One Barrel at a Time – By Zaid Shopeju

Few minutes after my last presentation at the main campus of Tshwane University of Technology in Pretoria, and following a light lunch with a long time Facebook friend Austin Gege (a South African social activist) who I was meeting physically for the first time; we were informed that there was a last minute presentation to close the conference I was attending. We went back into the auditorium where the last day of the conference was being held, to find some young lads setting up microphones and slide presentations on the projector. It took a while before it dawned on me that ‘the young lads’ were the last presenters!


The whole auditorium was silent; everyone was in anticipation of what the young chaps had to say after all the powerful presentations earlier in the day. But their 20-minute presentation turned out to be the most enriching part of the whole conference for me. I was amazed by the ingenious endeavours and contribution of these high school graduates to their communities. Passion was evident in their eyes and pride in their voices as they took turns to speak about their social start-up. At that moment, I wished I knew half of what they do while I was that young.

They are the Solar Pioneers – a South African youth-led initiative of young people between the ages of 18 -24years old, whose vision, according to Dr. Tshabalala, the President of Solar Pioneers, “is to see South Africa lead the rest of the world in the manufacture, distribution and usage of solar panels in every home at the most affordable price.” Their dreams are as laudable as one man – Bill Gate’s desire to see a personal computer in every home and in every hand. As each of the slide pictures of their work in different townships across South Africa flashed before me, I could only imagine a scenario where more than half of our high school leavers, who couldn’t secure admission into higher institutions, are equipped with solar panel manufacturing skills and supported by the government to produce affordable and reliable sources of energy to the countless communities who are daily without electricity supply in Nigeria.


The Solar Pioneers invented the first wooden solar panel in South Africa which is 100% locally made. I can imagine my parents’ house in Lagos pulling out of the national electricity grid and running primarily on renewable energy such as solar. The epileptic power supply in Nigeria won’t remain a major hindrance to our development if only we can harness other sources of renewable clean energy and act with concern towards the future of the coming generations. Interestingly, the strategies and activities of these young chaps work on the combination of awareness, education, real world business models and advocacy. They believe in change through education and empowerment training in their bid to change the status quo in favour of sustainable development in a country that’s among the highest polluters of the environment in Africa. More importantly, they are making it cheaper and easier for people to adapt to the change. The Solar Pioneers through their flagship camp programme shall empower 100 high school students through a 3-week training on how to construct and install solar panels. Commercial and Art students will make up 20% of the students, while the remaining 80% students will come from Science related classes as a way of balancing the knowledge gap. Worthy of note is the support provided by the Centre for Energy and Electric Power, Tshwane University of Technology (TUT CEEP).

I left the auditorium, following their presentation, in deep thought, ruminating on how we can power up Africa with the abundance of sunlight we get freely every day. How can we harness other sustainable sources of clean energy to develop our continent? Yes, I know there is no one-size-fits-all strategy that will work for Africa but Brain Tracy in his book, Success is a Journey says, ‘one oil barrel at a time'; if we cannot change the world at once, at least, just like the Solar Pioneers, we can start small in our own corner of the world and let our light shine through to others as the Solar Pioneers let their light shine to us all who were in that auditorium.

–About Zaid Shopeju–

Zaid Shopeju is the Executive Director – Youth Vision Alliance Network (YVAN) and coordinates Zero Carbon Africa. Follow him on twitter @ZaidShopeju

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