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The Challenge: Building Capacity for Africa’s Renewables Sector

Consider this paradox: Nigeria has achieved the largest economy in Sub-Saharan Africa, but 45%, or about 85 million, of its residents still live without electricity. Across Sub-Saharan Africa, that figure looms to 600 million.

By NJ Ayuk, Executive Chairman, African Energy Chamber

Consider this paradox: Nigeria has achieved the largest economy in Sub-Saharan Africa, but 45%, or about 85 million, of its residents still live without electricity. Across Sub-Saharan Africa, that figure looms to 600 million.

I believe renewable energy is part of the solution to this dilemma — both in Nigeria and throughout the sub-continent. But there are several hurdles to be cleared before wind, solar, hydrogen, and other clean energy sources can provide the same economic benefits that natural gas — the other part of the solution — already offers. One of those hurdles will be preparing domestic workforces for employment and leadership in the growing renewable energy sector.

We are seeing movement in that direction. In Nigeria, for example, global renewables-promoting nonprofit, RMI, is providing technical training in partnership with four Nigerian energy distribution companies, two developers, and vocational training schools such as RMI’s Energy Transition Academy and the Lagos Energy Academy. Aimed at producing leaders and energy entrepreneurs, the Nigerian Cohort of RMI’s Global Fellowship Program, started in 2022, uses online learning and in-person experiences to develop leaders who know how to produce and employ solar PV, battery storage, and microgrid technologies.

We will need many, many more efforts like this for Africans to fully reap the economic benefits of our energy transition. For that to happen, more investment capital must be attracted for curriculum development, to support training efforts, and to help fledgling renewable businesses find their footing.

This is a critical topic, one that deserves attention at the 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) that is now underway and beyond.

Africa Must be Proactive in Building Capacity

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has predicted that 4 million new renewable energy jobs will be needed in sub-Saharan Africa by 2030 to meet 2050 net-zero goals. But it is not a given that those positions will be filled by Africans, especially if we rush forward with our transition from fossil fuels to renewables, as many wealthy nations and environmental groups are demanding.

Currently, there is a significant shortage of qualified human resources — people educated and prepared to take advantage of the opportunities for employment and entrepreneurship that renewables offer.

What’s more, only 76,000 renewable energy jobs have been created in Africa, less than 1% of 10.3 million globally. That means the vast majority of Africans have absolutely no experience, or hands-on opportunities to develop skills, in green energy.

Education is Key

Turning this situation around begins with investing in and emphasizing the importance of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education at all levels in Africa.

African governments will need to do their part by driving improvements in all-around education in science and technology and green energy vocational programs.

Government policies should also provide advantages to attract private-sector visionaries and incentivize public-private collaborations that foster the education and training of Africans for career-level, leadership positions in the renewables sectors.

Africa’s renewable energy sector is growing. That reality is a mixed blessing because of the shortage of homegrown, trained professionals able to create, construct, and run renewable projects. We do, however, have anadvantage — our large, youthful demographic.

Many of our young people need jobs, and many more soon will. If we can put together partnerships among governments, learning facilities, and private industry, we can train our youth for careers in renewable technologies that offer them brighter futures.

We should be building on the examples of the promising educational opportunities that are available for African students who want to build a career in renewable energy. Here is a sampling:

  • A German-African partnership, the Atlas of Green Hydrogen Generation Potentials in Africa, states, “Green hydrogen offers a real chance to launch a development in Africa which is driven by African countries themselves.” As part of the effort, a master’s degree program in green hydrogen technologies was begun in 2021. Students from all 15 countries of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) may apply. Universities in Cote d’Ivoire, Niger, Senegal, and Togo host the program.
  • Another German government initiative, Green People’s Energy for Africa, “supports vocation training institutes and technical universities to offer new and improved practical training modules for professionals” as well as other methods for skills development in renewable energy technology.
  • An EU-US cooperative agreement supports sub-Saharan Africa’s just transition to green energy. Working at the regional and national levels, efforts include empowerment of women in the sector, knowledge sharing to provide technical assistance, and the leveraging of investments by the private sector.

Another Opportunity: Green Hydrogen

Surveying the renewables horizon, there is general agreement that decarbonizing all the world’s economic sectors won’t be possible without the use of green hydrogen — for feedstock, fuel cell technology, and electric vehicles.

The demand for this clean and adaptable fuel, produced with renewable energy sources, compounds the need for a trained renewable energy workforce.

Green hydrogen presents both a large opportunity and a large challenge for African nations. With its massive area and plentiful solar and wind resources, Africa could potentially be producing about 10% of the world’s green hydrogen by 2030. But there is an “if” attached to that projection.

If African states strategize and invest now to develop a green hydrogen workforce, they can be ready for the coming wave of green hydrogen development and utilization. Hydrogen learning opportunities should be made available from the high school level upward as part of comprehensive skills plans for developing a prepared workforce.

With forethought and smart implementation, young Africans can be readied to lead the way in bringing the benefits of green hydrogen to their communities. In the process, job shortages can be mitigated as these young employees put their skills to work in the production, storage, and transportation of green hydrogen.

More African countries should be taking measures to ensure their people and businesses capitalize on green energy opportunities. And these must not stop with education and skills training; we also need local content measures to help ensure our residents benefit from renewable power projects and facilities operations.

Ensuring Strong Local Content Policies

Just as local content rules continue to function as vital safeguards in African oil and gas operations, they will be tremendously important in the renewables sector, both for individuals and for businesses. As I’ve stated in the past, every nation needs to create a framework that empowers indigenous companies to fully capitalize on renewable energy opportunities.

There are times when power needs may justify temporary modifications to these policies. As an example, South Africa’s National Energy Crisis Committee (NECOM), early this year, relaxed its local content rules for the construction of solar modules. Easing local employment requirements from 100% to 30% for local component production is meant to facilitate quicker deployment of solar projects, and hopefully, help alleviate the country’s crippling power outages.

Power supply levels and other factors show the need to perform a balancing act when writing local content rules. Those other factors include the supply of current local skilled workers and infrastructure. We don’t want to discourage developers, so we need appropriate, tailored local content regulations.

One reasonable approach is the one taken by Kenya, where guidelines requiring contractors to formulate a local content plan have been drafted. These plans must include training, succession, jobs, technology transfer, R&D, legal, financial, and insurance issues. This approach places the “ball” in the “court” of each project’s contractor, allowing for their input in local content formulation.

A similar policy has been enacted in Nigeria. The local content policy is part of the government’s Electricity Act 2023. It requires the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC) to provide for local content participation involving employment, production, and assembly of components for solar PV, deep cycle batteries, and the electro-mechanical parts of SHP technology, wind boilers, and some turbines.

The act goes further, requiring contractors, sub-contractors, and licensees involved in renewable energy to include local content in all their related activities.

If widely enacted across the continent, similar local content rules can work hand-in-hand with training efforts to ensure Africans benefit from renewable energy development — through employment and the growth of their economies.

We are seeing promising movement in the effort to address Africa’s skills gap, but we need many more programs, and we need them now. African countries and energy industry stakeholders should be doing everything possible to support these efforts, so Africans don’t miss out on renewable energy industry opportunities.

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