Image credit: Inspiration by IamNotUnique, CC BY-NC-SA
Speaking at the Africa Summit during the spring of 2014, Souad Benbachir, the CEO and Executive Director of the CFG Group based in Morocco crystallised the important difference between North and sub-Saharan Africa. That is, with the norths world class infrastructure, 65 per cent of its trade and 85 percent of its tourism from Europe, the country and indeed the region is “more aligned to Europe than sub-Saharan Africa”. It was what everyone always knew but had not really heard so explicitly stated.
Given that background, it was not surprising to hear a BBC report of an ambitious project to fund the development of a concentrated power facility in Tunisia which could generate enough solar energy to light 2.5 million UK homes. The project would use the best engineering firms the European continent could muster up, awash with talent, if the money could be found for such a multi-billion dollar programme.
Solar and sustainable energy is all the rage at the moment. It is difficult to say for how long given the growing popularity of shale gas and the rumblings from the middle east signalling a drop in crude oil prices which could play serious havoc to the economics of shale.
Here’s the thing though. Given the energy requirements of sub-Saharan Africa and knowing that meeting that demand will require a combination of off-grid and on-grid transmission, of which solar will undoubtedly play a critical role, the solar opportunity looks interesting even from an exploratory perspective.
Recently CNN’s African Voices profiled Patrick Ngowi, a 28 year old who founded his own solar power company in Tanzania giving a strong indication on what is possible. Today the company turns over $10 million US dollars and Forbes have named him as one of Africa’s most promising entrepreneurs.
In his interview with Forbes, he mentions the skills gap and how difficult it is to find solar engineers. His business model focused on making solar affordable to Africans and created a market by so doing. In the UK there are no shortage of colleges offering first rate skills training in solar engineering. There’s a big market in Africa. After all, let’s face it, with shale gas and the inclement British weather, solar is unlikely to be really big business just yet. But Africa on the other hand, now there’s an opportunity for the African diaspora seeking new opportunities.
There’s another thing. It’s great to see solar giving light where there was nothing before but there needs to be another vision which goes beyond just making do and focuses on laying the foundations for a 21st century society,one that can last for at least one hundred years, or even more.