Solar Offers A Future for Kenya’s Youth

This is the final feature in a weekly, three-part series on green jobs in various sectors of the global economy. Read Part 1 and Part 2.

Frederick OukoFrederick Ouko left western Kenya when he was 20, in search of a college education. Like about a third of Kenya's rural youth, he was unemployed. And like many who move to the capital city of Nairobi, he settled in Kibera.

Kibera is the second largest slum in Africa and home to more than a third of Nairobi's population. Poverty is rampant, and basic services such as electricity, water, and sanitation are scarce. Instead, kerosene lamps pollute the air. "Flying toilets," plastic bags filled with excrement, are discarded on rooftops or along the streets. As much as 45 percent of the population lacks a job. The situation is even worse for Kibera's youth: 80 percent of residents aged 15 to 35 are unemployed, according to the United Nations Development Programme [PDF].

Ouko received a diploma in business communication technology, a rare accomplishment in a country where 92 percent of youth lack any vocational or professional training. But instead of leaving the slums, Ouko decided to stay.

He founded the Kibera Youth Community Programme, an effort to provide alternatives to drug abuse and crime - such as theater productions, HIV/AIDS awareness projects, music recording, and soccer matches. To fund about a third of the youth projects, Ouko turned to a technology that may lead to improved conditions throughout Kibera: solar power.

Ouko employs 16 local youth to manufacture handheld solar devices, which they sell throughout Nairobi and into the countryside. The devices, purchased through the U.K. group BioDesign and sold for 1,500 Kenyan shellings (US$24) on average, are mainly used to power mobile phones or radios. "Some [of the employees] are out of school, still trying to figure out what to do," Ouko said. "Now they have an option for income, and they can...benefit from the skills of their training."

Solar power is a growing energy source in Kenya. If this expansion continues, observers say the sun may hold the answer to the country's stagnant economy. "Green jobs" - well-paying employment in an environmentally beneficial industry - are likely to follow. Whether this growth will trickle down to the frustrated youth of Kibera remains to be seen.

Energy in Demand

Electricity rates are doubling across Kenya, due to the rising price of oil and to a dry rainy season that has reduced hydropower performance. Even before this year's problems, Kenya experienced power outages at least 50 days out of the year. More than anywhere else in Africa, 70 percent of businesses own expensive diesel generators for back-up power, according to a Center for Global Development report. "Governments in Africa are desperate to increase the supply of electricity any way they can," said Vijaya Ramachandran, a senior fellow at the Center.

The rising electricity rates make renewable energy more attractive by the day. A 2007 World Bank report said Kenya has annual solar energy resources equivalent to the discovery of roughly 70 million tons of oil. The country already sells about 30,000 solar photovoltaic (PV) systems each year. "Kenya has a thriving solar industry, without a lot of NGO support," said Robert Freling, executive director of the Solar Electric Light Fund. "It's one of the best examples of where the technology has taken off in the developing world."

Future investments in the developing world's renewable energy technologies will likely trigger further expansion of Kenyan solar. Through the World Bank's Lighting Africa initiative, launched last year, the Bank plans to provide 250 million Africans with clean-energy lighting by 2030, with significant reliance on light emitting diodes (LEDs).

The Economist predicts that if the cost of solar is reduced by 30 percent, PV technology will spread across Africa. "No other part of the world is better suited than Africa," Ramachandran said.

Poor Regions Disadvantaged

Meanwhile, an increasing number of aid organizations are utilizing Kenya's sunny climate to provide electricity to off-the-grid markets, helping to boost employment opportunities. Solar cookers are spreading throughout rural and urban Kenya for individual and commercial use. And microsolar devices, such as those constructed by Ouko's organization, are becoming an affordable option to power small electronics, particularly when the long-term cost of fossil fuel power is considered.

Janet Feldman, director of the Kenya AIDS Intervention Prevention Project Group, plans to purchase the Kibera solar devices for women who have lost their husbands to HIV/AIDS. These women now rely on radio programs to learn how to operate their farms by themselves. "When you have this source of power, you can do so much. They're able to cook, able to read, and carry on a business," Feldman said.

While solar technology is becoming more accessible, solar PV ownership is still dominated by the rural middle class. Most of the estimated 4.2 percent of rural Kenyans who own a solar system have annual household incomes well above $2,000 per year, according to a study published last year in the journal World Development.

Solar opportunities for Kenya's rural and urban poor, meanwhile, are still too few to see widespread economic improvement, said Maurice Odera, the Kenya representative for the United Nations Environment Programme's TUNZA youth initiative. For those who earn less than $1 a day, he said, community-wide solar opportunities would require government subsidies. "Frankly speaking, there are no [green jobs] because most of the government funded projects or initiatives are not long sustained initiatives with evaluations and structuring," Odera said.

Yet leaders such as Frederick Ouko remain confident that despite the Kenyan government's lack of support, community-based programs for solar energy do offer employment opportunities. If the solar industry expands, Kibera's young people may have prospects for a bright future.

Worldwatch staff writer Ben Block and State of the World fellow Ambika Chawla can be reached at bblock@worldwatch.org.

For permission to reprint this article, please contact Julia Tier at jtier@worldwatch.org.

Stay tuned! This fall, Worldwatch senior researcher Michael Renner, in collaboration with Cornell University researchers and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), will release Green Jobs: Toward Sustainable Work in a Low-Carbon World. The report is a joint effort of UNEP, the International Trade Union Confederation, and the International Labour Organization.