Progress is being made in closing energy access gaps in Africa and Asia. A big reason is falling renewable energy costs, which have made home solar systems, mini-grids and other distributed renewable energy (DRE) solutions a viable option for providing first-ever electricity in remote, rural areas far removed from electric grids.
For the first time ever, the number of people gaining access to electricity in Sub-Saharan Africa is outstripping population growth. More than 700,000 home solar systems have been installed in Kenya alone and another 240,000 poor, rural households are expected to be connected soon under a new $150 million off-grid project backed by the World Bank. In South Asia, progress has been ever faster.
Supportive government policies, business model innovations and more public and private financing all have an important role. But there’s another oft-overlooked factor: whether or not we have enough skilled workers and entrepreneurs. Are countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia building the robust and diverse workforce they will need as distributed renewable energy enterprises grow and expand?
Right now, the answer is a resounding ‘no.’
Despite growing demand for home solar systems and other off-grid renewable energy solutions in Africa and Asia, there is a growing shortage of job-ready talent to finance, develop, install, operate and manage these systems. And the biggest skill gap is in Sub-Saharan Africa. More than 600 million people in the region are still living without electricity, yet there are only 76,000 jobs in the renewable energy sector on the whole continent, according to the latest data from IRENA. Compare that to India, which has half as many people without electricity and 10 times more people working in the solar PV sector alone.
Among those feeling the skill pinch in Africa is BBOXX, an off-grid solar provider with operations in East Africa and West Africa. “In-market competency shortages are among our main business challenges at the moment,” said Kweku Yankson, Group Head of Human Resources at BBOXX. “As we expand into new markets, a key potential constraint to our success is the quality of the talent we find in these markets.”
Last week, a broad-based coalition launched a new campaign, Powering Jobs, to close this skills gap. Unveiled at the International Off-Grid Renewable Energy Conference (IOREC) in Singapore, the campaign aims to create the global workforce that will be needed as distributed renewable energy takes stronger hold in Africa and Asia. The coalition is made up of companies, government and multilateral institutions, researchers, NGOs and trade associations.
It will create millions of good jobs in underserved rural areas that need economic activity the most, and enable millions more by powering small enterprises and agricultural businesses. It’s an especially big opportunity for women and youth, who suffer the most from energy poverty.
While data on the industry’s full potential impact is limited, the positive signs are hard to miss. In India, research has found that rooftop solar systems create seven times as many jobs per megawatt as utility-scale solar projects. Nigeria’s Rural Electrification Agency has created 5,000 skilled and unskilled jobs in just the past year.
IRENA estimates that the off-grid value chain could create at least 4.5 million jobs by 2030. But those estimates may be conservative. The International Labor Organization estimates that India alone could add three million new jobs if the renewable energy sector continues with its current growth trajectory.
A key priority of the Powering Jobs campaign is to conduct the first comprehensive survey on energy access jobs and their broad economic impacts. The first findings will be launched in 2019 — a year when the sustainable development community focuses on jobs and the future of work. A second key priority is to identify workforce initiatives that are working and channel more targeted support into replicating them around the world. One encouraging indicator is India’s Skill Council for Green Jobs, which expects to certify 50,000 newly trained solar PV installers by 2022.