How to build a mobile charging and connectivity border solution with refugees

Article written by Mathias Zemiro and Jérémie Garnier, volunteers with Techfugees France

In our highly interconnected world, the simple fact of having internet access allows us to get all the information we want and need, and connect with people thousands of kilometers away. With the recent events in Ukraine and the forced displacement of more than about 2 millions persons in a few weeks in mind, creating open frameworks and methodologies to create mobile connectivity borders solutions for forcibly displaced persons is really needed. It is a project Techfugees France team has been researching on and supporting since the pandemic in 2020. 

We worked with Refugee Info Bus, a non-profit organization based in Calais,  providing – from their trucks – refugees and asylum seekers with phones and wifi for them to be able to know where they can eat or sleep in the area, call or text their loved ones, or simply listen to some music or play a bit on their phones.


You have free time and want to help bring mobile connectivity hotspots for refugees and marginalized groups at borders ?

The Refugee Info Bus model is in fact replicable. Here’s a recap on how you can reproduce it on your own :

* The indicated prices are non-exhaustive and are based on french offers (ex: SFR for the wifi box). They can vary depending on the option taken.


Step 1 : Get a vehicle

The first step is to get your hands on a vehicle which can provide you with storage and shelter for the equipment you’ll need.


Tip : The bigger the vehicle, the more items you can store. With a van for example, you should be able to transport tables and benches for people to sit and relax, or even barnum’s when it’s raining.


Step 2 : Get a wifi box

You can choose to go through traditional wifi providers, such as Bouygues Telecom, Orange, SFR… There are also Cisco Meraki boxes that can be used in such a context, and we will differentiate mobile use cases or Wifi extensions.

  • As per what was deployed with Refugee Info Bus in Calais, this was a mobile internet service relying on a mobile infrastructure. This was using a mobile gateway Cisco Meraki MG41E in order to get internet through the mobile network using a Free SIM card. We use a Cisco Meraki MR74 connected to the MG41E in order to provide WiFi access. In term of cost, this infra configuration (MG+MR+license+dashboard access) is less than 20€/user/month considering there was more than 200 clients/month consuming more than 150G/month

  • If you have already a wifi box but need to extend the Wifi coverage, this is same as above without the MG41E.

Innovative non-profits like Jangala have also developed their own wifi boxes. Jangala for example has two advantages compared to traditional wifi boxes: first, its design is best-suited for the refugee crisis context : longer antennas to get stronger wifi where needed, waterproof, etc…, and second, Jangala provides long-term no-cost loans for organizations or volunteers with limited financial means !

Warning : For non-operator-provided wifi boxes, you’ll need an additional sim card to plug into (prefer SIM Cards with more than 200 Go to be able to cover the month’s need in wifi).


Step 3 : Write and print a guide for refugees

This guide will allow you to give information about :

  • Internet/mobile consumption – for example, it is extremely important to inform people in need that with 140Mb you can only watch 6 minutes of HD Video, but you can have a 45 minute-call on Whatsapp.
  • Key locations : where to eat, sleep, wash up, … – a very good way to get this information is the RefAid mobile app.
  • Other : how to download the RefAid mobile app, how to top-up your credit with PC4R, …

To touch a broader audience, you can try to have as many translated versions of your guide as possible (ex: English, French, German, but also Arabic, Pashto, Farsi, and more).

Tip : if possible, you can laminate this guide to make it last longer and protect it from bad weather !


Step 4 : Get your hands on an electricity generator (gasoline or else) 

Unfortunately, the battery of your car won’t be sufficient to power the wifi box long enough. That’s why you’ll need an alternative source of energy, and a gasoline generator is the cheapest equipment you can buy. You also need to buy a (LOT) of power strip to connect them to the generator to giving charging access points to the persons coming to your van !

We have been exploring solar energy as an alternative, but found out at the moment that solar panels and mobile batteries were good individual solutions only. Several organizations like Imece in Turkey with their intiative “The Solar Age“, solar power bank (Energy For Everyone) or Solar experience in France are looking at it as a way to train displaced persons on how to create frugal technology fostering energy independence (for smartphones at least). We’ll continue the research for collective solar usage.



Step 5 : Load all the equipment and start touring !



If you want to go further : Providing refugees with phones and SIM Cards to access the internet when you’re away

The best way to get your hands on mobile phones is with your family and friends. Get in touch with them to explain how vital it is for refugees to have phones, and see if they might have spare phones and chargers that they can give you (maybe they just changed phones and have no use for the old one).

Regarding SIM Cards, you can go through some providers such as Lycamobile in order to get shipped to you SIM cards for free, that will need to be topped up eventually by you or by the person you give it to (refugees can also go through PC4R (Phone Credit For Refugees), a non-profit that tops up SIM cards following a request directly on their Facebook Page or directly on Messenger).

Finally, here’s the list of the inspiring initiatives targeting displaced people evoked above and more : 


You would like to help us continue this research and support tech project providing access to energy and internet in border zones ? Volunteer here

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