The arguments for replacing traditional lighting and fuel with solar energy in the developing world have been the same for decades. Articles and publications presenting the problem and solution usually go something like this: “kerosene causes health complications, has a negative impact on the environment and households spend 15, 20 or even 30 percent of their annual incomes purchasing it. Home solar systems will help households save income, provide better light and phone charging while eliminating carbon emissions and the dangers to human health.” I do not claim that this is not true. Indeed, there is a strong need and demand for solar solutions, but for us to truly meet this need we must change the rhetoric.
My mentor recently told me that a group of Japanese businessmen paid a visit to his flower farm in central Uganda. Their mission was to find new sources for flowers. He naturally inquire why they are coming all the way to Africa for something they can find next door in China. They claimed that the cost of production, at least for this sector, is higher in China than in Africa! There is a buzz that the cost of labor is becoming cheaper here in Africa than in China. If there is any truth to this then we must change our thinking on the solar and renewable energy sector in Africa. We should direct our actions toward product innovation, design, manufacturing and distribution in Africa, rather than solely distributing imported products from outside the continent. This approach has far greater social and economic benefits for the continent than what we are seeing today.
Besides the already well-documented positive social effects of moving from kerosene to solar energy, local design, manufacture and distribution creates opportunities for people, both young and old, to improve their livelihood by participating in the product value chain. There will be a knock-on effect with better access to education, improved health, and increased savings from direct use of locally made solar products. Economically too, there will be a lot of great opportunities for local businesses and the population. From suppliers, to labor on the production line, to the distributors of products, to numerous service providers, the benefits will be shared across society.
At Village Energy we have set up an innovation lab that allows international mechanical and electrical engineering students to collaborate, design and test their innovations. They work with our experienced Ugandan technicians, sales team and microfinance partners to get real feedback from those who benefit from these innovations.
Certain obstacles have to be addressed for local innovation to work out long-term. First on this list is human resources. Solar and other clean energy technologies can only scale with a widespread and skilled labor force. As we build a production line for solar products, so must we build our skilled labor. For example, Village Energy in partnership with Nsamizi Vocational Training Institute is running a four-month course providing a government-recognized certificate in solar system design, installation and maintenance. The students then practice their newly-acquired knowledge on our assembly line and field installations.
Transportation and the existing energy infrastructure as well as fiscal policies should be greatly improved to allow easier and faster transactions at the small business level and at the grassroots micro-enterprise level.
Just like Africa did with the mobile phone, we can quickly leap frog to the top of the energy ladder and make Africa largely dependent on renewable energy sources. However, we must be bold to accomplish this.
Perhaps even more than human resources, policy or infrastructure, Africa needs leaders who are able to recognize opportunities where others only see obstacles, and drive the innovations that will bring economic prosperity to the continent. Last year, I joined the Acumen East Africa Fellows Program to grow as a leader and get connected to like-minded individuals to support and challenge me to become a better leader. The program helped me to expand my networks across East Africa and exposed me to new ideas like adaptive leadership and design thinking. If we are to move Africa forward, we need to change the rhetoric and we need bold new generation of changemakers and thought leaders to do it.