MECS and designing Energy Access courses for African Universities – the Learning Partnership Workshop in Nairobi.

By Dr Jon Cloke

Since the roll-out of the MECS programme earlier in 2019, a range of different opportunities have presented themselves within other energy and low carbon transition programmes and institutions. One of the more interesting of these, particularly given the involvement of MECS in Higher Education institutions in the UK, has been the Transforming Energy Access Learning Partnership (TEA-LP) involving counterpart universities and HE institutions from countries across Africa.

In any circumstances, conducting a transcontinental workshop on designing and developing Masters courses in energy access was not going to be an easy task, but the teams from seven universities across Africa took to the work like ducks to water, as the saying goes. By the third day of fairly intense analysis of course structures and the environment in which those Masters courses were going to take place, the participants were more than ready for a taste of ‘something completely different’, particularly something innovation-based like MECS which they could get their technical teeth into.

A practical EPC presentation, facilitated with magisterial competence by Dr Jon Leary and preceded by the calm elegance of a scene-setting presentation by Dr Jon Cloke aroused considerable interest, as the workshop feedback indicated. The teams put together under the aegis of the Transforming Energy Access Learning Partnership (TEA-LP) displayed a keen interest in the innovation challenge aspects of MECS and the social systemic approach of MECS to the idea of cooking services, rather than the traditional focus on stoves as technological artefacts

Despite the substantial differences in learning environments, structures and pedagogical cultures, the teams from the University of Port Harcourt in Nigeria, the National University of Lesotho, the University of Malawi, Moi University in Kenya (2 teams), Gulu University in Uganda, Mekelle University in Ethiopia, a team from the Pan-African University (PAUWES), all coordinated by the University of Cape Town, quickly got to grips with the ideas presented by MECS and the different conceptual ideas driving it.

Serious discussions among the Lesotho team.

Although this was a mixture of teams from very different backgrounds, moreover, they all shared one common motivation – the desire to overcome the levels of energy access in their countries and to understand the need to move communities of the poorest towards the low carbon transitions that anthropogenic global warming demands across the world. There can surely be no more important task than this, of which MECS is a central component.

With this in mind, the discussion on MECS had to encompass a daunting range of understandings: of the energy access sector needs in each country and across Africa and how to translate those sectoral needs; how the Learning Partnership principles and goals might be coordinated with MECS and the needs and wants of individual universities; what curricular outcomes might be expected given the unique learning circumstances of each country, how to identify expertise gaps and source that missing expertise; and as a necessary outcome of challenge-based learning, how to use Masters courses in energy access to drive an entrepreneurial culture in each country and how that might be harmonized with the objectives of the MECS programmes.

Mind-mapping by the PAUWES team.

The workshop had begun with a series of presentations from Energy for Impact, GOGLA and AIM outlining the opportunities and challenges for the energy access sector, which served brilliantly to frame the workshop and put the spotlight firmly on the students and what would be required of them to make them effective entrants into the sectoral employment market. The MECS presentation later on served to punctuate those more general presentations by giving a specific socio-cultural and technical example, which assisted in the tasks given the university teams around themes as diverse as analysing what is meant by ‘soft’ versus ‘hard’ skills in an energy access context, developing mindmaps of the objectives of each course, developing learning activities and entrepreneurial competences and how to drive energy access amidst the urgent need for low carbon transitions.

Set in the gratifyingly cool and well-appointed rooms of the Strathmore University Business School, the teams had the comfort to concentrate on a range of intense discussions which continued through the group meals in the evenings. Not only did close coordination develop within each team, the opportunity to discuss issues and ideas across teams and between countries was a fascinating and valuable experience. Opportunities to take part in events like this, put together by the UK Carbon Trust and funded by the UK government Department for International Development (DfID), are few and far between but the more valuable for that and for the spirit of cooperation and interest shown by the African university teams.

The feed-back from the event and on the MECS presentation in particular was overwhelmingly positive, reflecting the value of and the need for more of this kind of event. Given the importance of the subject it only remains to thank the teams who took part with such verve and to suggest that there needs to be an awful lot more of this kind of collaboration and cooperation, between learning institutions and countries, across belief systems and cultures. The energy poor of Africa are waiting.