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Ideas & Debate

How decentralised renewable energy systems can create jobs for Africa youth

Sunculture Company staff
Sunculture Company staff demonstrate how a solar water pump works during a climate-smart agriculture exhibition in Eldoret in February. PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA 

The coronavirus crisis is affecting global society at a time when Africa is facing high cases of unemployment and the youth demographic figures are also on the increase. In fact, it is the only continent which presents a positive demographic trend.

Every year, about 30 million new Africans are added to the global population. Scientists affirm that by 2050, one in four human beings will be an African.

Another well-known problem in Africa is the lack of access to electricity. About 700 million Africans live exactly as their grandfathers did, using firewood for cooking and paraffin to fuel their source of light commonly known as the koroboi.

It is amazing to note that the only source of light after dusk for reading, studying or for a mother cooking in any house in rural area has been the ‘koroboi.

It is to solve this latter problem that the UN crafted the Sustainable Development Goal number seven (SDG7), which advocates universal access to reliable, clean, and affordable electricity.

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Interestingly enough, when we put the two problems together, that is high number of youth who are unemployed and energy problem, we find out that they can become a solution because of disruptive technology.

That technology comes in the form of decentralised renewable energy systems (DRE).

Examples of DRE are pico-PV systems (solar lanterns), solar home systems (SHS), off-grid and grid-tie systems for industrial and commercial purposes.

Renewable and hybrid-based mini-grid systems can power multiple households and a few businesses.

Power for All, an American education and awareness raising non-profit- focused on the delivery of universal energy access, recently undertook a study of this topic in 2019, under its “Powering Jobs” campaign, in partnership with Strathmore Energy Research Center.

The study focused on India, Nigeria and Kenya. It is the first ever comprehensive job census of the DRE sector in Kenya and found that it is a significant employer. It can play a meaningful role in emerging economies suffering from joblessness. Its role should not be underestimated.

For instance, the research suggests that new and improved electricity access projects from 2017 to 2020 have stimulated close to half a million jobs in India and about 65,000 in Kenya, of which 12,000 are formal jobs. For comparison, KPLC (which owns and runs centralised systems) formally employs about 10,000 people.

This transition means going from fossil fuels-based to renewable energy-based systems and moving from centralised utility owned to decentralised systems closer to where the power is needed. Power for All is conducting further research to better understand employment from the sector.

Of course, job creation is just one side of the coin. The other side is that companies such as M-Kopa and hundreds of other ESCOs are bringing electricity to thousands of families in rural Kenya.

HEALTHY LIVING STYLES

This electricity not only reduces carbon emissions and provides healthier living styles with no indoor pollution from koroboi, but also provides wealth creation through the so-called income generating activities such as: solar powered water pumping for irrigation, metal fabrication, mobile phone charging, internet services, and food preservation (fish, vegetables, etc.).

It is an entirely positive revolution for the 75 percent of Kenyans living away from cities. Another positive influence of this sector is that it has the greatest impact on women and the youth who, in Kenya, make up the majority of the unemployed people.

What does this all mean? Three points are important. The first is that DRE is an engine to create good, skilled, and formal jobs in emerging economies, already employing as many as the traditional power utility sector does.

Secondly, perhaps more importantly, the DRE sector is still a largely untapped opportunity for creating jobs for women and youth mainly in assembly, marketing and logistics. Finally, interventions from governments, donors, universities and training institutes are urgently needed to skill up the workforce and reap these benefits for Kenya.

Prof Da Silva is the DVC Research and Innovation at Stratmore University. Dr Shirley is chief research officer, Power for All.

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