How Centennial College Could Champion The Fight Against Global Energy Poverty – And Win!

By David Himbara, PhD*

The other names for Centennial College should be “audacious” – as in enterprising, and “global” – as citizen of the world. This is affirmed by Centennial College’s vision, outlook, and actions. Its vision is categorical – the purpose of applied research and services is to improve and sustain the wellbeing of global citizens. Centennial College’s outlook is a mirror image of the global community. My current students in rural development, for example, come from Mexico, Brazil, Peru, Sri Lanka, Colombia, and Canada. And I am an African Canadian. Meanwhile, Centennial College is creating a seamless flow of education across borders by setting up learning centres outside Canada.

To say that I am a keen admirer of this audacious agent for change is a gross understatement. Centennial College is awesome. If any institution in Canada can champion the fight to end the devastating but solvable contradiction that is facing the global community – energy poverty – it is Centennial College. On the one hand, technological breakthroughs have equipped humanity with solutions to end energy poverty. But on the other hand 1.2 billion global citizens remain trapped in energy poverty.

Of this massive number of 1.2 billion people that have no electricity for lighting their homes – equivalent to the population of India – over 620 million are in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). The subcontinent of 1 billion people is quite literally unlit at night as indicated in the attached satellite image.

Energy poverty in SSA affects an even larger number of over 730 million people who cook with hazardous materials that claim over half a million lives annually and degrade the environment.

So how can Centennial College champion the fight to ending global energy poverty? Here, Margaret Mead’s remarkable statement comes to mind: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

I do not doubt for one moment that Centennial College can lead Canada in fighting global energy poverty. Centennial College has already experimented with off-grid energy systems. Centennial Energy Institute’s solar energy program, covering power generation systems, hands-on installation, and safety was implemented in half a dozen indigenous communities in Ontario. What has to be done, however, is to think global and audaciously, and upscale such efforts.

Renewable energy is exploding – worldwide investments in alternative energy is already exceeding investments in new fossil fuel projects. Further, the world’s capacity to generate electricity from renewable sources overtook coal in 2016, according to the International Energy Agency.

This is a sign that the world is taking positive steps toward a clean energy future – and towards greater access to affordable, reliable, and safe energy for the 1.2 billion people currently excluded. Centennial College should boldly enter this field, not least by sharpening its strategy around the following four imperatives that will put the institution on a sure footing:

  1. Understanding global development funding and how Centennial College can enter the big league: Development funding is an enormous industry in its own right running into nearly US$100 billion annually. Development funding involves a) bilateral aid agencies; b) multilateral aid agencies; and c) regional development banks that support social and economic transformation in the developing world. In 2014, total official development aid from rich to poor countries was US$94 billion, while Canada’s contribution was US$4.3 billion. Canada is also a leading member and funder of the African Development Bank whose core business is infrastructure development including energy. In addition to official development assistance are billions of dollars spent in mitigating climate change. Entrepreneurial and smart institutions of higher learning that learn how to access these resources, do great work in transferring capacities to the global south, while doing well for themselves.
  2. Building strategic alliances with energy industry: These parterships should not be limited to enhancing applied research thrust, but encourage collaboration to implement energy projects around the world. Canada is home to the world’s second largest solar products manufacturer, Canadian Solar Inc, whose vision is to end in 10 years, use of poisonous kerosene lamp that harms millions of lives in the developing world. Imagine collaborating with such a global company that has subsidiaries on every continent.
  3. Becoming a customized global centre for training a critical mass of alternative energy technicians from global south: Centennial College’s Energy Systems Engineering Technology program that already focuses on society’s energy and environment needs could develop a global niche for fighting energy poverty. A customized, long-term, and internationally-funded program hosted at Centennial College would build a critical mass of energy technicians to lead transformation in partnering countries.
  4. Customized mentoring and building capacity of colleges of technology in the developing world: The empowered colleges can in turn provide high quality, innovative, and responsive training programs for fighting energy poverty in their communities. For example, Durban University of Technology seeks to collaborate with Centennial College in designing and implementing off-grid solar energy solutions in South Africa and in the broader Southern African region that incorporates 15 countries with a population of 277 million. Inquiries into how we can build partnerships have also come from Nigeria and Zambia.

Lastly, some thoughts about Sub-Saharan Africa. Because it is, evidently, the epicentre of global energy poverty, one might dismiss it as a “hopeless case.” The story of Canada’s Bata Shoe Company helps dispel such attitudes.

Back in the 1940s, Bata sent its salespeople to look for global markets. The team that explored opportunities in Africa failed to form a consensus but agreed on one thing – people did not wear shoes. From this observation, one part of the sales team concluded that there was no market for shoes in Africa. The other part of the team strongly disagreed and filed a different report – Bata should concentrate on Africa because people did not yet have shoes. The rest is history. The company mostly thrived in Africa. Over half a century later, Bata Shoes is still a force to reckon with in the region.

Centennial College should adopt the audaciously entrepreneurial mindset of Bata Shoes. Opportunities for doing good, while doing well abound in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Centennial, are we ready for action?

– – – –

*Himbara is a scholar-in-residence, Centre for Global Citizenship Education & Inclusion (CGCE&I), and teaches in the School of Business, and School of Advancement, Centennial College. This article is written in his personal capacity and does not necessarily reflect CGCE&I’s or Centennial College’s views.