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How to Sell Climate Action to Africa

The Global North’s disaster narrative regarding climate change has failed to motivate Africans to tackle the problem. It would be far better to reframe climate change as an opportunity to create new industries that can create jobs, build businesses, and stimulate the continent’s economies while saving the planet.

JOHANNESBURG – There is a well-known story about two footwear salesmen who traveled to Africa in the early twentieth century to look for new markets. Within days of arriving, the first salesman concluded that there was no potential for shoe sales because everyone was barefoot. His colleague, by contrast, saw a huge untapped market to explore.

That tale reminds me of how the rich world, arguably for well-intentioned reasons, has chosen to talk about climate change, especially with regard to Africa. NGOs, donors, and governments in the Global North have packaged climate change as a single story of disaster. The pessimism extends to the language used, such as “climate emergency,” “climate crisis,” and “climate refugees.”

We are constantly reminded that Africa will be the region hardest hit by climate change. The narrative, reinforced by images of drought, famine, and floods, consistently portrays our farmers, fishermen, and villagers as victims.

But this disaster narrative has done little to catalyze climate action, so we need a new script. The starting point should be that the climate crisis – despite appearances to the contrary, and despite the warnings of activists like Greta Thunberg – is not all doom and gloom. Like the COVID-19 pandemic, it is an opportunity for a global reset that could greatly benefit Africa.

Such a reset would allow for the focused development and scaling of climate adaptation and mitigation innovations, which could spur Africa’s economic development. We have everything it takes to build the renewables sector – starting with wind, hydro, solar, and geothermal energy. We also have the cobalt, graphite, lithium, and manganese needed to produce electric batteries, and the steel, zinc, and aluminum required to build wind turbines and other low-carbon technologies. Green industries can create jobs, nurture businesses, and stimulate economies in Africa while saving the planet – and not enough people are selling it.

For example, the Japanese carmaker Toyota recently announced that it will invest $624 million in India to manufacture electric-vehicle components, creating 3,500 jobs. This is the sort of project that could and should be coming to Africa.

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In the past two decades, Africa has attracted only 2% of the billions of dollars of global renewable-energy investment and less than 3% of the jobs generated in this growing sector. Increasing these numbers will require African governments to create an investment-friendly environment, negotiate more effectively to attract firms, and insist that they create local jobs and offer technical assistance to build the continent’s clean-energy capacity.

Likewise, young Africans demonstrating for change should be holding up placards calling on their governments to provide “climate jobs” and “climate opportunities” rather than expecting them to “save the planet.” They should be pushing policymakers to attract the large-scale investments needed to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions significantly and create the conditions for environmental entrepreneurship to flourish.

A robust green sector can give Africa the economic levers it needs to help more people live better, not just in economic terms but also in terms of energy access. We won’t need to rely on outdated energy-distribution systems owned by governments that lack the finances or the incentive to invest in extending the grid to everyone. Renewables provide the continent with the opportunity to leapfrog old systems and embrace new, decentralized ways of providing cheap, reliable energy for all.

Africa has made a similar leap forward in mobile telecommunications. The first mobile call on the continent was made in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1987. Today, Africa is the world’s fastest-growing mobile-telecom market and the second-largest mobile market behind Asia. In just 35 years, the sector has connected over a half-billion people, created thousands of jobs, and given rise to successful indigenous companies. Thanks to new technology, cheaper infrastructure and handsets, competitive markets, an enabling regulatory environment, and business models designed for the mass market, Africa avoided the challenge of building fixed-line infrastructure.

What mobile technology did for Africa can be replicated in the climate sector, and we do not need to wait for the continent’s cash-strapped governments and the private sector to find the money. Instead, we should push the climate-reparations agenda harder. There is money available, and the countries that have repeatedly broken their promises to provide financial assistance – the United States, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, and most European Union member states – should pay their debts.

So, let’s not talk about climate disaster or crises anymore, but rather about climate opportunities in the forms of jobs, entrepreneurship, and financing. And, like the shoe salesman who saw massive opportunity where his colleague saw none, let us rethink our approach to marketing climate action to Africans.