East Africa: The Solar Energy Industry’s Hottest Jobs and How to Land One

Solar energy is on the rise and creating thousands of new jobs, many of them in East Africa. The renewable energy form got a big boost just last month when the UK launched its Energy Africa campaign to help the continent achieve universal energy access by 2030.

If that goal is fulfilled, the off-grid renewable electricity sector is projected to create some 4.5 million jobs globally, according to a 2013 report by IRENA. SunnyMoney, the largest seller and distributor of solar lights in Africa, is among the companies capitalizing on the solar energy buzz. They’re growing and hiring. They’ve also trained some 400 agents throughout Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Malawi.

AkilahNet caught up with Olivia Otieno, who heads up SunnyMoney’s marketing and partnerships, to learn about solar’s hottest career paths and what it takes to land a job in the industry.

Excerpts follow.

There’s been a lot of buzz about solar energy lately. What’s behind it?

Awareness and trust. People are beginning to know about it and trust it. There’s also the expense and reliability issues associated with other energy sources, like kerosene, paraffin, and the grid. The grid is not reliable, it’s not available everywhere, and it’s expensive. But solar is abundant. Kenya is on the equator and receives 12 hours of sunlight each day.

There are also a lot funding and income opportunities for startups in the green space. Everyone’s talking about the Millennium Development Goals and climate change, even the pope will talk about climate change during his visit to Kenya.

What kinds of jobs there are in solar energy?

It’s a whole industry that needs everyone from engineers to lawyers to sales agents to marketing people to designers to importation and exportation experts. It’s like asking what types of jobs are available in the film industry – it’s just as large.

We really need people to sell and market the lights. We also don’t have a lot of engineers and manufacturers. About 95% of the products we currently sell are imports — so if you’re looking to the future, you should be the person who builds the factory where solar lights are manufactured. You’d make a huge amount of money.

For SunnyMoney, specifically, we look for entrepreneurs who can retail for us because we don’t retail. So whether you’re an individual entrepreneur, part of an NGO, a small shop owner, or a teacher who’s trusted in the community, we want to work with you.

I recently gave a talk at a university. I told the students that you can start off with Ksh4,000 (US$39) and within two years you’re making almost Ksh200,000 (US$1,950) just from your initial investment. No bank will do that.

You work with some 400 SunnyMoney agents throughout East Africa. What do you look for in your agents and what are the benefits of becoming an agent?

We don’t hire our agents. They’re completely independent and we partner with them. Agents need to have an entrepreneurial spirit and understand the needs of their community. They need to be able to engage people.

We offer our agents product and sales training. We also host road shows and radio campaigns that create awareness and demand. We channel inquiries that come in to our agents. We’re also looking into offering financial management training and financing, but we’re not there yet.

What opportunities do you have at SunnyMoney for people with degrees?

It’s really important to have good customer care people. We believe that brand-building and trust are really reliant on how you treat your customers. Acquiring a customer is one thing; retaining a customer is another. So how you treat customers — how you deal with their queries, how you deal with their grievances — is extremely important.

The other thing is that solar energy is not just for those living at the bottom of the pyramid. There are large organizations in urban areas that require solar lights. A college degree would give you the skills to engage with those types of clients.

There are new products coming into the market all the time. Engineers are developing newer, faster, brighter, and cheaper solar products, but how do you know the quality? So we need people who can do product testing and scope out new products to add to our portfolio. Those are the kinds of jobs people with college degrees can look forward to.

We’re also looking for accountants, salespeople, operations directors, and someone to oversee business development.

How has the solar industry changed in recent years?

 When I joined the solar industry in June of last year, I was surprised by No. 1 the need, No. 2 the difficulty of distribution, and No. 3 the true lack of awareness of what solar lighting really is — not just in the rural areas but also in urban areas.

People were still buying wind-up lights, solar lights you have to charge with electricity, and all kinds of crazy things. No one was monitoring quality. Now there’s a real drive towards quality, standardization, and warranties; those are really important terms in the industry right now.

After-sales service is really important too. We’re looking to open the eyes of the consumer to say understand what your dollar or your shilling is worth and make sure that somebody is not dumping a light in your area and then six months later it stops working.

There’s also a lot of competition, and we welcome that because that means the industry is growing, quality is improving, and customers benefit.

How hard is it to transition into the solar industry if you don’t have previous experience in renewable energy?

It’s very open. A product is a product, whether you’re selling a television or a mobile phone or a solar light or a pair of shoes. But we have a social mission, so it’s also about measuring the impact that a product has on the lives of others and making the price affordable.

It’s a niche industry, but it’s not a wealthy niche industry like iPhones. This is an industry of customers who really have to chose between the product and feeding their child. So if you want to transition, please do, but know that this is not Wall Street, we’re not looking for wolves.

What characteristics do you look for in full-time office employees at SunnyMoney?

For me, honestly, the one thing I really look for is integrity. Are you a person of integrity or are you just looking out for yourself? We also look for people who want to learn because no one knows it all. Are you adaptable? Are you flexible? Are you a true team player? Are you somebody who would go that extra mile and support your colleagues even if it means you lose a commission?

Are there career benefits exclusive to the solar industry?

The biggest benefit is people’s gratitude — it goes beyond someone giving you a paycheck or a perk. I went to a solar light demonstration in one of the counties in Kenya, and the people were so happy, they gave me a live chicken. I’m a vegetarian, but I was really touched. Can you imagine that kind of gratitude?

Is the solar industry at a point where it can offer competitive salaries?

Yes. For example, Solarcentury, our sister company, just built an installation in Garden City, a huge shopping complex, that provides one-third of all the mall’s power. A colleague of mine works with Kenya Power, and they’re also looking at solar, and they just hired people.

From personal experience, I can say my salary is competitive with almost any industry, in terms of marketing and partnerships roles. I get dental and medical insurance and a pension plan, so it’s not an industry you go into just because you want to do good. You can also sustain yourself and your family, and it’s ultimately going to grow.

Are there any big challenges that solar needs to surmount to become more mainstream?

Yes, imitation products are a key challenge and products that are not high quality. There’s sometimes cannibalization in the industry and a lack of integrity too.

We’re also hoping that we won’t see a VAT on solar products. They are currently VAT free, but you never know, and that could be huge challenge.

We’re looking at the oil and gas industry too. Solar is a major competitor to oil and gas, especially as solar technology improves and becomes cheaper and more powerful. Oil and gas are huge, and they see the threat on the horizon, and they’re able to actively lobby and fight against solar and renewable energy.

But it just takes big companies like Tesla and Apple to switch to solar to revolutionize the way the people think about energy.

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