November is Africa Youth Month. Meet Sellah Bogonko, co-founder and CEO of Jacob’s Ladder Africa. She has big dreams when it comes to the role that African youth will play in the green economy of tomorrow.
Let’s start with some background on you.
Hi, my name is Sellah Bogonko, co-founder and CEO of Jacob’s Ladder Africa. My career started in the private sector space. I worked with entrepreneurs who were mostly in the telecoms and construction space in Africa and Kenya in particular. I moved into the public sector space. I worked as chief of staff in one of the rural counties in Kenya. And that was where my eyes were opened to see the potential of climate change and just the opportunity, especially the intersection between climate change and creation of jobs in Africa. So about 18 months ago, I left and transitioned into co-founding my own organisation, called Jacob’s Ladder Africa; and over the last 18 months, we’ve been dreaming and also just building an organisation that is predominantly focused on addressing climate change and specifically addressing the issue of workforce preparation for the green economy in Africa.
Tell us more about the Jacob’s Ladder and the projects that you are working on.
Jacob’s Ladder Africa is an organisation that is youth-centric. We have a mission to create and catalyse 30 million jobs in the green economy by 2033. And how we’re doing that is through four main methods.
The first one is research. We started out by carrying out baseline research in a couple of countries in Africa. That baseline research opened our eyes to see that there are many young people who are seeking ways to play a role in the sector, but just did not know how to go about it. And the baseline research was basically addressing the question of: Do young people see climate change as an opportunity or as a threat? And surprisingly, or not surprisingly, many of them were actually seeing climate change as a threat at the time. And so one of our advocacy questions then began to be: How do we shift the conversation and begin to show young people, and just Africans in general, that climate change is an opportunity for Africa. And I’ll probably elaborate on that later.
So research is the first thing that we do. The second is that we run an early-stage startup incubator for young people in Africa. Our education system in Africa just does not address the issue of entrepreneurship enough to make a young person transition from school to be able to run a business. We realised that there’s a huge gap between the needs or the needs of the young people and what investors, funders and even donors are looking for when it comes to supporting young people in the climate space.
So we decided to fill that gap by generating a pipeline of early-stage startups in the continent. One of the things that we look at is not just the idea, but the person, because we do believe that once a mindset of the young person is changed, then they’re able to generate those ideas.
So, the first thing is research. The second is the incubator. The third is advocacy. We do that in partnership with CAPA, that’s the Climate Action Platform Africa, as well as AFLI, that’s Africa Leadership Institute and Africa Center in New York. We run an advocacy programme called Africa Climate Action Advocacy Initiative. And together we came up with a Climate Ambassadors Programme, which we run by basically identifying mid-career professionals who are not necessarily in the climate space but need to play a role or want to play a role in the climate space.
And so we train them, give them opportunities and run them through the whole Africa Climate Ambassadors Programme. We have just launched our cohort two, and we are excited to have received over 190 applications. The first cohort was just 16 people, 16 ambassadors from across Africa. The second one is 194 applications and we are excited at the prospects of what it can do.
Alongside that in the advocacy work, we also run a roundtable. We are working together with a few governments here and there to develop green jobs policies to address the issue of climate change, especially in terms of job creation.
And then finally, we are working on an initiative that is called the Green Jobs Index. It’s a global index that is geared towards identifying the jobs in the green sector, how many there are and how countries can hold themselves accountable in terms of creating those jobs.
What is your vision for Africa’s green economy of the future?
Our vision as Jacob’s Ladder Africa is to create and to catalyse 30 million jobs in the green economy. We see an amazing, amazing opportunity because we believe that Africa has a competitive advantage when it comes to the creation of green jobs and just generally in terms of taking advantage of what climate change has to offer. On the one hand, we think that climate change is definitely a problem and needs to be resolved, and that’s one side of the coin. But the other hand it’s a huge opportunity for Africa. What young people can do in terms of playing a role is get informed, but also participate in terms of coming up with ideas that they are able to use to address the climate change issues within their communities. At the same time, we see the need for them for not just enriched knowledge, but an enriched approach or a multi-pronged approach when it comes to the creation of jobs. So, the African green economy definitely has a lot of potential, and we believe that there’s a lot that can be done to maximise that potential.
What are the main challenges you face in the work that you are doing?
One of the main challenges that we face is, according to our vision, we think that there is an opportunity to address the issue of youth unemployment using climate change and climate action. But at the moment, there’s a huge discourse, a huge gap when it comes to the ability to identify a clear vision or identify what the opportunity is, especially for the people that are working in that space and largely from a government perspective. So one of the main challenges we face is that discourse.
You know, you have many people working in the climate space and even more people coming into the climate space. But there’s a lot of discourse in terms of, especially from an African context, you know: Where are we heading? What’s the direction? How are we benefiting? What do we seek to benefit as a continent? And when that is not clear, you can have a lot of activity and you can have a lot of movement, but not enough output. So that’s the challenge that we face.
Which African countries are doing the right things in your opinion?
In my opinion, Kenya could be hailed as having done or doing the right thing when it comes to renewable energy. Gabon could be hailed for doing the right thing when it comes to afforestation and the forest cover. There are many other countries that are doing amazing things in the climate smart agriculture space and all that. But, compared to the potential that Africa has, we still have a long way to go. And so I think that there’s a lot that can be done.
I think that until and unless we get to the point where we can say, this is the right thing we’re doing and this is the impact we’re having, especially in terms of addressing one of the major challenges on the continent, which is job creation, and I say in this context, green jobs, then we cannot necessarily say we’re doing the right thing or we could be heading the right direction. We need to be able to harmonise our vision and align our vision to a specific output that we’re looking towards. So we could do better. We are starting. The Africa Climate Summit was an amazing start for the continent. Let’s hope that the momentum is kept not just at the continental level, but at the countries level as well.
What keeps you excited about this industry?
What keeps me excited about this sector is the potential, the competitive advantage that Africa has. When we think that we have the largest arable land in the world, we have the largest useful population. Most of the critical minerals across the world actually are found here. And then 40% of the world’s renewable energy potential is also found in Africa. Now that is naturally given an unfair advantage or competitive advantage, but like I said before, we need to be able to maximise on that opportunity. But that keeps me excited because that right there could be our silver bullet when it comes to creation of jobs and addressing the issue of youth unemployment and generation of livelihoods or improvement of livelihoods on the continent.
Anything you would like to add?
I would like to add that I think that we have an amazing opportunity, and like I said before, that the Africa Climate Summit is a great start. And while we have been focused on issues like carbon markets, which is very critical, issues like the amount of investments that are coming into the country or into the continent, issues like policies that are supposed to address different kinds of issues, we do need to begin looking at the workforce readiness.
What are the kind of education, curriculum or systems that we need? What do we need to tweak in our education system to make it 21st-century-ready and to make it climate resilient relevant? We need to be able to look at what are the other policies that are required in this space that would enable us as a continent to make sure that we maximise on the competitive advantage that we already have. So a great start with the Africa Climate Summit, but we need to build the momentum and sustain the pressure.