Investing in training to supercharge energy access

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Through insights from Togo’s ground-breaking rural electrification work, see how governments and funders can create development gains by effectively putting skills and training at the heart of energy access initiatives.

Energy access is central to the drive for access to clean and affordable energy in every city and village is threatened by a global skills shortage. There is an urgent need for more engineers and technicians – but also for supporting staff including sales and marketing agents, human resources and IT professionals, and managers.

The problem is worst in countries where the need is greatest. Africa currently has only 324,000 renewable energy jobs – a quarter of the total in the European Union (1.3 million), and barely more than Germany (297,000).

The challenge has been recognised by Togo, a country undertaking one of Africa’s most ambitious energy access efforts. It aims to deliver universal electrification by 2030, through public-private partnerships and targeted support for the poorest households.

This work saw The Togolese Agency for Rural Electrification and Renewable Energy (AT2ER) win the 2020 Ashden Award for System Innovation for Energy Access. The prize was supported the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

Energy for all

Togo’s 2018 electrification strategy includes digital mapping of energy needs and appropriate solutions across the country, the growth of mobile money services to allow payment for energy services, new mini-grids, and expansion of the country’s electricity grid.

But it is the government’s plan to work with the private sector on the nationwide rollout of 550,000 solar home systems by 2030 that stands to have the biggest impact in rural communities – where, in 2017, access to electricity was as low as 8%. This component of the strategy is set to cost 435bn CFA, with 296n CFA met by the private sector.

Credit gov of Togo - A father helping his children with their homework at night under a solar light

At the heart of this element is the ‘CIZO cheque’ – a $4 monthly government subsidy to rural families, running for up to three years in each case, to be redeemed against monthly payments on a solar home system from a provider of the family’s choice.

The government has worked with mobile money providers to develop an integrated payment platform used by all customers and energy companies taking part in the initiative. This generates valuable data about the project, and means each household’s subsidy can be passed directly from government to their energy provider.

The scheme was designed and delivered in partnership with off-grid energy companies, who have been given a wide range of incentives to expand or launch their work in Togo. These range from preferential tariffs to warehousing support from the national postal service.

The government’s strategy describes this approach as ‘private sector-driven deployment, with public support’. Licenses for companies are granted on condition of minimum product standards and the provision of customer support.

The vital role of training

At the project’s outset, the government embarked on a series of training initiatives that aimed to boost the number of solar home system installers and technicians in every corner of the country, and to support the mobile money systems needed to buy and pay for these systems. This recognised the need for training as a foundational element of widening energy access, and more directly its value in incentivising private sector involvement in the country’s energy access challenge.

3,000 solar technicians were trained at five ‘solar academies’ around the country, in courses lasting three weeks – while, to facilitate payment through mobile money, the government ran day-long courses for agent supervisors who would be employed by the country’s postal service (a major stakeholder in the project). These supervisors went on to informally train agents around the country who would take payments for energy services (these agents are generally owners or employees of local small businesses).

Ashden’s conversations with the Government of Togo, the private sector training providers it contracted (KYA Energy Group, Horus) and the largest energy company taking part in the scheme (BBOXX) have highlighted lessons for other governments considering similar initiatives – and for funders and partners looking to support and deliver such work.

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The design of both training interventions acknowledged the need to ‘train the trainers’ as the foundation for a successful off-grid energy sector. The government drew on the country’s existing skills base to do this.

On the solar installer side, KYA Energy Group recruited 60 experienced electrical engineers to deliver sessions to trainees. CEO Yao Azoumah said: “We were clear they should be practitioners, not from academia. They should know exactly what is needed.” As a result, the ‘training of trainers’ in this case focused largely on equipping the trainers with teaching methods and skills.

Meanwhile, consultancy Horus ran day-long courses to train 40 pay-as-you-go (PAYGO) agent supervisors who would go on to upskill and manage payment agents across the country (those who would process customers’ monthly payments for energy services).

The focus here was on equipping people in the country’s emerging digital and telephone banking sector to facilitate the spread of solar home systems, as well as other products. So the sessions featured an overview of the specific payment systems used, a basic introduction to solar home systems, and guidance on managing relationships with agents.

Training providers working in both areas stressed the importance of establishing peer WhatsApp groups – both among newly-trained trainers and frontline workers – as a practical and cost-effective means of embedding newly acquired knowledge, and allowing continued learning. Providers reported that this approach was welcomed by trainees in Togo.

On the PAYGO side, training received agent supervisors encouraged them to make repeated visits to the sales agents they were upskilling. Training professionals stressed that providing opportunities for ongoing learning was a highly effective approach, and should be supported where resources allow.

As a requirement for taking part in the solar installer course, participants needed to have a working knowledge of electricity and engineering. But those with further or higher education in these areas often had little hands-on experience, highlighting a lack of practical components in existing education programmes in the region.

As KYA Energy Group CEO Yao Azoumah said: “Many had learned the theories around this, but not had the chance to experiment.” This signals that the ‘level’ of education achieved by potential trainees may not be the most relevant factor when considering their ability, and subsequently the design of programmes.

Only 14% of the participants in the solar installer training were women. Anecdotally, this is a higher than average figure for engineering jobs in Togo, but underlines the huge challenge in creating a gender-balanced workforce. The training provider highlighted a lack of role models for women in this area, and pointed to a need to encourage girls to study science and technical subjects throughout their time at school – possibly supported by a scholarship system.

More positively, training for agent supervisors attracted more women than men – women are relatively well-represented in such roles in Togo’s digital banking and telecoms sector. While enormous structural challenges must be overcome in terms of gender equality, this shows that investment in skills and training in the off-grid sector can still create many opportunities for women even before much-needed societal change has been achieved.

The training provided to solar installers, agent supervisors and sales agents was free. In some cases it included subsidised travel to the Togolese capital, Lomé. While this lowered a barrier to entry, trainers reported that it meant some places were taken by candidates who were not fully committed to the course.

This raised difficulties engaging every student in the teaching sessions. Suggestions for overcoming the issue include charging a nominal fee to take part. But the problem also underlines the need to make sessions as engaging as possible, for example through role plays that the entire training group are encouraged to take part in.

Trainers also suggested that supplying merchandise (such as caps and t-shirts) on completion of the course would give participants a visible sign of their qualification within their community, something that would motivate trainees.

On the solar installer course, the drop out rate for sessions run in more remote areas was 20% – compared to just 5% in urban areas. This reflected a greater enthusiasm for courses among urban participants, who could see more opportunities to put their skills to profitable use in the local area, where solar home systems were already becoming more popular and visible.

This highlights a challenge in building skills for a nascent sector. Even free courses will struggle to attract engagement if participants are not convinced that there will work for them in the years ahead.

BBOXX underlined the fact that skilled private sector middle-managers are essential to establishing a thriving off-grid energy sector. But developing these roles cannot be done over weeks or a handful of months, no matter the resources available. This is because a level of experience is crucial. Another factor to consider is that the exact balance of skills needed to perform managerial roles in a pioneering new programme may not be clear at its outset.

In setting up new initiatives in new markets, most energy companies will aim to leverage talent and knowledge produced from their operations in other countries – this was the case in Togo. In the long term, the most effective way to ensure a ready supply of middle managers will likely be to offer mentoring and coaching to more junior staff, so sector knowledge can be integrated with local experience. Funders, donors and governments could support this work.

Private sector companies in this area struggle to find people with the right skills to support their entry or growth in new markets, and face a hefty bill for providing training (or re-training) themselves. So, unsurprisingly, a proactive approach to the issue from governments is extremely welcome. The approach taken in Togo – an ‘up front’ investment in training, to ease barriers to entry in areas where energy access is extremely weak – is in line with the needs identified by the sector.

However, companies are also looking for a level playing field. They will have factored the cost of training into their business models, and will be anxious that the benefits of external support such as state-sponsored training are shared fairly across the market. This is particularly relevant to national schemes like the CIZO programme, that are trying to stimulate a stable and profitable market with multiple energy companies.

One strength of Togo’s electrification initiative is the way it draws on the country’s existing digital communications and banking sector, involving a wide range of public and private sector organisations. But this creates a need to provide training and upskilling across a wide network, potentially at short notice.

For example, as the solar home system rollout progressed in Togo, it became clear that the system of linking subsidy accounts to people’s mobile phone accounts encountered problems when customers switched numbers. Implementing a solution (creating new user ID numbers for all subsidy recipients) needed input from staff across Togo’s telecoms companies.

Togo’s experience shows that energy access programmes can drive the rapid growth in digital skills that builds a strong platform for development. As Togo’s Minister of Postal Affairs and Digital Economy, Cina Lawson, told a green zone event at COP26: “Energy access can be a pathway to all access.”

For example, Togo’s new digital payment network played a crucial role in the country’s early response to coronavirus, when it distributed USD 34 million to help citizens endure the economic impact of the crisis.

The government used satellite imagery and data from companies including BBOXX to build a poverty map of Togo, and used algorithms to determine the most vulnerable individuals in each area – this led to USD 10 million dollars being distributed to 140,000 people. The process was entirely digital, with people receiving cash two minutes after enrolling in the programme.

When stakeholders are making the business case for investment in energy access skills training, they should examine how it can be a platform for other development interventions.

Working with their project partners, the government of Togo set out to support a nationwide skills base. But it has not yet been able to systematically track the impact of this effort – although it is currently drawing up a monitoring strategy.

This fits with a pattern seen around the world: governments with limited resources will find it hard to prioritise monitoring over implementation. But investing in tracking the ‘real world’ impact of training is crucial. A global movement behind this area will only happen if the benefits created, not just in wider energy access but also new job opportunities and reduced social inequality, are rigorously quantified.

Monitoring should be a priority for donors and funders interested in widening energy access and effective development more generally, particularly in communities where change is needed most.

Credit BBOXX - A technician working on a light outside a thatched home

Comment: Togo’s skills focus tackles major barrier to SDG 7

By Andrew Reicher, Independent Adviser and Investor

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 7 for 2030 is to “Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.” Although there is progress, on present trends, it is thought that the population of Africa without access to energy in 2030 will be about the same as in 1990 – between 700 and 800 million people. As a visitor to COP26 in Glasgow in November 2021, I was struck by its focus on dry technological discussion about reducing carbon emissions, and how little attention was paid to the moral scandal of inadequate progress towards SDG 7.

Yet the two are intimately entwined. They both relate to the challenge of achieving net zero in the Global North. Unless clean, sustainable, and affordable carbon-free energy is delivered to everyone, and increases the well-being and prosperity of all humankind, wherever they live, the prospects of achieving climate and development targets are both remote.

For many Africans without access to energy, the cheapest (and most reliable) way to access power is via distributed renewable energy (DRE). In practice this means either household level PV solar systems or community microgrids. There is now almost 15 years of experience of widescale deployment across Africa of these services. They can no longer be regarded as exotic experiments, but still the pace of adoption has not been fast enough.

Too often, governments have left the job to the private sector and the international development community. In recent years, however, a number of pioneering African governments have begun incorporating DRE into their access to energy policies and playing an active role as regulators, facilitators and part-financiers of the roll-out. Togo’s work in this area is truly ground-breaking, meeting the needs of a remote rural population by offering a range of routes to energy.

Recruiting, training and coordinating people in the public and private sectors to deliver these new energy services and associated financial support has played an important role in Togo’s success. The global energy transition won’t be achieved without high quality renewable energy jobs performed by skilled and motivated people, men and women. In rural areas of traditional societies, active measures are required to drive towards gender equality, as also illustrated in Togo.

The case for action is clear, and goes beyond creating and supporting jobs in the DRE sector. When renewable energy reaches a community, it supports higher productivity and incomes for men and women, who are enabled to use more productive equipment for agriculture, industry, construction, services and household activities. So an investment in energy access skills will ultimately increase the acquisition of skills throughout societies, improving incomes and wellbeing.

Africa’s population is set to double between now and 2050. Well over one billion young Africans will enter adulthood and aspire to join the labour market. They desperately need education, employment skills and decent, fulfilling work opportunities. Sustainable and affordable energy, and the connectivity it brings, are the essential foundation for achieving all this.

Togo’s experiences in confronting these challenges, and especially the emphasis on training and skills, are a valuable example to every government which decides to incorporate DRE into its energy policies, every private business operating in the energy sector, and every development agency aiming to facilitate and finance the path to SDG 7.

Togo’s imaginative, generous and bold programme for the years between now and 2030 shows how SDG 7 and climate targets can both be achieved, and peoples’ lives everywhere improved.

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