Helping millions of refugees getting access to critical knowledge about COVID-19
Mar 23 20

While the world is reeling from the impact of the novel coronavirus, the work of REFUNITE to inform, empower and assist refugees and displaced people in off-grid areas continues unabated.

It’s an apt time for us to reveal a new project of ours, RELAY, which focuses on providing trusted information in times of crisis to refugees across Africa. As we’ll detail here, defeating the spread and impact of the coronavirus, and other threats, depends on credible information reaching people in a trusted and timely manner in some of the hardest to reach areas on the planet.

RELAY as a project has identified and partnered with more than 7000 local Community Leaders in Africa, to help reach offline refugees in highly disconnected and illiterate communities with information.

What is a Community Leader’s role in our communities in Uganda, DRC, Kenya and beyond? The leader is an elected elder, tribal leader or religious leader; someone literate, educated, well connected into their environments, respected, and, perhaps most importantly, trusted by all. RELAY’s Community Network, is currently communicating life-saving information to more than 7 million refugees in more than 150 communities via our platform and technology. This number has grown from 200 leaders and 20,000 refugees in 2017 to today, and continues to grow by more than 7% a month.

The RELAY Network is used to distribute life-saving information on COVID-19 and Ebola from the World Health Organization and other organizations; it is used to spread real-time information on food distribution and militia attacks; it’s a network that is used to find your missing loved ones; a network that acts as a verified “truth layer,” as trusted leaders filter information and ensures it reaches all of their weakest constituents with help in times of extreme distress.

Here is Community Leader Sylvain Kabuanga’s story of using Relay in the DRC, as told to Alexandra Aparicio, East Africa Manager for REFUNITE:

“In July of 2018, community leader Sylvain Kabuanga, from Kananga, DRC, listened to the news about Ebola on the radio. He learned that one person was contaminated in Tshibelenge, a village just 75 km away from Kananga town. Immediately, Kabuanga started telling his community about the dangers of the Ebola virus and quickly realized that the vast majority of his constituents were not aware of the Ebola threat and were completely unprepared in terms of prevention against the virus. Willing to protect his community, Kabuanga sent an SMS on prevention measures against Ebola virus using REFUNITE’s community leader network SMS platform. In this way, information was quickly spread to other community leaders that could then, in turn, share this life-saving information with their community members. Sylvain’s first message initially reached 34 other leaders, all of whom took action. Within days, the leaders had reached more than 4,800* community members in off-grid and offline environments, with life-saving information about how to handle this outbreak. Each leader took it upon themself to arrange for visits to workplaces, churches, schools, going door-to-door in communities, and using WhatsApp and other methodologies. A powerful chain of life saving information-events in places that needed it the most.”

*We stopped interviewing and counting at 4,800 due to resource constraints.


The people dependent on this information network live in places with scarce access to electricity and reliable networks, are most often either illiterate or semi-literate, and will find it near impossible to decipher complex messages pertaining to their and their family’s safety and survival. In short, an informed community in the countries we work in is what makes the difference between life and death. Filtered information from people they can trust, the leaders, helps them make decisions that saves lives. The trust is as important as the message.

It is important to understand that fake news, rumors, or even targeted information asymmetry campaigns in underserved areas, can ignite a fuse that sparks a sudden riot which kills innocent people, or causes a village to follow traditional burial rituals, which can expose countless new people to an Ebola outbreak, as they wash a dead body. Now we face the task of informing about the risks and containments of COVID-19, helping to stem the tides amongst the most vulnerable.

In the DRC, Information from outsiders is automatically distrusted, and everything ‘modern’ dismissed as perhaps a hoax designed to trick them. How do you combat such a situation? How do you create a “trust layer,” capable of serving fact-filtered information at scale in some of the most disconnected and undereducated places in the world?

Our answer, supported by our partners from the H&M Foundation, the Swedish Postcode FoundationEricssonAf Jochnick FoundationTwilioand the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation, was to use our decade-long experience in building tech in Africa, and, more importantly, use our decade-long relationship and trust-building with the very people we work with, to devise a platform to serve the information needs of millions of vulnerable people.

The answer of REFUNITE was to build and deploy RELAY – A Community Network.

Hundreds of families are reconnected through our work every month, often after years of searching for their missing loved ones.
Any donation will help separated families reconnect.