The off-grid energy sector is continuing to grow, with shifts towards using standalone off-grid and renewable-energy-powered minigrid systems, as such systems can provide electricity in areas where current grid infrastructure cannot reach.
However, despite the growth in the sector, there has been little focus on skills development programmes for local human capital.
The Transforming Energy Access Learning Partnership (TEA-LP) aims to develop the human capital to address the current gap in the sector and meet the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal 7 (SDG 7) of ensuring access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all. SDG 7 is one of seventeen goals established by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015.
“The TEA-LP is hosted by the African Climate and Development Initiative (ACDI) at the University of Cape Town and is funded by UK Aid under the Transforming Energy Access programme,” says ACDI energy and development senior researcher Dr Jiska De Groot.
Through TEA-LP, eight new curricula – the “first-of-their-kind in Africa”– are being developed to directly respond to SDG 7.
At present, the TEA-LP comprises two phases, which aim to accomplish long-term adjustments in teaching and learning at higher education level, to deliver graduates that are workplace ready and better meet the skills needs of the energy access sector.
The first phase of TEA-LP, which runs from 2019 to the end of 2021, supports eight universities across Africa to develop new postgraduate curricula for the energy-access sector and provide financial and technical support for partner universities.
“These curricula vary, in discipline and conent, across universities, aiming to respond to the market needs of this rapidly growing sector in the respective countries,” explains TEA-LP project coordinator Guy Cunliffe.
The respective countries include Ethiopia, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Nigeria and Uganda.
The TEA-LP places a strong emphasis on understanding the energy-access sector in the curriculum design process. The curriculum can then support the development of graduates who are employable and workplace-ready. The curriculum also includes crucial soft skills such as teamwork, communication and critical thinking.
The TEA-LP is also working to support prospective students with scholarships at the National University of Lesotho. Through collaboration with the Lichtenstein Institute for Sustainable Development, the TEA-LP is supporting students at the Mekelle University, in Ethiopia, and the University of Port Harcourt, in Nigeria.
The second phase of the programme starts in April 2021, during which the TEA-LP will support the development of a standardised energy access course, as well as invite four additional universities to “join the partnership for the adoption of this course into an existing master’s programme”.
De Groot notes that “the immense network building happening between our partner universities, and the enthusiasm and passion with which our partners work on the task at hand” has been a highlight of the running the TEA-LP.
“During university engagements, the team identified very limited interaction among African universities on energy-access-related topics, both with respect to teaching and research, and the off-grid energy sector’s lack of an academic and professional identity. This has implications for the sector in attracting high- quality young graduates to jobs,” she explains.
Off-grid energy sector enterprises struggle to attract high-quality local talent, as they struggle to compete on a salary basis with “other for-profit sectors”, while the career opportunities it offers are not widely known.
As the off-grid energy sector grows, it will provide increasing opportunities for employment in sub-Saharan Africa. It will require “creative, innovative people who can develop solutions that deliver decentralised energy technologies to previously unserved communities in a manner that is sustainable for business growth”.
“To target the skills and careers of Africans, this project is strategically positioned to target the development of junior talent. “The TEA-LP will also slowly and sustainably develop the next-generation pipeline of senior leadership in African enterprises,” says De Groot.
Meanwhile, through the TEA-LP scoping study, researchers identified key challenges at university graduate level, which the programme aims to correct.
These challenges include the education-employment gap, the high demand and lack of supply of talented generalists in the off-grid energy sector, and a need for more university programmes with a specific focus on energy access.
The TEA-LP also had to deal with the challenges of Covid-19, which forced academia to reconsider the reliance on traditional face-to-face curricula. Most partner universities have adopted a blended approach to learning, reflecting the growing global shift to online education which has been accelerated by the pandemic.
TEA-LP communications and outreach officer Louise Tait says partner universities have struggled with using online options for teaching. The universities have to balance online teaching modes with limitations in Internet access and bandwidth. To encourage the shock-proofing of the TEA-LP curricula going forward, these challenges are being considered when developing online and blended learning approaches.