• Over 600 million people live without electricity in Sub-Saharan Africa
  • There is also a shortage of talent in the energy sectors across the continent
  • African can work with China to solve this talent problem through student fellowships, opportunities in education, and many more

With over 600 million people who live without electricity in sub-Saharan Africa, the energy sector is suffering from a chronic shortage of talent with only 16,000 workers (SA excluded) in the industry.

Halfway around the world, China has had one of the fastest rates of rural electrification, which grew from negligible in 1949 to 98.4% in 2002. Furthermore, China has also taken the lead in the renewable energy sector, as the largest producer and distributor of wind turbines, solar panels, batteries and electric vehicles globally.

Solar panels on a solar farm

From a macro perspective, according to the International Renewable Energy (IRENA) statistics, the industry created over half a million new jobs in 2017. By highlighting this area as a real opportunity for young people, we could potentially attract more viable candidates in this sector. 

In Nairobi, The China Africa Tech Initiative and China Impact Ventures hosted a high-level discussion about the challenges of talent, people operations, and capacity building in the energy space across Africa, in order to produce this whitepaper.

Potential solutions to the talent gap

1. Offering students fellowships in China

In 2018, during the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), China pledged that it would increase the number of African students studying in China to 50,000.

Alternatively, sending teachers from China to Africa would allow African students to benefit from Chinese experts knowledge in these sectors in a larger and more scalable way.

However, fellowships in China offer the students a more immersive experience, given its position and a global leader in renewable energy. They also benefit from the transformative international experience, gaining new practical skills to bring back home.

2. Sharing best practices from the Chinese energy sector

China has enjoyed remarkable success in its renewable energy initiatives with 18% of its electricity output coming from green sources. It is currently working on increasing this figure to 27% by 2020.

However, it is important while sharing best practices is unidirectional, the actual application of the best practices is co-created. China is a very different market than the many countries around Africa, and these best practices need to be contextualised for both regions to be actually effective.

Ravi Sikand of EAV, an energy industry focused VC, recommends reading The Next Factory of the World by Irene Sun, to think more strategically about change management in the industry. When economies transform from very agrarian economies, which are much time fluid, towards industrialisation, there needs to be new process-oriented thinking around deliverables. China handled this very well, and this will be an important part of knowledge transfer between the two regions.

3. Creating more practical courses and commercialising education

Looking at the next 5 to 10 years, Catherine Nyambala, Chief Engineer Quality at KenGen notes that New Energy Vehicles (NEV’s) will be a rapidly growing area for Kenya.  China is one the major proponents of NEV’s from being the largest of producers of them globally, to giving generous government subsidies. 

Perhaps it would make sense for a major Chinese manufacturer like BYD to create a program inside KenGen to train the next generation of engineers focused on NEV’s in Africa.

4. Companies can do more

According to Kweku Yankson of BBOXX, in the short-term, it’s “more effective for employers to take the initiative to ensure adequate capability development in the industry”, as employers typically have a clearer picture of the unique capability requirements of their specific businesses, and are faster at addressing these.

In the medium-term, companies need to engage proactively with governments to ensure that educational systems at the national level deliver enough of the foundational capabilities required in the energy sector.

Looking Ahead

Looking at trends, with the advent of distributed infrastructure, there will be more end-to-end systems on site, with generation and metering all in one place. Regardless of whether it is power, water, sanitation, there will be more focus and a technical need for those who can manage inter- and intrasystem connections.

As technologies become more closely linked and more dependent on data for efficient outcomes, the industry needs workers who can think about skill sets holistically and within the context of integration. This is particularly relevant as more companies are thinking about the intersectionality of energy and other verticals, such as agriculture and finance.

Given China’s position as a global leader in energy and Africa’s potential for green energy production, working together would yield mutual benefits. In Africa, as we move from access to energy for product use, it is more than important than ever that the two regions work together to create ecosystem understanding rather than individual understanding.

Stephany Zoo is a contributor for Business Insider Sub-Saharan Africa. Having lived on three continents, she strives to create stories that knit together diverse backgrounds. Entrepreneurial at heart, Stephany founded ecommerce site BUNDSHOP.com, and League X, a boutique tech branding firm. She helped launch SAP’s flagship SME product in China, as well as consulted for a number of Chinese SOE’s, including Ping’An and China Telecom. She is currently the Head of Marketing for BitPesa, Pan-Africa’s digital FX and treasury solution. Her passion projects also include Phoenix Risen, a platform to bring men and women together to combat sexual violation, and China Africa Tech Initiative, focusing on accelerating the tech industry as the next era of collaboration between China and Africa.