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“Green industrialisation could be net jobs positive and better for the environment than our current trajectory”

Exclusive interview with the CEO of the National Business Initiative, Shameela Soobramoney. The NBI is an official event partner of Africa’s Green Economy Summit and at the next event in February 2024 in Cape Town, Ms Soobramoney is part of the session on “Empowering Africa’s Mineral Resources in Battery Value Chains.”

Let’s start with some background on the National Business Initiative and the projects that you are involved in?

The National Business Initiative or NBI is an organisation that was formed 28 years ago specifically looking at how business can play a role in the transformation of the country and ensuring that business has a strong role to play in both the social, environmental and economic growth trajectory that the country was going to play. It was mandated into existence by then President Nelson Mandela, who felt strongly that business had a strong role to play in this area and so, it needed to organise itself in a manner that would allow it to be forward thinking and get ahead of the curve in playing a role in ensuring that we had a transition that was supported by business and that business explicitly considered social environmental issues.

Since then, the NBI has been involved in a number of initiatives that look at, in turn, environmental issues, and we have an entire environmental portfolio that includes biodiversity, water, energy and the like. Economic inclusion, which is really looking at how do we get the right skills where they are partnering with the likes of TVET College and is actually the official arm of the President Youth Employment Initiatives’ installation, repair and maintenance programme that is housed here and that partners across the country with a number of different institutions in looking at development and growth in relation to the right skilling as well as township economies. And then we have a unit looking at social transformation on gender equality and inclusion; and finally, we have TAMDEV, which is actually technical assistance, mentorship and development, focused on helping to capacitate the state and bringing private sector resources to work along the state to help achieve that and get the skills that we need at the right places and to support and work together with the state in that regard.

 

How important are reaching net zero emissions and building a green economy for NBI’s goals?

Reaching net zero emissions and building a green economy are really important for the goals of the NBI. The work that we have done over the last number of years, and in particular I will refer to the Just Transition Pathways work which is freely available on our website, has really undertaken to understand whether firstly is net zero possible for an economy like ours with the structure that it has, the sectors that we have, and what we have in terms of contexts, both economically and socially as a country.

Not only is it possible, we have found, but that actually green industrialisation could be net jobs positive and better for the environment than the trajectory we find ourselves on currently. So that I think is a critical component where we’re seeing that we can actually achieve the aims of social development that we need to have as well as those of environmental preservation and the transition to net zero in a manner that can be positive all around.

 

Of course, that is premised on the right action, on the supportive policies and the enabling environment that could be created to ensure that that transition happens. And we realise that potential dividend of being both net jobs positive, as well as environmentally positive, and ensuring that our society as a whole actually is far more included than we have been up to now.

At the upcoming Africa’s Green Economy Summit in Cape Town, you are part of a session on “Empowering Africa’s Mineral Resources in Battery Value Chains.” You will specifically focus on local content and upskilling and reskilling the workforce. Can you give us a preview of what your message will be?

In relation to focusing on local content and upskilling and reskilling our workforce, again, the outcomes of the work that we did on the just transition pathways very clearly says that part of being able to achieve what I mentioned before in relation to creating those jobs, being net job positive, is actually looking across the line on how we can better industrialise the value chain in relation to renewables in particular. And every component of that, including battery, including manufacturing of different components and like, that requires a very specific plan that supports those industries, that supports research and development, and is able to help us locate where the best place is to place these facilities and to be able to ensure that we have the support from a scaling perspective for the workforce that can do that.

This requires both the development of SMMEs as well as the support of established businesses and larger businesses to be able to come together and ensure that. Ideally, we would want SMMEs playing in the value chains of larger businesses and those larger businesses using their considerable resources and experience to be able to support the development and growth of those SMMEs.

We know many times over that it has been stated that really the growth engine of our economy is going to be vibrant SMMEs going into the future. And so we need to be able to do everything that we can to support that. Of course, we can do that even better by leveraging the enormous resources that a number of the developed businesses have and in many cases are going to be off-takers of what we can get supplied via SMMEs. And then ultimately, we’d like to see those SMMEs growing into the green industrial giants of the future. Skills are going to be critical in that regard. So, the skills are not done completely independently, of course. We need to understand which are the sectors that we have the best prospects in for growth in relation to this and the battery value chain is certainly a critical one. As we look to moving into renewables, the need for battery storage is critical and hence developing that battery value chain is clearly an important piece of what we would need to do.

Like I said, skills are not developed in isolation. So, the plans to enable us to have a vibrant and thriving battery value chain economically need to be put in place, including the incentives, research and development that allow us to do that. And then, of course, we ensure that we have the appropriate skills that are there to meet that demand as that demand develops. It does then presuppose that we have a view on how that demand is going to be developing, what the skills need is going to be in the shorter term, the medium term and the longer term and that we put in place the right educational interventions to be able to meet those demands where they’re needed at the appropriate points in time.

This is a whole new set of sectors that we’re looking at that can leverage off, of course, the existing knowledge base in engineering, manufacturing and the like, but also new sets of skills that we have the opportunity to look at. Of course, the benefit is that we’re in an age now where learning can be really ramped up in relation to the technology that’s available to us now, that learning can be widespread, can permeate far further than it has, and we have the view of being able to say we’ve got the experience of other countries that are moving ahead in some of that, being able to take that, tailor make that for what it is and ensure that we make those facilities available in areas that have previously maybe been excluded, which gets us a better chance of ensuring that the transition we need to make is more inclusive and goes a long way to achieving the objectives of a more just transition.

 

What is likely to be the current and nearer-term focus for the energy transition?

In terms of the shorter-term focus or the nearer-term focus for the transition, I think the word transition really is the operative word. And when we think about that, we need to consider broadly what our economy looks like. So we do have a number of jobs that are exposed to the coal value chain at this point in time. And so the energy transition, we can presuppose that we understand that those jobs will be at risk and that we need to very carefully understand what the transition means. On the other hand, if we’re moving to a green economy, for example, we know that things like critical minerals are essential. So, what are we doing to be able to get the right skills in mining and the like to ensure that we’re able to access those critical minerals, beneficiate and do what we need to do to make sure that we translate that into economic growth and development, the jobs that we want and to be able to bring that into our economy? Those are things that are going to be necessary.

So, while we look at coal, on one hand, we need to create opportunities for employment in those areas, so that workers can feel like there is something for them to look forward to and that there actually is a transition for them in a work perspective. We also need to consider that there’s this other development that needs to happen; then how can we use that opportunity to understand what skills are going to be needed, for example, in critical minerals, in being able to get what we need to be able to get those minerals required to create those batteries and to do all of those things that will enable the transition.

So I do think the shorter-term focus is on understanding where those jobs are located, give real work and growth prospects to those workers that will be affected in the coal value chain as well as create prospects within the beneficiation of those critical minerals and the shift to a greater focus on those. And, as we know, those minerals are going to be essential to power a transition. Thank you.

 

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