Masdar initiatives unleash creativity to drive change

Masdar, a global leader in renewable energy, is supporting the development of young people and woman to drive the sustainability agenda and fostering innovation with the awarding of a valuable prize. Dr Lamya Nawaf Fawwaz, Executive Director, Brand and Strategic Initiatives, at Masdar outlines the positive impact the company’s initiatives are having in Africa and across the world

Dr Lamya Nawaf Fawwaz, Executive Director, Brand and Strategic Initiatives, Masdar

How important is youth engagement to Africa’s Sustainable Development?

Africa’s population is very young – it is the youngest continent in the world and by 2100, nearly half of the world’s youth will be African. This presents a distinct opportunity for sustainable development in Africa. Young people are the most educated and entrepreneurial of age groups, making them ideal agents to be placed at the forefront of the sustainable development movement. Given the right opportunity, young people can be supported and mobilised to unleash their creativity and energy to drive change. 

Younger activists are often at the forefront of the climate debate, with many youth-led organisations among the most visible in global conversations advocating climate action. We see that Gen Zers and Millennials talk more about the need for action on climate change than older adults; among social media users, they are seeing more climate change content online; and they are doing more to get involved with the issue through activities such as volunteering and attending rallies and protests. 

Young people can bring great enthusiasm and dedication to the climate debate. They can voice their opinions in global and national forums and even contribute to shaping policies on Africa’s green transition. They can be trained and employed in green jobs. 

They can start youth-led movements or businesses to contribute to sustainable production and consumption. Importantly, they can serve as ambassadors, spreading awareness and advocating for local and international businesses and climate-related initiatives to draw larger support from the community.

What lessons can youth-focused organisations in Africa learn from Youth 4 Sustainability (Y4S)?

Y4S is a Masdar initiative that invests in and actively supports the development of young people, enabling them to become sustainability leaders of tomorrow. Through our flagship programmes, the Sustainability Ambassadors programme and the Future Sustainability Leaders programme (FSL), we are providing young people from around the world with the training, support, and opportunities they need to lead the global transition to a low-carbon economy.

Solving the challenges of climate change involves a deep understanding of climate awareness. According to a survey by Afrobarometer, the average national climate change literacy rate in Africa is only 37%. This presents a key challenge for Africa’s sustainable development. Educating youth on climate change and sustainability is the first step to action. 

Y4S emphasises the role of education in providing students with a strong base that empowers them to become effective leaders. We give high school and university students and young professionals opportunities to learn and excel in climate change education and be included in the problem-solving process. 

Through our year-round programmes, young people explore challenges in sustainable development through a combination of experiences that include workshops, incubation programmes, mentoring and networking opportunities to meet with leaders, and forums, including the Y4S Forum, an annual event during Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week that brings together youth with experts from different backgrounds to discuss sustainability trends and the future of green jobs.

Y4S includes initiatives that Africans can benefit directly from, today. The Skill­Up mobile application – an online self-paced and gamified learning platform – is open to young people across the globe. It has over 45 hours of expert-developed content designed to teach climate and sustainability-related skills in a fun and engaging way. The Y4S SkillUp app, coupled with our other initiatives, will help us achieve our goal of engaging, educating, and upskilling 1m young people around the world by 2030.

Youth-focused organisations in Africa should similarly strive to provide education and skills development, and opportunities to apply knowledge to real-world problems to ensure that their communities are able to solve the challenges of climate change in a holistic and inclusive manner.  

How does WiSER support women to reach their full potential in their careers and lead society through the global climate crisis?

WiSER is a Masdar initiative aimed at empowering women with real-world experience so they can play a greater role in carrying forward the sustainability agenda.  

Through our WiSER Pioneers Program, young women from around the world – including three this year from Africa – participate in one-to-one mentoring sessions with industry experts in the field of energy and climate action, expand their professional networks, gain insights into areas beyond their expertise, and acquire top-level skills and knowledge that will enable them to tackle gender barriers in sustainable development and integrate gender inclusiveness in their everyday lives, to drive greater environmental, economic and social impact. 

Over 70 young women representing 17 nationalities have graduated from the WiSER Pioneers Program since it was launched in 2018. We provide young women opportunities to engage with female leaders, learn key skills in business leadership, and explore both barriers and opportunities faced by women in male-dominated industries.

The mentoring and support we extend to our WiSER Pioneers are particularly relevant for Africa, where women face numerous barriers to entry in the energy industry. In Africa, as in the rest of the world, women fall behind men in jobs in the renewable energy sector, representing just one-third of the renewable energy workforce worldwide.

We are active partners with local and international women’s communities around the world, including in Africa, providing young women who aspire to be drivers of sustainable development with education, and opportunities to learn, network, and grow in the sustainability sector. 

How has funding awarded by the Zayed Sustainability Prize helped African SMEs improve their scalability and expand operations?

The Zayed Sustainability Prize is inspired by the humanitarian legacy of Sheikh Zayed, founder of the UAE. Over the past 14 years, the Zayed Sustainability Prize has multiplied in size and scope, becoming one of the world’s leading prizes in the field of sustainability. 

To date, the Zayed Sustainability Prize has recognised a total of 96 winners whose solutions or student-led school projects have positively transformed the lives of over 370m people. 

The Prize accelerates the development of innovative, yet practical solutions developed by small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and nonprofit organisations in critical areas of Health, Food, Energy, and Water, advancing economic, social, and environmental progress around the world.

Past winners of the Zayed Sustainability Prize have received international recognition and were empowered to scale their efforts and extend their reach to serve an even greater number of people in need, including African SMEs like 2015 winner M-Kopa, a financing platform that provides underbanked customers in Africa access to essential products including solar lighting, televisions, fridges, smartphones and financial services. After winning the Zayed Sustainability Prize, M-Kopa used the funds to hire and upskill full-time staff members in Kenya and Uganda. The prize funds also enabled them to expand their operations and extended affordable energy access to over 3m people in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire. 

Since winning Masdar’s Zayed Sustainability Prize in 2016, Zola Electric has powered more than a quarter of a million homes with its solar power system.

Another African SME winner is Zola Electric, initially known as Off-Grid Electric, a technology company that deploys a plug-and-play, solar and storage hybrid power system. Zola Electric has, since winning the Prize in 2016, created over 800 jobs, fueling local economies, and powered more than 200,600 households across Tanzania, Rwanda, Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire, and Ghana. 

After winning the Prize, Zola Electric then received $55m in Series D funding from General Electric’s venture capital arm, GE Ventures, and Helios Investment Partners, illustrating how being a Prize winner can help SMEs receive the global recognition and additional funding needed to further scale their impact. 

How has the transition to online learning in WiSER and Y4S enabled Masdar to provide training to a broader range of candidates who would otherwise be isolated from such opportunities?

By becoming virtually accessible, the WiSER and Y4S programmes have allowed a wider range of women and young people to engage in the sustainability journey. 

We delivered online workshops, webinars, and virtual mentoring, providing our members with the same high quality educational and networking experiences as we previously offered in-person. The virtual nature of the programmes now helps us attract more eligible participants from both developed and developing nations that we would have previously been unable to accommodate.  

The pace of technological development taking place across Africa and around the world is drastically changing the nature of work. The shift to a digitised learning experience not only allows us to reach more people, but it also helps our learners gain the valuable digital skills needed to excel in today’s rapidly changing workplace.