Photo: Solar Energy Foundation Kenya

Last-mile energy access and youth entrepreneurship in Kenya

Like most other African countries, Kenya faces a twin challenge: high youth unemployment in the context of limited access to clean energy, particularly in the rural and remote regions, where majority of her off-grid population live. Yet, this challenge represents enormous opportunities of equipping and empowering the local youth with entrepreneurship skills for the promotion, sale and distribution of clean energy products and services, notably solar devices and clean cooking stoves. Targeting the last-mile clean energy access challenge, the “Green Entrepreneurship and Empowerment Program” (GEEP) seeks to recruit, train and mentor a cohort of youth-led small-and-micro-enterprises (SMEs) with specific focus on clean energy products and services.

There many reasons why the youth in Africa would be highly motivated in the GEEP project. First and foremost is the creation of jobs. By one estimate, clean energy has the potential to create 26 million jobs in Africa by 2050. Thus, the African youth and their SMEs need be well equipped and empowered to enable them take advantage of this huge opportunity in clean energy. Second, with regard to advancing and accelerating Africa’s desired transition to clean energy, the youth are effective agents and champions of change. Companies and governments will not be successful in large scale dissemination of clean energy solutions without gaining the trust of end-users and local communities in which the users are embedded. For example, experience of previous failed energy solutions (e.g. solar) is a well-known contributor to the low adoption of such solutions in rural Africa. Youth leaders and youth-led SMEs have a critical role to play in building partnerships and trust with local and diverse communities through public education forums, marketing campaigns and pilot projects.

Most important, for the African youth adopting clean energy is quite personal. Sub-Saharan Africa is not only the youngest continent (median age 20), the region also has the lowest rates of access to clean energy. Moreover, majority of youth in rural African have grown up without access to electricity. Thus, they personally appreciate the critical role clean energy is to address the twin challenges of development and environmental sustainability.

New approach: Green Entrepreneurship and Empowerment Program (GEEP)

At Solar Energy Foundation Kenya (StS Ke), the answer to youth unemployment in Kenya is creation of a holistic entrepreneurship ecosystem that inspires, equips and empowers the youth to become “job creators” as opposed to perennial “job seekers”. Indeed, the small and micro-enterprises (SMEs) in Kenya continue to show great promise, employing 5 in every 10 people. Yet, the huge entrepreneurship potential for the youth remains largely unmet. Start-up businesses by the youth face numerous challenges, notably low entrepreneurship skills, limited access to affordable finance, and most important, the absence of long-term and holistic mentorship programs as is the case in developed countries.

With this in mind, the GEEP project to train, mentor and empower locally-owned and managed SMEs operating in clean energy, specifically solar and clean cooking solutions. SMEs will include sales agents solar and clean cookstoves, freelance installers and retail stockists in the two sectors. We propose to operationalize the GEEP framework through a seven-step, logical and sequential approach as outlined in Figure 1 below.

In the first pilot phase, StS Ke works with Msolar Solutions Ltd, an off-grid solar distribution company in Kenya that is also supporting a wide range of SMEs access small-cash loans via their PAYGo business model. With a network of 10 field branches in rural Kenya, Msolar brings to the GEEP, valuable grassroots-level operational experience in mobilizing potential SMEs and facilitating necessary logistics across the seven-step cycle.

The program was successfully launched in July 2023: 43 participants, including 17 women, received basic training in business management. In the next step, the young entrepreneurs are coached over four months in everyday life in order to transfer the theoretical knowledge into practical everyday action.

 

For many Kenyans, setting up a small solar business in rural areas offers an attractive opportunity to secure their own livelihood and create jobs. Many see this modern technology as a market with great potential.

Our program offers these grassroots green entrepreneurs a double opportunity: they start their own solar business and at the same time become part of an entrepreneurial community that supports each other and shares experiences. A program that is undoubtedly unique in this form.

The Green Entrepreneurship and Empowerment Program (GEEP) is part of: 

 

Gathu Kirubi PhD is an experienced solar entrepreneur in Kenya, Lecturer at Kenyatta University Nairobi, Director of Solar Energy Foundation Kenya and Coach at Startup|Energy Accelerator. He is based in Nairobi.