a privilege to serve them," she reflected. 

I believe stories will change, [and] we will see more refugees getting education. I believe this is a very sustainable model compared to the handouts they’re given. We will see them living a life that’s admirable.

Sandra Letio
Managing Director of Pelere Group Limited

Accelerator impact 

"It was amazing to be in that class every week," Sandra shared. "The breakout sessions where we had peer-to-peer mentoring showed me that we have different business models, but we’re achieving one goal. We [were] able to learn from what someone was doing in Ethiopia, what someone was doing in Kenya, so it was an interesting journey." 

Sandra is deeply invested in the continuous impact Pelere Group is having within the refugee community. "I believe stories will change, [and] we will see more refugees getting education. I believe this is a very sustainable model compared to the handouts they’re given. We will see them living a life that’s admirable."

Sandra, Derek, and Innocent strive to provide a better life for refugees as customers, employees, and suppliers. Alongside their cohort of 27 leaders, these accelerator participants are driving change in innovative ways as they help establish long-deserved equity, accessibility, and visibility. 

For more information about the Accelerator for Ventures Serving Displaced People, visit this page.  

The Accelerator for Ventures Serving Forcibly Displaced People is supported by the IKEA Foundation and the Swiss Agency for Development and Coordination.