To live well you need access to basic amenities such as clean water and energy. In the developed world we take this for granted. For those living in developing countries, though, gaining access to sustainable energy sources can improve quality of life immeasurably. Solafrica is using the power of solar energy – and the power of education – to light up rural communities in Ethiopia.
One of the Julius Baer Foundation’s core pillars is vocational training for underprivileged youths around the world to enable them and their communities to become self-sufficient. With this in mind, the Foundation invited representatives of several non-profit organisations to a workshop in 2017 to develop a vocational training programme for rural communities in Ethiopia. Among the representatives was Elias Kost. An ETH Zurich graduate and former primary school teacher, Kost is the CEO of Solafrica, a small non-profit organisation dedicated to the development of sustainable energy solutions for rural Africa.
Energy is at the core of many things – security, health, education...
Based in the Swiss capital of Bern, Solafrica collaborates with an international network of solar energy specialists to train technicians who teach young people in rural African communities about solar energy and its efficient use for the benefit of their communities. Upon completion of the solar technology programme, these young people will have acquired all skills necessary to install, maintain, and sell solar panels, not to mention a deeper understanding of climate protection.
A spin-off of Greenpeace Switzerland, Solafrica’s beginnings have an unexpected connection to a former US President. “It all began with the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in 2009,” explains Kost. “While Barack Obama attended the conference, Greenpeace decided to capitalise on the opportunity to raise awareness of solar energy by installing a solar panel on the house of his grandmother, Sarah, in Kenya. This garnered a lot of attention and familiarised the public with the potential of solar energy in rural areas, as it can be generated from very micro systems all the way up to industrial-scale systems.”
With support from various Swiss organisations, the ‘Sarah Obama Solar Learning Centre’ was built two years later in Kenya in collaboration with Greenpeace Switzerland, where Kost was doing his civil service at the time. In order to empower small communities on a much larger scale, Solafrica was founded in 2010. The organisation is now independently active in Kenya, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and, most recently, Ethiopia.
This latest project, supported by Julius Baer, is to establish a certified training centre for solar energy in the Amhara region of northern Ethiopia – the first of its kind in the country. The one-year training programme began in autumn 2018 and, over the course of five years, will train 540 students. These graduates, in turn, will help provide access to solar energy for an astounding 40 000 local people.
As a society we have yet to tap into the potential of solar energy.
Less than 12 per cent of rural households and 27 per cent of the remaining households in Ethiopia are connected to the grid. Due to high costs and logistical issues, extending the grid is inconceivable.
“Solar energy offers an affordable, yet sustainable alternative,”says Kost. “Energy is at the core of many things – security, health, education, economic development,information, to name a few. So establishing a programme that trains individuals to use solar enterprises that function independently benefits rural communities in a variety of lasting ways.”
The programme will also ensure graduates are equipped with lifelong business skills. “It is crucial they complete our entrepreneurial course,” explains Kost. “It teaches them about financial management, administration, and procurement. As the students often return to their local villages, having these entrepreneurial skills enables them to take on important business opportunities, which can subsequently help their communities secure economic self-reliance for years to come.”
By working closely with the Ethiopian government, Solafrica plans to develop curriculum standards to ensure the programme is recognised nationwide and can therefore be taught from any local vocational training centre, regardless of rurality.
As for Solafrica’s plans for the longer-term future, Kost has no hesitation: “As a society we have yet to tap into the potential of solar energy. There is so much growth to be realised in the renewable energy market that this will remain our focus for the time being. We are thankful for the partnership as well as the networking opportunities the Julius Baer Foundation has provided us with and will continue to collaborate and educate, for both a healthier climate and way of life.”