Changemakers: How two friends are powering up refugee camps

Samuel Kellerhals and Alexandros Angelopoulos realised that high among refugees' needs was just the ability to charge their phones. So they decided to do something to help

What would you do if you were separated from your family, under hugely dangerous circumstances, for months at a time? You’d probably want to call them. That’s what Samuel Kellerhals and Alexandros Angelopoulos thought when they created Elpis Solar, a non-profit organisation getting solar-powered phone chargers, water-filtration systems and the chance to earn an income to those living in Greek and Rwandan refugee camps.

The duo became friends when studying for degrees in environmental sciences at the University of Edinburgh. In 2015, Angelopoulos spent the summer in his native Greece at the height of the refugee crisis. He was horrified by the difficult conditions he witnessed people living in, but surprised by the one request they all seemed to share – a phone charger.

“Many of them will have walked for days or even weeks, using phones to find their way or get in touch with their families. And sometimes it’s their only way of accessing life-saving information. It’s very much a lifeline,” explains Swiss-born Kellerhals, 24. “In second year, when he came back to Edinburgh, he told me what he’d seen and we decided to look at ways we could help.”

The idea for the devices came easily enough, Kellerhals explains, and the tech is quite simple – it just took someone to realise how valuable it could be. After crowdfunding £4,000 and winning further support from their university, they had the devices made – before the pair and a team of fellow students travelled to Greece to pilot them. The stations can be charging 12 phones an hour for about 10 hours per day. Nearly 800 people were forced to share one plug in a camp near Athens.

They’ve been back every year since. “As it unfolded, we learned about more and more needs that weren’t being met there,” Kellerhals explains. The Elpis team saw that people were desperate for access to clean water and that there was a dearth of simple information.

If we can empower refugees to provide them themselves, even better

From that point, still completing their studies, they installed new devices every year. The range of services they were making accessible to refugees grew – they were able to provide large-scale water filtration systems, and got to work on a 250GB digital-knowledge base that can be accessed by smartphones, even without internet.

It contains a library of more than 40,000 e-books and the entirety of Wikipedia. The duo are also looking to work with organisations that make higher education materials available to people without an internet connection, meaning people can get qualifications without needing to go online.

A couple of things set the work of Elpis apart from others. Some refugee camps did already have chargers available, but they were run off generators and harmful to the environment. Their solar-powered charging stations make staying in touch with loved ones and accessing legal help sustainable.

They’ve also adopted a mini-entrepreneurship model – not dissimilar to that of The Big Issue. “We’re working closely with refugees to help them run their own businesses in the camps,” Kellerhals says. “They will operate these stations and charge others a small amount to charge their phones, thus earning a living. Some have doubled their incomes through working with Elpis. It’s important the services are provided, but if we can empower refugees to provide them themselves, even better.” Four refugees are employed through Elpis, a number that is set to grow.

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The plan is now to expand across Africa and into Uganda as well as entering more refugee camps in Greece. “We just want to improve the standards of living wherever we can,” Kellerhals says.

The biggest challenge, he adds, is getting access to refugee camps themselves – they find they’re not always welcome, according to the organisations running them. “Often services like these aren’t considered a high priority. It’s not food or shelter, so they don’t always want to let us in.”

But the Elpis installations have struggled to keep up with the high demand. Meanwhile, both men have completed or started Masters degrees. Angelopoulos is working in renewables while Kellerhals studies in Amsterdam; they manage the non-profit part-time, long-distance. They have just been selected as one of eight businesses to receive $10,000 and a place on the MIT Solve scheme, which supports community-driven innovation schemes.

“We want to use our time wisely and try to contribute to fighting the bigger problems, like climate change,” Kellerhals says. “Elpis is just the start of a long journey!”

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Illustration: Matthew Brazier