Barriers to access

Poor or incomplete mobile connectivity across the region, lack of access to mobile devices and low levels of education have all been cited as factors that restrict adoption of mobile phone and internet based services by refugees in East Africa.

This study collected first-hand data to determine the extent to which these factors influence access to mobile technology and the internet.

Barriers to accessing mobile devices

To understand levels of mobile phone ownership, refugees in Kakuma and Nakivale were asked if they owned or had access to a mobile phone (Figure 1)


Mobile device ownership amongst those interviewed is high, standing at 81% in Nakivale and 96% in Kakuma refugee settlements. Only a small percentage of refugees have no access at all to a mobile device. Mobile phone access in Kakuma is especially high, with almost 99% of respondents either owning, or sharing a mobile device.

Access to mobile phone technology, especially smartphones capable of running applications and browsing websites, provide a gateway through which humanitarian organisations can deploy innovative services targeted towards refugees.

To determine the level of smartphone penetration within the population, refugees were asked the type of mobile device they owned (Figure 2)

Figure 2: Mobile ownership by device type

Levels of smartphone ownership in both Kakuma and Nakivale are markedly higher than national averages. Smartphone penetration in Kenya stands at 26%; in Uganda, it is just 4%. This represents significant opportunities for developing smartphone and internet based services for refugees.


Although levels of education and literacy do not directly impact ownership of a mobile device, there is a direct relationship between level of education and smartphone ownership (Figure 3). University graduates are the most likely to own a smartphone, followed by those who completed secondary education.

Figure 3: Mobile phone ownership by level of education

Increasing education levels may therefore have a positive impact on Smartphone ownership and access to services these devices offer.


With almost no WIFI in Kakuma and limited WIFI access in Nakivale, the vast majority of those accessing the internet do so using their mobile device. Access to 3G or 4G data services is therefore a prerequisite to getting online. As part of this study, the Android app Signal Strength was used to record the type of mobile phone signal and the corresponding signal strength at each interview location (Figure 4).

FIGURE 4: Mobile phone coverage in Nakivale AND Kakuma

Signal coverage varies greatly between Kakuma and Nakivale, reflecting the very different geographic, urban and telecoms infrastructures of the two locations. Click on the graphs in Figure 4 to explore signal coverage at both locations.