Techfugees: empowering refugees through technology

The number of displaced people on the planet is close to 80 million – a population the size of Germany and a rich source of talent.

Techfugees is empowering refugees around the world by supporting technical innovations designed by, with and for them. CEO Raj Burman discusses the power of technology and the importance of empowering the diverse and talented individuals forced from their homelands.

Raj Burman wakes up every day with a sense of purpose and duty. He is humble to hold his new role as CEO of Techfugees, which has allowed him to empower those in need.

He is aware that refugees tend to get bad press – former Prime Minister David Cameron infamously described those fleeing from ISIS in Syria as “swarms”. But the reality is that they are all escaping persecution and poverty, usually leaving everything behind in search of a better life.

Burman believes that displaced individuals are among the most talented. “Necessity is the mother of invention,” he says. “These are people who have gone through hardship; they are following a classical hero’s journey.

“One of the qualities I most admire is that, given their experiences, they look at things differently. That enables a breadth of openness and an ability to look at the negative spaces between things. They are able to connect the dots and be much more innovative.”

Burman points out that displaced people, with their ability to think outside the box, have an important role to play in fuelling the next wave of innovation. He argues that the traditional cycle of product innovation and development no longer applies in today’s world due to the increasing pressure to maintain a competitive edge. He also points to the example of how refugee-led start-ups are driving Germany’s economic recovery.

Integration and inclusion

Techfugees was founded in 2015 to empower refugees to develop their digital literacy and to develop technology by them and for them. It focuses on innovations that provide access to information, education, health and inclusion. There are eight guiding principles around ethics and human-centric design, which have been co-created by displaced people to drive integration and inclusion.

“An example of that is our team in Kenya working with the Kenyan Red Cross,” Burman reveals. “They have an e-health solution, co-created by displaced people, to use technology to look at the COVID-19 situation.

“Our global community came together and very quickly managed, in a couple of weeks, to aggregate open-source data; this meant we could see how COVID was impacting displaced communities across the planet. We’ve now got an open data platform which shows the hot spots geographically for COVID-19 in displaced communities and have been using it to drive discussions with research institutions.”

Another example is a fellowship programme, working with professional women who have been displaced from conflict regions, led by the team in France. The programme empowers women to develop their technology skills and career prospects. So successful was it that it is being expanded to Italy and Greece and won the endorsement of the L’Oreal Foundation, Cisco and Google.

Pay it forward

Burman has been at the helm since November 2020 and is ideally suited to the role, having been something of a globe-trotter. Of Indian heritage, he grew up in the Middle East, has travelled extensively and lived in Scotland, Japan and Canada. He rode the dotcom wave, specialising in telecommunications, has founded several ventures in that field as an entrepreneur and also been an investor.

In a bid to ‘pay it forward, he became an ambassador for the UN Global Poverty Project, a role that enabled him to work with what he calls “social impact ventures”. “That reminded me of the importance of servant, servant leadership,” he adds.

“I’ve worked personally with refugees, been in the camps and have an understanding of what it’s like, the issues they face, which is why I’m here. I now wake up every day with a sense of purpose and duty.”

His primary focus area is to galvanise what Techfugees has achieved so far into a coherent movement of change. “People get very excited by technology,” Burman argues. “There are a lot of entrepreneurs and innovators in this space. Coming on board, I realised that it’s very important, in the current pandemic, to get a coordinated effort for collective action. So, looking at how we integrate everything we do, from innovations to inclusions and insights, as a coherent value proposition to our partners and, more importantly, the displaced people that we work with.”

He pointed out that 2020 had been a year of realisation for many and demonstrated the power of technology, with more people going online. The pandemic’s effects have made organisations look at their business models and realise that there is untapped human capital. Burman cites European data, covering 30 years, which show that migration leads to growth in GDP.

“We’re providing the stage for displaced entrepreneurs and professionals to lift their voice to the forefront,” he says. “This year, we’re looking at quarterly virtual forums where we’ll offer opportunities for displaced people to talk about their experiences and that will, hopefully, galvanise the movement across the sector.”

Climate change will lead to more displacement

Although Techfugees has a global reach, it is quite a small team. Therefore it works closely with humanitarian organisations locally and stakeholders to ensure that no one is left behind. The work will become more critical in the coming years, as natural disasters associated with climate change look set to lead to even more people being displaced.

Burman has a rallying call for businesses to open up to refugee talent. He also suggests that they could support the work of TechFugees with technical and business expertise. “My advice to corporates is to think about how to support your employees and volunteer their time to do something good,” Burman suggests.

“This might help to enhance your corporate brand ideal and a sense of purpose that you may have with your customers.”

In the year ahead, he wants to change people’s perceptions of displaced people and end the negative connotations. “I want to showcase some shining stars, to see people as they really are,” says Burman.

“Ultimately, we are all digitally connected; everybody’s got a device in their hands. I would love to explore if we could use this device to guide people to places where they can feel protected and empowered. To build their skill sets and provide and connect them to people that come to our resources. And, at the same time, give them the pathway to building their opportunities.

“In other words, bring the power into the hands of the people and empower them along their hero’s journey.”
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