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HEC Paris Alumni Boost Energy Access in Rural Africa

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When is the last time you noticed the light from a lamp? Or heated up your lunch in just a few seconds? The flick of a switch, the press of a microwave button—these simple motions provide convenient access to electricity. The ubiquity of outlets likely means your smartphone has not dropped below a 5% charge either. We can move, we can talk, we can work seamlessly because of the ease with which we can access electricity.

In rural Africa, the lack of such access threatens to stymy its economic growth.

Africa is the second-largest and second-most populous continent, yet more than half of its residents struggle with access to electricity. More than 730 million people are still dependent on charcoal for cooking or on petrol for lighting. And more than 600 million have no access to electricity at all. The lack of infrastructure, the vast distances and the poor road conditions prevents the delivery of energy and other essentials to rural areas, which are not connected to the national grid.

From dedicated conferences to advanced education, HEC Paris, a leading business school in Europe, seeks to fuel the development of Africa.  HEC Paris alumni have also taken on the missions of improving access to electricity across the continent as well as developing new means of electricity production.  Read on for insights from these alumni, who have drawn on their HEC Paris MBA to help transform communities in Africa.

John Shija, MBA ’17 – Finance and Sales Manager, BayWa r.e.

John Shija, HEC Paris MBA ’17 – Finance and Sales Manager, BayWa r.e.

HEC Paris MBA alumnus, John Shija, works in renewable energy with a focus on power purchase agreements (PPA), project finance, equity structuring, and valuation for solar projects in Africa. His work primarily focuses on projects in Sub-Saharan Africa with a specialization in solar PV projects.

What inspired you to join the energy industry, and why did you choose to focus on Africa?
As a lawyer, in my previous life, I worked on renewable energy deals very early in my career.  I enjoyed that experience. While doing my MBA, I specialized in finance and became friends with a fellow classmate who worked in the energy industry.  He reminded me of my passions for the energy sector.  It was these discussions that led me to explore the energy industry again.  Eventually, I settled on renewables in particular, not only because of the growth of the sector, but also because of the positive environmental impact. I specifically wanted to focus on Africa because I am from the continent and I feel I have a responsibility to contribute to the economic and social improvement of the region. I hope to do that through infrastructure development.  My view is that increasing access to electricity is not only good for economic development, but also has social benefits such as allowing more students the privilege of reading and studying in the evening—I wanted to be part of that development.

The work is challenging; a mixture between keeping up with fast paced and critical elements falling into place and managing slow, extended delays when you work with utilities who may lack capacity. However, the most interesting aspect of my work is that it has the capacity to transform communities and even entire countries.

What do you feel has been your greatest impact regarding energy development/access in Africa?
All the projects that I am currently working on are still in development phases, so to isolate the greatest impact would be hard.  However, the cumulative effect of my current work, being in origination of opportunities, preparation of PPAs, structuring of selected projects means that I am one step closer to boosting the overall generating capacity of the continent, thereby improving the lives of its people.  Working closely with utilities has also enabled invaluable knowledge transfer which will hopefully last beyond the project themselves!

How has an HEC Paris MBA influenced or supported your work?
A critical element of my work involves financial modeling and structuring of both debt and equity.  Prior to the MBA, being a lawyer, I had very limited knowledge of pure finance.  The MBA provided me with the foundation to work on the commercial aspects of transactions.  In addition, I have been able to rely on the network I built during my time at HEC to brainstorm with or to discuss potential collaboration opportunities.

Ten years from now, what do you hope to be saying about energy access in Africa?
According to the World Bank, only about 43% of the population in Sub-Saharan Africa has access to electricity.  Additionally, only 28% of healthcare facilities have access to reliable electricity.  There is also a disparity of access to electricity between urban communities and rural communities.  There is clearly an energy deficit that not only limits access to healthcare for patients, but also limits opportunities for technological advancement and learning.  My hope is that in ten years’ time, the vast majority of the population of the continent has access to electricity for both commercial and personal use. It is a simple ambition, but will require a significant amount of investment and energy to implement.  As you may know, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7 is universal access to energy for all by 2030, so I will do my best to support this goal through my work.  Finally, my hope is that the entities that provide this energy to African communities will incorporate those communities as shareholders and service providers, thereby empowering these communities economically and facilitating the transfer of skills and knowledge as well.

Is there anything else you would like to add?
Beyond my job and the work that I do as a professional, I am also passionate about mentoring young men.  I think that is the best way to make a meaningful impact, by being a role model and a trusted advisor to the next generation of young Africans.  My hope is to guide my mentees, so they do not make some of the mistakes that I made and to share some of the wisdom I wish I had when I was much younger. Hopefully I can make a personal contribution to the success of the next generation.

Continue reading for more from HEC Paris alumni.

Lauren Wakal
Lauren Wakal has been covering the MBA admissions space for more than a decade, from in-depth business school profiles to weekly breaking news and more.