Step up skills and training to deliver energy access – and a zero carbon future

By Tricia Curmi

Guest insight by Harriet Lamb, CEO of climate solutions charity Ashden


Renewable energy has the potential to connect three billion people with clean and affordable electricity or cooking methods for the first time – boosting their incomes, and health, and setting countries on course for a zero carbon future.

But a skills and training gap is holding back the spread of technologies and services. As policymakers at COP26 negotiate with an eye on how to achieve SDG7 – clean energy for all – getting behind this agenda means backing the skills and training innovators already showing the way.

Climate finance backing proven solutions

World leaders at COP26 can put the planet on course for a fair transition. A key step is to deliver on a long-promised finance package of $100 billion a year so developing countries can invest in climate action. Recent announcements suggest this is still years away. It is crucial funding increases quickly to make up this deficit and restore trust.

This funding, and the UK’s own climate finance commitment (£11.6bn between April 2021 and March 2026), need a significant focus on energy access skills. Failure to invest in this area will undermine climate and development investment elsewhere.

Boosting women’s participation in the energy access workforce should be a key feature of any UK skills investment, in-line with the country’s May 2021 promise to “make gender, equity, and diversity central to the global energy sector’s [coronavirus] recovery efforts”.

Finally, the UK can create policy in consultation with frontline organisations, and ensure their insights are properly communicated and acted on at a global level.

Pioneering governments, NGOs and enterprises have the proven and practical solutions ready for investment or replication. Backing solutions that demonstrate how climate and development goals can be tackled together should be a priority at COP26 and beyond.

A brighter future for refugees in Kenya

One fifth of people in Sub-Saharan Africa are aged 15 to 24. But the region has just 179,000 renewable energy jobs – barely half the figure for Germany (309,000). Frontline enterprises warn of a disconnect between the skills passed on by training institutions and those needed on the ground. And while there is an urgent need for more people to install and service renewable technology, enterprises also need trained managers and others to work in supporting roles.

But even in the face of enormous challenges, frontline innovators are notching up impressive results. Such as Solar Freeze – a Kenyan owned-and-run enterprise bringing clean and affordable cooling to places including Kakuma refugee camp, where a lack of reliable cooling hampers healthcare and other basic services. Solar Freeze helps clinics store vaccines and treatments for conditions including coronavirus, yellow fever, measles as well as preventing food waste.

The organisation also offers free training courses for camp residents, lasting three to four months. Past trainees include refugee Sakina Kariba, who now finds work around the camp installing and fixing solar panels and other equipment – unusual work for a woman

Reflecting on the support from Solar Freeze, she says: “I liked it because they were not discriminatory to me. Every time I am in the field, I am highly motivated to be doing what I thought was a job preserved for men.”

That is the value of investing in energy access skills – which can deliver energy connections but also greater gender equality, and economic opportunities for marginalised groups. Lack of access to skills and education is a huge barrier for displaced people. Worldwide, only 9% of adolescent refugees go to secondary school.

Bringing loans and business bootcamps to Uganda

So how do we get support to more grassroots organisations? Dynamic intermediaries like New Energy Nexus Uganda can be the bridge between remote villages and eager funders and philanthropists. New Energy Nexus works with the country’s small community-based organisations, helping them sell affordable clean energy products. These village-level groups provide essential services across much of East Africa, but often have few resources and little business experience.

New Energy Nexus offers them training – including ‘business bootcamps’ – and support that helps them build and service demand for energy. For example, RFCare in the Rwenzori Highlands has received a $2,000 loan to support the sale of cookstoves that create less air pollution than traditional models, as well as fuel briquettes and water filters. The loan also helped train young people in cookstove installation and repair. So far, the company has sold 1,800 stoves.

Bold governments take innovation nationwide

Grassroots action is vital – but flourishes best within bold national initiatives. In countries including Zambia and Togo, pioneering governments have instigated projects that bring together the best of the public and private sector to connect even remote communities with affordable energy. These often make use of subsidies to grow markets for clean energy and ensure it is accessible to all.

Training is another important element of these programmes. In Togo, the government trained 3,000 engineers to install and maintain the solar panels appearing on roofs across the county – with a rise in the proportion of women involved, compared to the country’s averages for mechanical and engineering courses. And there’s training for people to work in mobile banking too – recognising that these payment systems are the cornerstone of a thriving off-grid energy system.

If you’ve ever struggled to boot up a new laptop or panicked as your washing machine grinds to a halt for no earthly reason, you’ll know that even the most brilliant technology needs trained people to get it going and keep it running. That’s as true in the world’s most remote villages as it is in our living rooms and kitchens.