KIGALI/NAIROBI - In sub-Saharan Africa, where more than 600 million people still lack access to electricity, off-grid renewable power is seen as one of the fastest ways to get energy where it’s needed, particularly to remote and rural areas where many Africans live.
But one big challenge stands in the way, experts say: too few trained workers able to plan, install and maintain solar, wind and other clean energy systems.
In power-hungry Goma, in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, for instance, “we’ve had very significant challenges finding very capable talent, particularly at the senior management level,” said Kweku Yankson, head of human resources in Africa for BBOXX, a clean energy company working to expand off-grid systems in 12 countries from Rwanda to Pakistan.
Rwanda, in turn, has what Yankson described as a big pool of job-ready young talent — but still relatively few people trained in clean-energy technology, Yankson said.
Overall, only 16,000 people are recorded as working in renewable energy in sub-Saharan Africa, outside South Africa, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA).
That is just 0.1 percent of the global renewable energy workforce, and fewer than the number of people who work on wind power in the U.S. state of Illinois alone, IRENA noted.
But with demand growing for renewable energy entrepreneurs and for workers in product assembly, sales, marketing, finance and intellectual property, efforts are now underway to provide the talent needed.
A Powering Jobs campaign, launched in October at an international off-grid renewable energy conference in Singapore, aims to train up to a million people globally by 2025 to meet demand for renewable energy workers.
The effort, led by Power for All — an organization that promotes more use of decentralized power — and backed by the Schneider Electric Foundation and The Rockefeller Foundation, will focus on building skills in countries where electricity access is very low, said Gilles Vermot Desroches, director of sustainable development at Schneider.
The push is part of a broader global campaign to fill an expected 4.5 million jobs related to expansion of off-grid renewable energy by 2030, according to IRENA estimates.
That expansion is focused in part on achieving a global sustainable-development goal of providing universal access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy by 2030.
In Africa, lessons are being drawn from India, which has trained more than 30,000 solar electric installers in the past two years as part of a government-backed effort.
The country aims to train a total of 50,000 installers by 2022, according to India’s government.
One of the biggest problems facing expansion of renewable off-grid power in Africa is that systems need to be built and operated in remote locations, where it can be harder to attract and retain staff, said Yankson of BBOXX.
Also, even in countries such as Rwanda, where a growing number of multinational companies have trained large numbers of young workers, “the most pressing challenge has been around finding very capable and experienced managing directors and finding senior finance managers,” he said.
In Kenya, Yankson said, the difficulty is cost: Skilled talent comes at high salaries, thanks to competition for the best people in Nairobi among companies and nonprofit groups.
“The main limitation we’ve faced in Kenya has been the cost of talent,” he said.
To provide a broader pool of potential hires, BBOXX has created the BBOXX Academy, an online learning platform that offers professional courses, said Emery Nzirabatinya, a former learning and development manager at the firm who now works in Nairobi for a U.S. hearing aid company
BBOXX also has started a future leaders program in Kigali, he said.
“The program seeks strong university graduates that are put through a rigorous, year-long development and exposure program at BBOXX,” Nzirabatinya said.
Julienne Ayinkamiye, a recent civil engineering graduate from the University of Rwanda College of Science and Technology, is one of two inaugural participants in the leadership project in Kigali.
As part of the program, she is responsible for running a BBOXX pilot solar lighting project being launched this year in Rwanda and then across Africa, and has worked in a range of different departments of the company.
The work has included customer satisfaction research and analysis of competitors, she said.
She said she believes the training, “will help me increase my analytical, project management and general management skills” — and give BBOXX a larger potential pool of talent to hire.
“I am now working on real projects impacting the lives of thousands of rural households across Africa,” she said.
The push for more trained renewable energy workers comes as an increasing number of countries around Africa try to ramp up use of off-grid renewable energy.
Kenya in December launched a new national electrification strategy that includes stand-alone, off-grid renewable energy systems as a key part of the country’s goal of achieving 100 percent access to electricity by 2022.
About three-quarters of Kenyans currently have access to electricity, according to the new plan.
Part of Kenya’s push is an off-grid solar access project that aims to connect 1.3 million people in 14 particularly underserved counties, said Isaac Kiva, secretary of renewable energy in Kenya’s Ministry of Energy.
“We are also now working with our education system to develop solar-specific curricula in order to build the necessary capacity,” he said.
In Rwanda, the government is collaborating with U.S.-based universities, including Carnegie Mellon, and partnering with online learning efforts to provide better access to training for clean energy jobs, Nzirabatinya said.
“This will have a positive impact on the job readiness of the talent pool in Rwanda,” he predicted.