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Empowering Africa’s Youth: A Conversation on Skills for Tomorrow and Green Energy Careers with Makena Ireri, Director at the Global Energy Alliance for People and Planet.

Quick Summary

On the back of #YES! – Youth Energy Day organized by EnergyNet Ltd, Oluoch Were was lucky enough to talk to Makena Ireri, Director, Demand, Jobs, and Livelihoods at Global Energy Alliance for People and Planet

We talked about:

  • Empowering Africa’s Youth
  • Skills for Tomorrow
  • Green Energy as a Viable Career Path
  • Africa’s Renewable Energy Progress
  • More

Do check the full interview on YouTube.


OW: Welcome Makena. Could you kindly introduce yourself?

MI: Yeah, sure. I’m Makena Ireri. I’m a director at GEAPP for a function called Demand Jobs and Livelihoods.

OW: Perfect. In a nutshell, what does your role entail?

MI: Yeah, I mean, it’s three seemingly unrelated words, but I think if you’re in the energy sector, they start to make sense. And what my function does is think about what happens after you supply the electricity. So you have a connection, a pole, electrons coming out of it. But in order for those electrons, that electricity to be useful, to impact people’s lives, to change the kind of incomes that they can have or to give jobs, you need to do something extra. So that’s what my team does. We focus on what needs to happen after electricity has been delivered to convert it into a meaningful impact for people. And that impact can be in terms of jobs, in terms of increasing their livelihoods, but also generally, for example, climate resilience and other ways that electricity is useful for development.

OW: That’s interesting because there are a lot of discussions currently going on globally with regard to energy and its impact on the end user is. As you’ve mentioned, it may be in the form of employment to the youth, or in the form of access to the end user, either in an off-grid rural area or even in an urban setup. So Makena, in terms of empowering Africa’s youth, what’s your take in terms of strategies or initiatives whereby when we are looking at helping empower Africa’s youth within the energy sector?

MI: I guess when you talk about empower, I think about giving people the choices and opportunities to make their lives better. So, that’s how I think about empowering, and I think about the youth in the energy sector right now in Africa, there’s a couple of things that are necessary and that people are working on. So the first one is skills development and training. Unfortunately, not always our education system is up to par with the changes that are happening around the world. Digitization, all this kind of new, I guess, technology that’s coming in. We need to keep our youth current and up to date. And so I think strategies around skilling or re-skilling and vocational training are really helpful, and there are a couple of organizations doing this in the energy space. Secondly, I think giving youth a chance to show what they can do. I think that is really empowering and that is supporting their innovations and ideas, because as we know, a lot of youths in Africa are very entrepreneurial, they have great ideas, and they can help solve some of the problems that are affecting the energy space. But we need to also give them the space, the resources, and the funding to be able to convert those ideas into action. And again, for example at GEAPP, in India, we’ve run the Entice program, which helps to bring youths to solve some of the problems that are, I guess, affecting the energy space, and that program is something that we’re really looking at as potentially transferable to Africa. So initiatives like those are really helpful. And then finally, work placement. I think having your first job is exciting. There are many entry-level jobs in the energy sector, and once you’re re-skilled or skilled or even straight out of university, in some cases, there are a lot of jobs. But the problem is matching the person to the job and vice versa. And so, for example, at GEAPP, we’re working with Shortlist to match young women in jobs into the energy sector, and that’s working out really well because we are seeing these women stay in these jobs for more than six months. We track them for up to six months and we’re seeing the positive life impacts that that has. Just getting that first meaningful professional job. So I think these are some of the ways we can really empower young people.

OW: Amazing! Talking of empowering Africa’s youth, you’ve also mentioned the skills that they need for them to be able to venture into the energy space in a way that will enable them to have an impact as individuals. You’ve also talked about mentorship in empowering the youth to pursue their careers in energy. What challenges do you think young individuals commonly face?

MI: I think one of the challenges is access to information. Yes, we’re living in a digital era and everyone feels like information is just in the palm of their hands. But I can think that if you’re a young person who’s not living in a capital city, let’s say, who doesn’t have access to a smartphone or the Internet, how are you going to know about the kind of skills that you need or any programs that are available to you? So I think empowering youth with access to information is important. I think that’s a real challenge, especially the more rural you go. I think the other challenge is funding. You know, access to resources to be able to do the things you need to do to grow in your career or to even start. So sometimes in other countries, we see things like grants being given for young people to travel and participate in activities, in conferences, for example, in Energy Net. And that really opens up people’s perspective. But that financial challenge even to make that journey can be a problem. Here we are also trying to solve some of these problems with some of our initiatives. In terms of youths growing in their career, I think another challenge is flexibility. We’ve kind of a little bit told young people that, you know, you go to school to be an engineer, when you leave work, you look for an engineering job. But that’s not the reality of how the world works nowadays. Things are very interdisciplinary. So we need to also empower youths to feel like they have options. You don’t have to stick to a specific career path. A lot of your skills are transferable. It’s just that maybe someone needs to show you how they’re transferable to the energy sector. So I think that’s something we also need to unpack and kind of support you to realize that there’s more out there than the thing you went to school for.

OW: Sure! This one actually takes me to what you’ve just mentioned in terms of gaining skills and being competent. Here I’m talking about skills for tomorrow. What are these essential skills and competencies needed for the future in the energy industry in Africa with regard to the youth?

MI: I think the future of energy in Africa is going to be very digital. So anything you can do to upscale yourself in understanding the new digital tools, AI, the Internet of Things, being able to program, I think that’s going to be really helpful. The other thing is, and I think I said this maybe too much, is to be flexible, to be able to learn how to learn. It seems like, you know, a bit of an odd thing. But the thing is that it’s always changing and it’s changing really quickly. We’ve seen the energy sector in Africa change dramatically in even 10 years. So you need to know how to learn and how to keep up with the changes. And that’s self-motivation, being able to find the information you need to move to the next step, being able to connect with people and build your networks. I think those things are really, really important. So I’d say technically, the more digital you go, the better. But on the soft skills, you need to network and you need to learn how to learn.

OW: Yes, because we are actually living in a digital world whereby on a daily basis, we’ve got emerging technologies, and I believe as we move forward, this will also help reshape the skills that are needed within the sector. And on the same note, how can educational or higher institutions of learning also plug into this, you know, this idea of digitalization apart from just an individual whereby I may at the end of the day, spare one or two hours for me to be able to basically learn a new skill. What about institutions?

MI: Yeah, I think they have a great role to play because that’s how most people can access any kind of learning through an institution. I think institutions in Kenya need to find ways to partner with institutions who are at the cutting edge of some of the skills that we want our own youth to have, right? So, for example, I know a lot of Western universities are starting to think about setting campuses in different parts of Africa, in different countries. But I guess we don’t need them to come to us. We can also make that connection. We have something to trade here, which is our knowledge and our content of our own continent, and then they bring their digital skills and together there’s this interesting match to be made there. So I think looking for opportunities to partner could bring really great skills into institutions that can be transferred to students and not just with other educational institutions, but also with private sector companies because they know what they want and they are looking forward and projecting into the future about what kind of skills they’ll need. So partnering with them, for example, to run fellowships, internships, and placements. I think you have much bigger bargaining powers, and institutions going to arrange something with a big company to always give opportunities to X number of students every six months, than for each individual to come, every individual by themselves. So I think they should look into these kinds of partnerships that bring extra skills and extra opportunities for students.

OW: Looking at green energy as a viable career path, what exactly do you think in terms of the green energy space evolving? Because, you know, it’s mentioned that over the last couple of years, especially looking at the African perspective, it’s an area that has really evolved. In terms of careers for the youths, what do you think in terms of growth and in terms of creating that space for these youths to be able to be absorbed?

MI: Yes, you’re right. The space has grown, and I mentioned before. When we talk about green energy, sometimes we put ourselves in a box, and I just want to expand that thinking there a little bit. So we think about it as renewables that go into the grid. We also think about it as off-grid energy, right? Think solar power in rural settings where they don’t have access to the grid, and all that is, I mean, it’s a huge sector and it has huge potential. If you read some of the latest estimates from the IEA, they’re talking about millions of jobs in Africa alone in the next seven years to 2030 when they project to 2030. So as a place you want to look for a job as a young person, I think there’s enormous potential. Now, what specific career paths? Of course, there’s the technical career paths. I think those are obvious and people talk about them a lot around engineering, technicians, right? All the way from technicians who install solar, but even the products that are using the electricity, right? Talk about irrigation or processing, all this kind of machinery. So there’s already that. I think another space that would be really interesting is entrepreneurship. I think the energy sector is going to need service providers for all sorts of things. As the sector grows,  I guess, how do you call it? Not sort of bifurcates. It specializes, right? So over time, they are going to need people who do very, very specific things, right? And those people can be entrepreneurs who come up with solutions. So let’s say a lot of energy, new energy is provided in a place like in a rural area like Turkana. Who then delivers, for example, the appliances that are going to be used there? We’re not going to expect an international company to come, we can solve that problem ourselves. Somebody can set up a business to deliver appliances to Turkana. So I think there’s many opportunities to drive your own business as a young person and a lot of funding against that. We’ve already talked about digitization, which I think is super interesting. But I think there’s also careers that are associated with energy, right? If you’re a lawyer, there’s a lot of contracts to be negotiated, signed agreements, all these things. You know, we were talking before about power purchase agreements. You can skew your practice to the energy sector. If you, in many careers, you can find transferable skills. So I think it has enormous potential. I think you don’t have to be technical to get involved. And I think people should really think about entrepreneurship and building the businesses that are going to service the energy sector in the future.

OW: And I actually like the angle or the perspective that you’re taking, whereby it’s not only a path whereby I’m looking at who should I follow in terms of building my career path, in terms of maybe gaining employment or getting employment. But I can as well build my own path in terms of being an entrepreneur. And you’ve also mentioned something quite interesting whereby I may as well come up with something, it might be totally maybe somewhere in rural area. I may as well come up with something which at the end of the day may have an impact to my, you know, to my society or my community. And this comes in when I’m thinking as an entrepreneur. It’s not only a matter of me building my career by expecting someone to employ me, but there are also opportunities whereby I can as well create my own path and come up with something. Looking at the same area in terms of advice, what advice would you give to a young professional who’s just venturing into the sector or someone who’s considering venturing into the green energy space? And they also have, as you mentioned, the traditional background in this field. What advice would you give such a person?

MI: Yeah, I mean, I think first of all, you have to decide the track you want to take. I mean, we’ve talked about self-employment and then we’re talking about employment here. So you decide which one, and for each of those two tracks, there are different paths you can follow. So if you want to go and become an entrepreneur, I think one of the things is you have to have an idea. You have to have something, right? Something that is worth someone investing a little bit of money to turn it into a real thing, a prototype, let’s say. And there institutions like the Kenya Climate Innovation Center, there are a lot of research and development grants that are available that people can search for. I think my search would start with connections in LinkedIn because people always put a lot of funds or whatever is available, like innovation or hackathon-type challenges that you can start with. So if you’re an entrepreneur, I’d say look for those. Look for that first seed money that is basically free money in the form of a grant of some sort to turn your idea into something. And that’s kind of like the seed that then grows you to the various steps. If you’re looking to come in as a professional, you’re looking for employment, I think there are always the traditional ways of looking for employment. I’m going to recruit as a specialist in the energy sector, like I mentioned, Shortlist, you know, making connections and networking. But I think there’s also maybe something practical there about not pigeonholing yourself. So you don’t have to always start with a job that sounds like a… Because sometimes I meet people and they’re like, oh, but I only want an associate role. But I’ve seen people grow from like even a six-month fellowship to a real career in the sector. So I think be open, be open to that first entry point. It can look almost anyhow because what matters is when you’re in, what you do and how you grow and now you’re in the network. So I think be open to that and be flexible.

OW: OK, cool. Thank you for that, Makena. Now, on a wider perspective, it’s actually being said that Africa is the next big thing when it comes to renewables when it comes to energy as a whole. Could you provide an overview of the current state of renewable energy adoption and development in Africa? Just a rough overview. What’s your take on it?

MI: Yeah, I guess I’m not going to quote you any numbers off my head because they’re likely to be wrong, given how things move as well. I guess where are we in Africa in the state of renewable energy? Where we are is that we’re showing a lot of promise. Now, promise is not real activity on the ground, and those things are separated by funding. So there’s a huge funding gap. The amount of energy that is required for everyone on this continent to live, you know, a good life, right? You know, we call it the modern energy minimum to live a good modern life where you have access to sufficient energy for all your daily needs and maybe to even make some income. It’s high, you know, and there’s a lot of us and there’s not enough money. Our countries have borrowed to a point where there isn’t really much left in the debt ceiling, and so that’s that’s a little bit of a crisis. But that doesn’t mean that there is no potential. What we’re seeing is that other different kinds of money is starting to come into the sector. For example, money that’s focused more on climate resilience or climate adaptation. So it doesn’t have the label of energy, but we know energy is crucial. For example, for providing irrigation that helps us factor in the climate or helps us be resilient to climate. So these interesting kinds of new money coming into the sector that has a different label, but really could still support the energy sector. And that’s exciting. There’s money coming from different other sources than are traditional donor base. So that’s also exciting. I think the other thing we’re seeing in the energy sector is that the push to off-grid energy is real and growing. You know, the off-grid energy sector for the last 10 years has been steadily growing. And now it’s a real thing. Big companies are investing in off-grid energy, in mini-grids, in solar home systems, things that used to not be counted as real investments. Everybody used to want to go on the grid. So that’s exciting, and that’s showing that there’s a lot of promise beyond just like the traditional energy supply that we used to have. We’re facing a transmission and distribution problem. I think that’s clear when we see brownouts and when we see what’s happening in South Africa with the load shedding. So upgrading our transmission lines is critical. Again, there’s different kinds of funding that are coming out from that, especially from the EU, which is which is interesting, and what else? What else is like top of mind? I think these are really the things we have a big energy gap. A lot of people, maybe globally, maybe half a million, half a billion, sorry, people don’t have access to energy. And that’s, you know, given that we need to meet SDG 7 by 2030. It’s looking like it’s going to be difficult. Right now, when I look at the path we are on, no, not really. Unless we do something really dramatic in the next couple of years. I mean, it’s only seven years away. But I think what we can do is get us on a trajectory that at least gets us close. But the universal access by 2030 is looking really difficult. Yeah, it’s looking really difficult.

OW: OK, thank you very much. I’m happy you touched on the notable renewable energy innovations that we as Africa will be in a better position if we are able to adopt, especially when you touched on irrigation because at the end of the day, we also need to be in a position to feed ourselves and being able to adopt not only productive use of energy in terms of irrigation but also being able to have an impact in terms of having funds for the end users to be able to, you know, have access to such equipment on the renewable energy side of it, clean energy side of it. It’s quite important. Aside from that, I’m also happy that you were able to touch on the obstacles that we as a continent have been facing, and the main challenge has been on the funding, whereby I may not have the exact statistics, but in terms of the amount of money that is being pumped into Africa as a continent, if you compare it with the rest of the world, it’s barely 20 percent in terms of whatever share we are having. And we also need to be innovative enough, as you mentioned, we need to be able to position ourselves in a manner that we’ll be able to secure these funds, because at the end of the day, when we are looking at climate change mitigation, Africa is being seen as one of the key areas whereby some of these things need to be fully enforced. So I’m happy you talking about that, and aside from that, there are quite a number of key areas that you’ve been able to shed some light on, all the way from how do we empower Africa’s youth to be able to properly venture into the energy space, what set of skills would be important for them to be able to properly position themselves within the sector, and also green energy as a viable career path, because there are a number of individuals or even youths outside there, and they’ve always looked at the energy sector as something, you know, this is only meant for a particular set of people, but there are quite a number of key areas that, different people with different background may as well venture into within the energy space. Thank you very much for that. Aside from that, I’m glad you also talked on the viability of the green energy careers, whereby there’s future, there’s hope, there’s quite a number of things that people may as well get themselves involved in. And yeah, thank you very much for your time and for the insights that you’ve shared with us. Together with the Energy Net, we’d also like to thank them for, you know, making the Yes All The World Youth Energy Day a reality. I believe there are quite a number of significant things that we’ll be able to do together, not only as partners, but also as GEAPP. So thank you very much, Makena, and I really appreciate your time.

MI: Thanks.

OW: OK, welcome.

Do check the full interview on YouTube.

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