The growth of decentralized renewable energy could serve as a factor in increasing jobs in technical positions for women across Africa.
Decentralized energy can be described simply as energy generated away from the main energy grid, a major characteristic of which is that the energy production facilities are often situated close to the area of energy consumption. Decentralized energy resources can serve a single community or can sometimes be schemed to serve a single building or estate. The characteristics of decentralized energy tend to move the sector towards renewable energy as the main source. Energy sources such as small biomass plants, solar panels, and single wind turbines are easier to site than giant gas thermal plants.
The existence of decentralized energy can contribute greatly towards solving the problem of access to electricity which Sub-Saharan Africa continues to continually grapple with. It can be a source for cheaper, cleaner, constant (there goes your energy trilemma solved), and faster electricity for underserved or deprived communities. Something decentralized renewable energy (DRE) can also be a source of stable employment.
The fact that the DRE sector is likely to be found in communities away from the central cities and urban agglomerations means that they will likely exist in areas of low employment. DRE has the potential to contribute largely to job creation, as local residents are often going to be tasked with everything from installing to maintaining infrastructure. These systems, which can include small-scale solar-powered mini-grids backed up by standby diesel generators, are often easier to operate and maintain. Skilled labour is required, but will not make up the prevalent section, and all semi-skilled and unskilled labour can be taught. It is also a sector that can provide an opportunity for women to take up roles in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) roles.
Women in DRE
To say the quiet part out loud, women are vastly underrepresented in STEM professions. Research by Power for All, in conjunction with The Rockefeller Institute, The Good Energies Foundation, and GET.Invest shows that in Nigeria, only 8% of women employed work in STEM, as opposed to 64% in non-STEM roles and 28% in administrative positions. In addition, a common occurrence is that most women working in STEM sectors are likely to be in the tech sector or the sciences.
The Annual Jobs Review carried out by the International Renewable Energy Administration (IRENA) shows that only 22% of full-time employees in the oil and gas sector are women, significantly less than the 32% in the renewable energy industry. However, even within the renewable sector, women fill large roles in administrative jobs (45%) and non-STEM technical jobs (35%) leaving only 20% of women workers in purely STEM roles.
The study carried about by Power for All surveyed selected countries and found the extent of women's employment in the DRE sector within the selected countries. Women make up a 41% share of the workforce in Kenya, 37% each in Nigeria and Ethiopia, and a 28% share in Uganda. Kenya, Nigeria, and Ethiopia are on par or close to the 40% share of women in the global renewable energy industry according to IRENA.
The DRE sector in the selected African countries seems to follow the pattern in the traditional energy and renewable energy sectors in limiting women to administrative and support functions instead of technical and management roles. This shows an overrepresentation of women in office roles and an underrepresentation in more technical roles. Women also tend to make up less than 50% of the workforce in all the focus countries.
A study by the International Finance Corporation (IFC) shows that some issues that may cause women to be underrepresented in the renewable energy workforce may include the distance from home to work, challenging physical conditions, and fewer women with the required technical specializations. This does not need to be the case in the DRE sector.
As stated earlier, most DRE infrastructure is situated close to the areas of consumption; workers are often 15-30 minutes away from home. In addition, DRE infrastructure does not possess the physically tasking nature of oil and gas, hydropower, or geothermal energy, as it is a largely solar-based industry. The technical knowledge needed to perform in this industry, and the energy industry at large is never gender-specific; anyone can learn maths or electrical and power systems.
The key lies with governments and DRE companies. There must be a willingness to involve women in the sector with the view of increasing gender parity. Cultural norms which have traditionally secluded women from attaining advanced education are being eroded, and support could be learned towards pushing for more inclusivity through implementing schemes such as women-in-STEM scholarships and grants. Increasing the number of qualified women in any workplace can improve collaboration, bring different perspectives, and produce better organizational results. The nature of the DRE sector means it is in a prime position to elevate women.