Picture: 123RF/VACLAW VOLRAB
Picture: 123RF/VACLAW VOLRAB

Much has been said recently about SA’s path towards a just energy transition that aims to ensure that communities near to and economically reliant on  fossil-fuelled industries don’t suffer as SA’s energy focus shifts to renewables.

Eskom CEO Andre de Ruyter hopes to raise R180bn in concessional finance for this, and his team hopes to have a framework for the process ready to present to financiers by November’s COP26 conference in Glasgow, Scotland. The state-owned power utility plans to spend R61.75bn on wind and R44.25bn on solar energy, R106bn in total, by the end of this decade.

SA’s single largest emitter of greenhouse gasses aims for net zero emissions by 2050, repurposing its fleet of coal-fired facilities. Its Komati power station will, for example, be converted to a solar plant with battery storage.

It’s an ambitious agenda, and one that’s rendered both more difficult and more important by SA’s economic state, compounded by the effects of Covid-19 and the recent unrest in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal. The release of SA’s latest unemployment statistics could scarcely make more bleak reading: one in three adults is unemployed. Two in three adults under 25 are unemployed.

The latest Quarterly Labour Force Survey, for the second quarter of 2021, reports that economically Covid-19 has affected women worse than men. From a humanitarian perspective this is tragic enough, but worse when one considers the disproportionate load that women bear in African society in terms of caring for the young and old. British environmental activist George Monbiot put it succinctly when he said: “If wealth was the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire.”

The World Bank warned recently that Covid-19 could reverse a decade of economic progress for young people in Sub-Saharan Africa, with setbacks in progress on literacy, employment, poverty and gender parity. Entrepreneurship among young people is regularly cited as a driver of economic growth in Sub-Saharan Africa, and that too, has been dealt a hammer blow by Covid-19.

At the same time, our planet and its inhabitants are paying the price of our reliance on fossil fuels. A new UN International Children’s Emergency Fund report shows that up to a billion children nearly half of those in the world are at risk due to climate change and associated hazards: water scarcity, heatwaves and other extreme weather, and dangerous levels of air pollution.

Consider that statistic in the context of Africa which, according to the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, had the youngest population in the world, with a median age of 19.7, in 2020.  It’s clear that these hazards are too serious to be addressed by any single agency or nation, let alone by an individual brand.

To be transformational it is critical for businesses in the SA energy ecosystem despite being in competition in operational areas to co-operate to address socioeconomic challenges, rather than operating in silos and perhaps overlapping or leaving gaps in effort.

There’s no panacea, no silver bullet. But an example of what can be achieved through a sense of common purpose is the Initiative for Social Performance in Renewable Energy (Inspire) established to drive leadership in the energy transition through training, convening, research and innovation.

Inspire is delivered by Synergy Global Consulting, led by Dr Holle Wlokas and its founding partners, Actis, Lekela Power and BTE Renewables. The founding partners provided seed funding for the initiative. The SA Wind Energy Association and the SA Photo Voltaic Industry Association are implementation partners. Wits University is also a training partner.

Inspire pools information gathered over the last 10 years of renewable energy in SA, including the planning and delivery of socioeconomic development initiatives. In that time, for example, communities in a 50km radius of wind farms have benefited from those operations in a number of ways: including the construction of schools, improvement in educational attainment through maths and science support programmes, social and health infrastructure projects, and enterprise development supporting small and medium sized businesses in communities, creating local jobs. The wind farms have also provided humanitarian support during the Covid-19 pandemic, helping communities and health facilities to respond during this challenging period.

While the SA renewable energy programme mandates independent power producers (IPPs) to contribute to socioeconomic development, the renewables sector is shifting from compliance-driven initiatives to more impact-driven programmes. The sector is aiming for more collaboration among the IPPs as well as other sectors of the economy, such as mining, and with beneficiary communities themselves.

Collaboration will enable us to co-create programmes with the communities, and at the same time pool our resources to ensure more impactful initiatives. In short it makes us more effective together than we would be individually. It also helps provide a practice framework for economic development managers and social performance professionals within the Renewable Energy Independent Power Procurement Programme (REIPPP), developing capacity and unlocking the programme’s potential to contribute towards the wider socioeconomic development of the country.

Lekela operates five wind farms in SA and also has operations in Ghana, Senegal and Egypt. We deliver utility-scale projects that supply much-needed clean energy to communities across Africa. Lekela recently published its 2020 annual sustainability report reflecting on our first five years in Africa, highlighting some of the positive effects our investments are creating in communities, including in socioeconomic development and enterprise development, over and above generating clean, reliable and affordable energy in Africa.

The next few years are crucial for action on climate change, socioeconomic development and ensuring SA achieves a just energy transition. Daunting? Definitely. But with our deep bank of institutional knowledge and a sense of common purpose we know we can rise to the challenge.

• Boca is Lekela Power head of ESG and a director of Inspire.

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