Circular Refugee Camps


Circular Refugee Camps


The challenge is big, but the prospect is promising: By using circular solutions in refugee camps to deal with food production, hygiene and waste management, the life quality of inhabitants will drastically improve.

Circular refugee camps will, not only for themselves but also for the local communities, produce biogas, compost, timber wood and fruit, they will create job and learning opportunities and contribute to environment protection by regreening and producing less waste.



The situation

At the end of June 2022 the UNHCR estimated that around 103 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes due to persecution, conflict, violence, human rights violations, and events seriously disturbing public order. This is an increase of 13.6 million (+15 per cent) compared to the end of 2021. There is no up-to-date data about how many people currently live in refugee camps, but in April 2021 it was already around 6,6 million.


Most refugee camps are extremely challenging for the inhabitants who face overcrowding places, poor sanitary conditions, physical and mental health problems, financial difficulties, and food insecurity. Many kids and teenagers that live in refugee camps don’t get sufficient, if any, education. Refugee camps also put big pressures on the natural resources which can lead to conflicts between the local communities and the new settlers.


The challenge of providing safe and sustainable refuge for everyone in need is becoming more pressing than ever. Numbers of refugees are likely to skyrocket in the near future: The Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) estimates that 1.2 billion people in 31 countries could be displaced by 2050 only due to the effects of climate change.



The project

In 2019 Wageningen University & Research started a collaboration with SkillEd, African Clean Energy, SEMiLLA sanitation, Dutch Relief Alliance (DRA), Ghetto Smart, WUR and Outside Inc. The mission: Creating a safe and sustainable refuge that utilizes the potential of existing and innovative circular solutions in refugee camps and migrant cities. For now, the focus region is East-Africa with Uganda as pilot country.


Uganda has a long history of hosting refugees and is today one of the top five hosting countries in the world. Around 1,5 million refugees, mainly from South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi, live in Uganda today. Many live in so-called settlements, co-existing with the hosting communities. While the country is known for its hospitality and progressive refugee laws, there are several problems, including conflicts over access to firewood, environmental degradation and land disputes.


Circular Refugee Camps will convert human fecal matter into sustainable energy in the form of biogas (for cooking and lighting), that can be used by refugees, people residing near the settlement and institutions (schools, health center etc.).


To close the loop, the fecal sludge is treated in a biodigester to create hygienic and nutrient-rich compost. Part of the compost can be sold to farmers in the area, part will be used in the attached tree nursery, where fruit, timber wood and reforestation tree seedlings are grown for the (local) forestry market contributing to the creation of jobs, capturing CO2, producing oxygen, and boosting economic growth locally. One of the goals is to plant at least 700.000 trees per year per project location.


This circular approach has several advantages:

  • People (especially women and girls) don’t have to walk great distances to gather firewood if affordable biogas is available
  • Using biogas instead of firewood also decreases the risks for conflicts, the environmental degradation and CO2 in the atmosphere caused by deforestation for firewood
  • It reduces health risks associated with air pollution caused by cooking using firewood
  • It decreases groundwater pollution caused by pit latrines
  • It creates employment and business opportunities for the local communities (operating the treatment plant, transportation, selling biogas, compost, and tree seedings, crop growing)



New technologies and education go hand in hand

The project follows a sustainable approach. The biodigesters are built by SEMiLLA in the Netherlands and shipped to Uganda, but operation and maintenance of the system will be taken over by trained local personnel.


Blended training programs (about operating biodigesters, bottling biogas, composting, managing tree nurseries and others) are provided by SkillEd.


A percentage of proceeds from sales of products is used to cover costs of operation and maintenance; local population reaps the benefits of the innovation.




Living lab: Imvepi refugee settlement

The start of the project was delayed due to Covid 19. Currently the waste treatment plant is being built in Imvepi refugee settlement, the project is expected to be up-and-running not later than March 2023.


The project will be a Living Lab for research and innovation. Using the Impevi project as an example, the integrated approach will be replicated in ten more refugee settlements in Uganda (2024 and after) and in other countries, too.


Want to know more about the background? Here you can read the research paper (L.L. de Rooij, M. Stuiver, Wageningen University and Research) about “Circular Refugee Camps: Co-creating meaningful business”