The IKEA Foundation has partnered with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and developed a flat-pack, solar powered refugee shelter called the Refugee Housing Unit. The prototype is the result of more than two years of research and 3.4 million Euros.
According to Per Heggenes, CEO of the IKEA Foundation, at least 3.5 million refugees currently live in UN-provided tents. These tents provide little privacy or security and a low level of comfort. The tents currently being used by the UN become very hot in the daytime and very cold at night. They have no built-in electricity or lighting and when refugees can afford candles or kerosene lighting they have little privacy as their shadows can be seen from outside through the tent covering.
The IKEA-built Refugee Housing Unit has a roof that is designed to keep the shelter cool in the daytime, yet warm at night. The roof has an external screen that reflects 70% of the sun’s rays during the daytime, yet traps heat in overnight. Each shelter comes with a solar panel that powers both a built-in light and a USB outlet. Developers are keeping a close eye on the development of Organic Photo Voltaic cells that could one day be printed directly onto the external screen on the shelter’s roof. This would generate enough power to operate cooking devices and run a water purification system. There are not the same privacy concerns as with the current UN-provided tents, as the walls of the shelter are made from a material called Rhulite. This porta-potty-style plastic allows sunlight to come into the shelter during the day but is not see-through at night.
The shelter is 88 square feet, twice the size of the regulation refugee tent, and sleeps five comfortably inside. It is packaged in four flat-pack boxes weighing 100kg, and can be assembled in four hours. Built with a super steel skeleton, the shelters are designed to last for three years. That is six times the life span of the current UN-provided tents.
The IKEA Foundation’s partnership with the UNHCR began in 2009, with the aim of designing a new tent to provide shelter for refugees during emergencies. Since half of all refugees are children, a partnership with UNHCR fit well with the foundation’s mission to improve opportunities for children in developing countries. IKEA brought extensive flat packing, supply chain and logistics expertise to the table, something that is critical to UNHCR’s ability to reduce costs and increase efficiency.
The IKEA Foundation and UNHCR’s knowledge sharing collaboration demonstrates how corporations can help provide solutions that really work. UNHCR cannot rely on the world’s governments for all their funding, and says involvement from the private sector is critical to their work. Moving forward, they say knowledge sharing can be equally as important as monetary donations. UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon agrees that private sector involvement is critical to poverty reduction in the global South, calling it “the most critical driver of innovation, investment and job creation.” The IKEA Foundation’s involvement is especially important for innovation and development surrounding the lives of refugees, as they generally don’t attract a lot of interest from the private sector. The IKEA Foundation is UNHCR’s largest private sector partner and also benefits greatly from the relationship. In addition to generating positive PR, the IKEA Foundation’s logistics team has learned a lot about accessing less common, hard to reach places from UNHCR’s team.
Twenty-six Refugee Shelter Units are currently being tested at UN camps in Ethiopia’s southwestern Dollo Ado region. Syrian refugees are currently testing another twelve in Lebanon and twelve at the Iraqi border. These shelters were sent to the camps in July of 2013 for testing before a final design will be created. It currently costs $10,000 to produce each shelter, but the IKEA Foundation expects the cost will drop to $1,000 once they begin mass production. While this is double the cost of the existing tents, the much longer lifespan of the shelter means they would be more cost effective.