/ 23 February 2016

Bill Gates urges young people to find Africa’s ‘energy miracle’

Bill Gates at the 2013 Milken Institute Global Conference.
Bill Gates at the 2013 Milken Institute Global Conference.

Bill Gates’s mission is simple: find an “energy miracle” to help save Africa from the dangers of climate change. But is he the right person for the job?

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has released  its annual letter, penned by the world’s two most famous philanthropists. 

In his portion of the letter, Gates writes to high school pupils, appealing for them to save Africa from an energy Armageddon. The goal is to inspire an invention to bring down carbon emissions and light up unelectrified parts of the continent safely.

Speaking to the Mail & Guardian on the phone from the United States, Gates said that while rich countries such as Europe, the US, Japan and China go full throttle with their power systems, poor people in African countries are most affected.

“In terms of where people will be hurt by climate change, it’s only fair that we talk about Africa, because that happens to be an unusual problem. The rich world needs to change their energy systems and if they don’t do it fairly dramatically, then the people who will be hurt the most are actually the poor farmers – a lot of them live in Africa; some of them live in Asia,” Gates said.

‘What would your superpower be?’
When asked about how African nations can help beat electricity depression and find energy alternatives for themselves instead of depending on foreign aid, Gates responded that the continent has many challenges to overcome.

“Most energy systems are the result of scientific work that’s designed on a global basis and they’re not specific to one continent,” Gates said. “Africa does have a lot of wind and a lot of sun but to use those, it has to be intermittent, because you have to have really good grid and combine them with other [energy] sources.”

He added that sub-Saharan Africa is in better shape than the other parts of the continent when it comes to providing electricity. The most surprising statistic he found during the course of his research, he revealed, is that the amount of electricity consumed per person in sub-Saharan Africa, excluding South Africa, has decreased.

The letter is addressed to youngsters, Gates said, because he believes they will be at the forefront of scientific innovation to help Africa’s poor.

The couple wrote this year’s letter after a school pupil in Kentucky asked what their superpower would be if they each had one. Melinda Gates wished for more time, and her section of the letter is about the amount of time women spend on unpaid work, particularly in the home, where cooking and washing dishes can swallow the hours in a day.

A rallying cry for urgency
The young people the couple spoke to in Kentucky live in Appalachia – a region of the US where poverty is high and many families work in coal mines. But Gates chose to focus on issues in Africa. He maintains that younger generations have more capacity to find a solution to climate change challenges within the next 15 years.

“It doesn’t matter where the solutions come from. We just need students everywhere to be inspired that they might be part of this, and we need their voices,” Gates said.

In the run-up to the Cop21 climate change conference in Paris last year, Gates announced the formation of a “breakthrough energy coalition” that included some of the richest people and nations around the world. South African billionaire Patrice Motsepe is included in the group of individuals, but countries on the African continent have yet to be represented.

The Gates Foundation generally focuses on issues of health and food security. Gates admits the energy crisis is a new challenge, but believes that by creating a rallying cry for urgency, it can help find a solution.

This continent will be worst affected by climate change, warns the philanthropist, hence the race to find sustainable energy solutions.