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Get them while they’re young: aspirational jobs for Northern Cape

By South African Renewable Energy Council (SAREC) on 20 March 2017
St Philomena Intermediary School in Onseepkans, a remote settlement on the South Africa-Namibia border, has been earmarked for development support by independent power producers operating in the area.

Eskom’s delays in signing the final contracts with the private companies that are scheduled to build a series of solar power plants in the Northern Cape, are throttling back development work that aims to nurture a generation of engineers and technicians and skilled professionals here. In these educational ‘backwaters’, schools are underfunded, literacy is low, and the dropout rates bleak. Intervention needs to start at kindergarten-level.

How do you create jobs out here in the desert of the far Northern Cape that are so alluring that young school leavers will return here after completing their studies in big urban centres, where the pull of the bright city lights might make their rural hometowns seem dowdy by comparison? 

You need to create jobs for engineers, or plumbers, or lawyers, that are aspirational; they need to come with a good salary, a swanky car, and an air of prestige. And you need to expose school children to role models who already fill these kinds of skilled and semi-skilled positions, so that they grow up believing that they can become those themselves.  

‘When you ask high school children here what they want to do when they leave school, they say they want to be teachers or nurses, or they want a job in the local municipality,’ explains energy developer BioTherm’s economic development senior associate Simphiwe Kulu, during a visit to Onseepkans, a remote settlement on the South Africa-Namibia border. 

‘These are the only kinds of jobs that they get exposed to, and so they don’t believe they have a wider scope of career opportunity.’ 

As Kulu and his team did a needs assessment, another problem they found is that the number of school pupils who make it to grade 12 with solid science and maths competence is extremely low. Without these subjects, school leavers can’t move into the ‘trades’, such as plumbing, fitting and turning, or electrician work, let alone engineering or the hard sciences. 

BioTherm is earmarked to build a 40 megawatt (MW) solar photovoltaic power plant in Aggeneys, a small mining town about 270km west of Upington. When the state gave their plant the go-ahead, as part of the REIPPP programme, Kulu began visiting surrounding towns, including Onseepkans, in order to see and better understand the development needs. 

Once its plant becomes operational, BioTherm will have a 20-year contract to sell electricity to the state, and thus two decades in which to invest in community scale development initiatives. This, says Kulu, is the kind of time horizon that’s necessary if development workers hope to make a meaningful difference in addressing the science and maths literacy gaps. 

‘By the time a youth reaches grades 10, or 12, it’s too late to address poor maths and science results,’ he explains, ‘you have to build up their abilities in the foundational years.’ 

Support for maths and science literacy needs to start right from kindergarten, he says.

BioTherm Energy’s Aggeneys plant is one of 96 renewable power plants that are being commissioned by the Department of Energy’s utility scale renewable energy programme. About 50 of these plants are already operational and selling electricity to the grid. Part of each firm’s agreement with the state is that they will invest a percentage of their revenue in local community development work. Those that are already operational are already doing such work.

But construction is on hold for the next 26 plants, one of which is BioTherm’s Aggeneys plant, owing to delays by Eskom to finalise the contracts with these firms that stipulate the price that the state utility will pay for the electricity generated by each plant. As long as the delays continue, the kind of community development work which companies like BioTherm plan for their regions is similarly delayed.