By Alfred Nyakinda

Energy access in developing countries, commonly viewed as a challenge, also represents an enormous opportunity for job creation through in the field of renewable energy.

The decentralized renewable energy (DRE) sector in Kenya accounted for 10,000 jobs in 2017 to 2018 as compared to 11,000 from the national utility Kenya Power and Lighting Company (KPLC) according to a recent survey by Power for All.

“The question of youth and jobs is critical, and so is the question of education, research and training. Demographers are constantly us that the population of our continent is set to double to about 2 million,” said HE Raila Odinga, African Union High Representative for Infrastructure, at a roundtable meeting at Strathmore University in Nairobi last week.

“The majority of this population will be youth below 18 years. To turn this age group into an opportunity and not a curse for our continent, we need to create millions of jobs every year.” he added.

The Powering Jobs Census 2019 predicted that by 2022, the sector could grow by 70 percent in Kenya, reaching 17,000 direct, formal jobs- those created through contractual engagement- as well as 30,000 direct informal jobs, such as those in product retail or commission-based sales activities.

This survey by Power for All, a coalition of over 200 organisations campaigning to accelerate the deployment of distributable renewable energy, and its partners is the first annual job survey for DRE sectors in emerging economies

It explored companies working with technologies such as small solar home appliances, solar home systems (SHS), stand alone commercial and industrial systems, mini-grids and productive use systems such as solar water pumps.

Dr. Rebekah Shirley presents the research findings

“Youth participation is very high. In Kenya it is at about 40 percent. It means that although it is a very young sector, it is also taking the risk of employing a lot of young people.” said Dr Rebekah Shirley Chief Research Officer, Power for All, “Interestingly, the mini-grid workforce employs a large number of youth, over 80 percent of the workforce.”

The survey also indicates that mini-grids, off-grid small-scale electricity generation systems serving a limited population which can operate in isolation from national electricity transmission networks, may become larger employers than the sales and marketing area of the DRE sector, that currently employs more people for the sale of small solar appliances.

Dr Shirley noted that in emerging economies, even where power lines have reached, many people living next to them remain without electricity due to the high connection cost.

She said, “What we believe at power for all is while that while standardized, centralized, utility-oriented generation, transmission and distribution getting power to communities is critical, what is also important is integrating with decentralized technologies.

“The smaller scale technologies are agile, nimble able to reach communities quicker able to get to households quicker and are more affordable now that technology prices have come down so much.”

Dr.Vincent Ogutu, Strathmore University Vice Chancellor Designate, observed that DRE has the potential to unlock innovation among young people in hard to reach areas.

Participants share their views at the roundtable discussion

“When you have the internet, and you give access to it, then the youths in all these remote parts of the country can educate themselves and do all kinds of jobs.”, he said, “The beauty of this solution is that we can actually start immediately depending on how well we structure it, what partnerships we form.”

A partnership between Kenya’s Rural Electrification Authority and Schneider Electric has enabled almost 130 schools in remote areas to access power through the provision of 2.5 kilowatt solar micro-grids

Edouard Heripret, General Manager, Schneider East Africa, remarked that there is insufficient public investment in Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET), resulting in a shortage of qualified professionals to install and maintain renewable energy systems.

He stated that his organisation has partnered with different institutions to set up 18 training centres, citing the green lab they opened at the Don Bosco centre in Karen that trains in renewable energy and energy efficiency as an example of the initiative’s success.

“These people are trained for two years with a certification at the end in these technologies,” said Edouard, “All of them are finding a job even before they graduate. There are so many needs in this domain, such a lack of technical competencies in energy management and industry automation.

A panel of experts at the meeting

In addition to agreeing on the importance of partnerships with industry and academia to offset the high cost of training, Dr Elizabeth Gachienga, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Academic and Student Affairs, Strathmore University, stressed the need to strategically devolve such training to rural areas.

“As opposed to multiplying the number of Universities at those levels, its typically more strategic- and I’m glad the government is moving towards TVETs- to make sure that the practical trainings are given at the levels they need to be given.” she said.

With youth unemployment at high levels in the country, the participants argued for more practical approaches to education and training.

Jane Mungai answers a question during an interactive session

Jane Muigai, Chief Executive Officer, Toolkit, said that competency based TVET allows those lacking the academic qualifications for higher education to acquire a skill-set.

“We don’t have to train someone for four years or seven years before they can work. They can train, and then continue getting further training when they are working.” she said.

She also advocated for striking quick partnerships with organisations and using the available space in technical training facilities to train unemployed young people.