Duke student creates business app for refugees

Aug. 15, 2013 @ 01:05 PM

Duke student Patrick Oathout is starting his last year at school and has already added a mobile app to the iOS and Android markets this summer.

The app isn’t your next lightsaber noise or zombie game – The “Uhuru” app maps the small business activity of refugees around the world.

Oathout, 21, said he always wanted to start up his own nonprofit for refugees struggling to build their livelihoods or learn English in the United States. He began beta-testing his app idea during a 10-week DukeEngage trip to Jordan last summer, where he taught English to Iraqi, Syrian and Libyan refugees.

“Oftentimes what really works for refugees is to start their own business because they have ownership in the venture and they learn different skillsets,” he said.

He had to learn how to build an app from scratch. Oathout received advice from a former student who works in Silicon Valley. He read “iPhone Application Development for Dummies.”

Uhuru, the Swahili word for “freedom,” helps people find businesses that aren’t necessarily on Google Maps. The app will help those who want to buy locally but don’t know where to look. Around the world, the app will even map small businesses within refugee camps, such as businesses that are selling chopped wood or freshly picked vegetables.

“Applications often cater to people who are already being successful in the United States…who already have the discretionary income to look for a taxi or find a Starbucks,” Oathout said. “I want to see more people making apps for people who really need the help from technology in a very proactive way and in a way that helps their own livelihoods.”

He said his next step is to reach out to resettlement and government agencies that help refugees and present Uhuru as a useful tool. He said he’s trying to preempt the market as more refugees start to buy smartphones.

“It’s a huge relief but the work is far from done,” Oathout said about getting Uhuru on the market. “Now it’s getting people to use the application, it’s marketing the application, updating the code and making improvements.”

To find and download Uhuru, visit the iTunes or Google play sites. The app is free.

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