Screen Time: Mobile trends in a Tanzanian refugee camp

Mobile agent in the central market

Cell phone usage, even in the remotest of areas, has grown exponentially over the past decade. Today, more people have access to mobile phones than clean water and electricity (U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, 2016). In few places is this truer than in Sub-Saharan African refugee camps. Camps are typically set up in remote, difficult to reach areas, far from major towns and cities.

Established in 1996, Nyarugusu refugee camp in Western Tanzania is home to more than 136,000 refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi. Refugees live in 142 villages across 28 square kilometers. The population is young, with 53 per cent under the age of 18.

According to a 2017 UNHCR study, two-thirds of households in Nyarugusu report that their household has access to a mobile phone. The camp has access to its own tower and as such, Nyarugusu remains the sole location with access to 3G (UNHCR, 2017). Phone users charge their phones using personal solar powered chargers or by taking their phone to a charging station and paying for the service.

As a former worker within Nyarugusu refugee camp, I am interested in exploring not only access to mobile devices, but how individuals do or don’t utilize cell phones for continuing education. Beyond secondary school there is no formal provision of education in refugee camps in Tanzania. Because of this, I see enormous potential in equipping individuals with the tools necessary to seek out and access mobile learning opportunities. Because my former role involved working with individuals slated to resettle to the US, I am equally as interested in how NGOs and others working within refugee camps can tap into the power of mobile training and mobile programming. Given my experience and research into former studies, I hypothesized that while access to mobile devices has increased, thoughtful and functional training on mobile technology has not.

To gain more insight, I collaborated with a former colleague and Congolese resident of Nyarugusu to survey individuals from different age groups (15+), genders, and regions to learn more about who has mobile devices, what they are used for, and if and how the average Nyarugusu resident utilizes mobile technology for learning. Of all the capabilities mobile connectivity affords, this study is most interested in utilizing mobile technology for continued learning.

Figure 1: Mobile phone ownership responses

Contrary to the two-thirds found in the 2017 UNHCR study, 100% of our 2019 study respondents claimed to either have a phone or have access to one in the household (see figure 1).

When asked about familiarity with or usage of mobile learning programs, no individuals indicated knowing or using their mobile devices for educational purposes. Most indicated using mobile phones for text messaging, listening to music, watching movies, and accessing mobile money. However, when the question was re-framed to inquire about what mobile programs would be helpful to have if and when individuals live in an English speaking country, 90% of respondents indicated “English language programs” would be the most helpful, with a handful of social media platforms following.

Further research into mobile learning in Nyarugusu refugee camp shows that resources have been put into mobile learning opportunities within primary and secondary schools, excluding adult and continued learning. In 2016, the Vodafone Foundation, the non-profit associated with the international mobile carrier, Vodafone, launched an Instant Network Schools (INS) program. This program established six internet connected classrooms within the Congolese regions of Nyarugusu. These classrooms are equipped with a VSAT wifi connection as well as 25 tablets for teacher/student use. While the community has occasional access to these resources, the focus is mainly on the students lucky enough to attend one of these 6 schools.


Looking at the results of my survey in combination with the larger UNHCR survey of 2017, it is clear to see that access to mobile devices is prevalent. However, training on how to best utilize mobile devices for continued learning remains elusive. While some primary and secondary students may have access to tablets, there is no specific programming to teach adult Nyarugusu residents how to meaningfully use a device they likely already own.

A 2017 UNHCR study in Nyarugusu posits:

“Phone use in Nyarugusu increases with education level (27 per cent of non-educated respondents report using a phone, compared to 75 per cent of secondary school educated respondents), and digital literacy was reported as a barrier to phone use by 16 percent of phone users and a barrier to internet use by 22 percent of basic phone users. Given the socio-economic benefits that mobile technology can provide refugees, humanitarian agencies running educational programmes could consider options for enhancing digital literacy among the refugee population, such as integrating digital skills training into existing education technology programmes and offering training sessions to users of community technology access centres.”

This training could significantly benefit those individuals who will eventually be moving to and integrating into an entirely new country, language, and society. Mobile literacy training would prepare individuals with the problem solving skills necessary to tackle obstacles in and outside of a camp setting. Generations are being born in Nyarugusu. Even if these individuals are lucky enough to someday leave the camp setting, there is a better way to utilize the time they are there. NGOs, humanitarian workers, and others working to support growth and opportunity development within the camp should harness the power of mobile technology by training people on how to use it to further their education and pursue individual goals.

Hannah Wilkinson is the founder of and the co-founder of

Data collected in Nyarugusu refugee camp by Bikobiko Mto with informed consent.

Int’l education + curriculum builder | Founder of @ESLForEquality | Co-founder of @SmallScreensOrg | Follow for #Refugees, #MobileLearning, #ESL, and 🌎events.

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