Energy companies should combine the provision of power with positive economic impacts for the communities where they build their projects, says renewable power generation company Lekela Power CEO Chris Antonopoulos.
Lekela’s portfolio includes more than 1 300 MW of wind power projects in Egypt, Ghana, Senegal and South Africa. In South Africa it leads two investor consortia which own and operate five windfarms across the Northern and Western Capes. Three of these are already in operation and the other two will reach their commercial operation dates by the end of the year.
According to Antonopoulos, however, to focus only on the 610 MW of clean power these will collectively contribute to South Africa’s grid, is to miss half the story.
Lekela views its clean energy projects in Africa as successful only if there is a long-term positive impact for the communities where that renewable energy is produced. These are often in rural areas where economic activity and education opportunities are limited.
The company aims to become the best-in-class clean energy developer in Africa by combining expertise and capital to help realise the renewable energy potential on the continent. Providing long-term value for all stakeholders is a central tenet of that approach.
“If a wind farm operates for more than 20 years, what does that mean for our relationship with the residents of the local town or village where the project is situated? Are we interlopers, long-term renters or true members of the community like anyone else who stays for that length of time? Our view is unequivocal. We enter communities to stay and as members of that community we invest in its development and well-being as any other citizen should,” says Antonopoulos.
In South Africa, windfarms pay dividends to community trusts of those living in a 50 km radius of their operations: locals become shareholders. The dividends fund local social development projects such as clinics and community centres as well as provide funding or other needs including enterprise development and supporting education programmes.
Lekela also funds enterprise and socio-economic development from a percentage of revenue.
Needs vary from community to community and the social development projects and outcomes are tailored accordingly. Lekela requires a dedicated employee at each of its projects to work in and with the community to ensure the collective goals are achieved.
These projects can sustain communities that were previously almost exclusively dependent on agriculture. For example, at the Loeriesfontein and Khobab wind farms they have spelled the difference between economic viability and penury for about 600 local people who depend on farming for a living.
Two businesses which participated in the Noupoort Wind Farm’s enterprise capacity-building programme have found success. Local companies Karoo Fresh Eggs and the Sandawana Brick Manufacturing Company have both doubled their output, increasing local employment.
Noupoort Wind Farm built a new early childhood development facility that has the capacity to care for 200 children aged two to six years old, addressing a prior shortage of safe and secure educational spaces. It has also funded an upgrade of the maths and science laboratory at the local high school and continues to sponsor maths and science teachers.
Lekela’s approach is also sufficiently flexible to respond to urgent community needs. Covid-19 is a case in point, where the company stepped in to help local communities in their response to the virus.
As well as protecting communities against Covid-19 itself, Lekela and operation and construction management company Mainstream Asset Management South Africa helped local communities adapt to the pandemic.
Vulnerable households receive food parcels, and enterprise-development support is helping local cooperatives make facemasks for community members. In Springbok, Lekela’s companies identified an entrepreneur to make hand sanitiser and arranged to have it delivered to community groups.
Forecasts suggest that renewable energy will make up well over 20% of Africa’s energy consumption by 2030. That would represent a fourfold increase from 2013 and position the continent as a renewable energy hub.
“This is an industry and a set of technologies that have the potential to thrive across Africa. Few places have the combination of constant, strong winds and long periods of sunshine. Harnessing this will be one of the great infrastructure projects of the next decade,” says Antonopoulos.
“But we can only consider it truly successful if we combine the energy impact of our work with the economic and social impacts that are valued by the communities in which these projects are situated. We should aim for nothing less,” he concludes.