"My brother and I kind of stumbled across this idea when we helped a young Afghan refugee try to track down his seven family members," Christopher Mikkelsen from Refugees United told The Local at the SIME internet conference in Stockholm on Wednesday. "We realized there was no technological infrastructure shared by different organizations to help collect data on separated families."
The first web platform relied on NGOs, agencies and the like logging on "to collect, curate and distribute information on parents, children, siblings and so on". It turned out not to be ideal. Instead, the Danish brothers wanted to cut out the middle man and flew to Stockholm to meet Ericsson's sustainability and corporate responsibility (CSR) division. The Swedes had the infrastructure and the clout, the Danes just needed to convince them.
"CSR is a buzz word now, we don't even use it, we've been working with these issues for twenty years," said CSR vice president Elaine Weidman Grunewald. "We're in 180 countries and we've been in Africa for over one hundred years so we've worked for a long time on issues like how to make mobile technology affordable and accessible. We had been working on a lot of projects geared toward poverty- microcredit, mobile banking, mobile health, education – but we started working with the refugee issue in 2007."
Raising a fleet of mobile masts across north Uganda, on the border of conflict-strewn Sudan, offered a testing ground for the kind of work that would later be at the core of the partnership between Refugees United and Ericsson.
"It was a refugee hotspot," Weidman Grunewald recalls. "We felt we could to so much more."
The United Nations on the ground proved to be less interested in rolling out services with Ericsson than the Swedish company hoped for, bedding the idea of mobile services for refugees into a couple of years' lull before Mikkelsen and his brother presented their idea.
"We just loved it from the beginning."
A quarter of a million people now use the service provided by Refugees United and with Ericsson the new focus is to make sure all personal data submitted via SMS, call centre and on the ground is as protected as possible.
"We're talking about people who live in a clay hut with 40 plastic bags and cow dung that keeps you warm at night," Mikkelsen told The Local. "We curate the info they give us, we crunch it and reconnect."
Last week, Nairobi-based Mikkelsen helped a man in the Somali-dominated Eastleigh neighbourhood of the Kenyan capital to find his long lost brother, who was living in Stockholm. At the moment, the service is available in Somali, French, Swahili, Lingala, Arabic, and Amharic.
Transliterating Arabic to Latin letters poses its own problems.
"Muhammad can be spelled in seven different ways," Mikkelsen points out. "We've grown so rapidly that last time I checked we had 9,698 Mohammed Ahmeds. That is a lot of Mohammed Ahmeds to go through if you're looking for your brother."