After two decades of service as a leader in international development cooperation, promoting important initiatives for global sustainable development, Sierra Leonean born Dr. Kandeh Yumkella – former United Nations Under-Secretary General and Special Representative of the Secretary General for Sustainable Energy for All – has retired from the UN.
In 2013, the Africa-America Institute (AAI) awarded Dr. Yumkella the Distinguished Alumni Award during AAI’s 60th Anniversary Award Gala at the New York Hilton Hotel in Manhattan.
In this interview conducted by Dennis Kabatto, African New Dawn Radio producer and news director engages Dr. Yumkella on his mission to eliminate energy poverty and improve energy efficiency in African countries specifically in Sierra Leone.
Dr. Kandeh Yumkella, good evening. Thank you so much for joining us tonight on African New Dawn Radio here on WRSU, 88.7 FM at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
We were fortunate to run into you at the recent African American Institute 60th Anniversary Awards Gala at the Hilton Hotel in New York City. And you were awarded the Distinguished Alumni Award.
First of all give us a little background of Dr. Kandeh Yumkella growing up in Sierra Leone. Are you from Freetown?
Yumkella: I am actually from the North. I’m from Northwestern District called Kambia. I grew partly in Freetown for most of time, went to secondary school in the south and to university, the Njala University College before coming to the United States.
And you are one of the beneficiaries of the Africa America Institute; tell us more about that experience?
Yumkella: Great experience. I graduated in I think the equivalent of here in the United States of cum laude. And I won a scholarship called AFGRAD Scholarship from the African America Institute to pursue graduate studies in the United States. So I went to Cornell University earned a masters degree in agriculture economics university of Illinois, PhD and I taught at Michigan State University before serving at the United Nations.
And what were you teaching at Michigan State?
Yumkella: Agro-business Management, I was part of the agro-business group.
You were also the Minister of Trade and Industry in Sierra Leone?
Yumkella: Yes indeed, I served as minister for Sierra Leone as well, resigned came back and continued teaching at Michigan State briefly before joining the United Nations.
Now with your current role as a Special Representative of Mr. Ban Ki-moon Moon at the United Nations you’re on a mission to eliminate energy poverty. Can you explain what that means for our listeners?
Yumkella: Well today in this world we have about 1.3 billion people who have no access to electricity. You also have about 2.8 billion that rely on bio mass for their primary energy needs meaning that they rely on charcoal, fire wood or cow dung – the waste from cow to provide heat for cooking or for warming their homes, we want to end that. Because most of those people are also the people who are the poorest of the poor.
And at the same time their economies do not have enough energy to power growth and economic development that’s one goal we have in this initiative.
Yumkella: The second one is to improve energy efficiency to be specific we want to double the annual rate of improvement of energy efficiency meaning that we want to reduce energy wastage which means that you would reduce how much power you have to generate and also implies that you will lower the emission Green House gases emissions that comes from power generation. And the 3rd target is to double the share of renewable energy in the global energy meaning encourage the world to move towards a low carbon source of energy. These three target combined access, efficiency and renewable will also keep the world within the two degree temperature that we believe we should be below if we are going to avoid the disastrous impact of climate change. So we want to end energy poverty but at the same time we want to transform the way the world produces and uses energy in order to also ensure the worst impact of climate change.
So do you think your goal of ending energy poverty by 2030 is attainable?
Yumkella: We believe that it is achievable given the technologies we have if only we have political leadership and also the determination and commitment to deploy investment and finance that is necessary. Currently the total official development assistance that is the aid money that goes into energy access is $9 billion from all the sources that we know per year. We need to wrap that up to about $48 billion per year over the next 20 years if we are to end energy poverty. And that’s possible, we believe it is possible, the technologies are known what is crucial now is having the right public policies in place in the developing countries that would give confidence to investors to be able to invest money and deploy relevant technology so that is possible, we believe it is possible.
For places like your homeland Sierra Leone with plenty of sun light it gets so hot it is unimaginable, how does solar energy applies to your homeland in terms of development and ending energy poverty?
Yumkella: Well solar and other renewable energy technologies will definitely help end energy poverty in Sierra Leone and in other African countries. They have significant solar radiation year round but they also have other renewable energy sources. Sierra Leone in particular has a number of rivers, big and small rivers that can be exploited for hydro power. Wind technology we are not so sure of there are some doubt about and so we have to carry out what we call wind mapping for countries like Sierra Leone. But in a number of other African countries all these sources are possible in addition you also have the great potential of bio energy. So using all these source we believe that you can provide what we call off-grid or mini-grid solutions meaning that you can deploy these technologies in communities to generate power as low as 500 kilowatts or one megawatts, communities can be able to power clinics, schools and also households can have electricity and we can save women and girls the burden of having to spend about 20 hours a week to collect firewood and water just to meet their basic cooking needs. But let me throw another reason to end energy poverty in countries like Sierra Leone. We have including the World Health Organization and also some people at the University of Berkeley have estimated that globally every year we have 4 million premature deaths a year due to pulmonary related to indoor air pollution arising from the use of charcoal, firewood and other sources of bio mass. That number 4 million premature deaths a year is more than HIV/AIDS and malaria combined and 70 to 80 percent of those people are women and children. So lack of energy is in fact killing many people and this past week together with Mrs. Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of State we celebrated 3 years of the launching of the Global Cook Stove Alliance. She mentioned these figures there that in fact indoor pollution in poor countries is the number 4 killer in the world and number two killer of women in the world because they have to use these bio mass sources for energy needs.
Currently, I know you are based in Geneva Switzerland, where are you speaking to us from?
Yumkella: I am speaking to you from Washington, DC but I actually live in Austria, Vienna.
Oh Vienna, Austria. So Dr. Yumkella is there a relationship between energy, ending poverty and world global insecurity, is there any connection between these aforementioned?
Yumkella: There is definitely a connection amongst all three. It is not by coincident that the poorest of the poor are also the most energy poor. Without energy you really cannot drive productivity in communities, you can’t power schools or hospital, you can’t process agricultural products, you can’t store them properly to bring them to market so we have seen a direct co-relation between lack of energy and income poverty as well. Now in terms of insecurity I now serve on an advisory board established by the International Peace Institute where we are in fact discussing ways of dealing with some relationships within the Green energy and the availability of those resources and conflict. We are looking at about 20 hotspots around the world, some is related to oil and gas, some is related to hydropower because if I take hydropower for example a number of rivers run through several countries and with a push for building more hydropower dams we know it is raising issues for access to water and in some locations there is already projection because of climate change these regions are facing water [sic] global energy power generation account for about 20 percent of water withdrawal that is the global average is for energy use 70 percent for agriculture. But in some region the withdrawal for energy may come up to about 30-40 percent that is a potential conflict cause of conflict among countries in Africa but also in Central Asia as well.
So from your experience as a diplomat and you being on the international scene, what does Africa specifically Sierra Leone needs to do in other words what needs to happen in Sierra Leone and all over Africa?
Yumkella: Well for energy our advocacy is we do for the energy sector what has been done for the mobile telephone sector meaning that you de-regulate, you establish long-term strategies and policies that will cover several decades but those policies must be in place they must be transparent and to the table when that is done private sector responds. I’ll give you an example; in 2000 we had 4-5 million mobile phone connections in Africa. By 2012 they have over 720 million mobile connections, meaning that private sector responded the moment African governments unbundled the telephony sector, privatize, attracted foreign investments and established public policies that gave confidence to private investors both local and international that their investments will be safe. If we do the same for the energy sector transparent long term policies and strategies and starting with a degree of incentives we believe we can encourage an energy revolution that will not only give people access to energy but will also help them more towards in fact leap-frogging, towards deploying more low carbon technology.
Quickly as we wind down here, as you know the clock is a tyranny do you think our beloved country Sierra Leone will meet its United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDG’s)?
Yumkella: Like most African countries we are behind in a number of the indicators almost all. However, we are on a trajectory to be able to achieve them probably the next decade. And Sierra Leone now is lucky they have discovered a lot of minerals, they have also discovered oil and gas I believe we can invest in the necessary social infrastructure to help that country achieves its millennium development goals and in fact transform the economy into a middle income country I believe between 15 -20 years if there is education and appropriate action is taken.
I know you have a very hectic schedule so I’ll make this the final question. I asked you this question at the Africa America Institute Awards Gala and there is a lot of speculation that you are running for the presidency of Sierra Leone come the next presidential elections. Dr. Kandeh Yumkella, are you planning to run for the president of Sierra Leone?
Yumkella: Well, I just started a new job two and a half months now as the Energy Czar of the United Nations but let me put it this way: if the circumstances are right and my people ask me to do in my country what I have done globally in two decades, I would consider serving them but it depends on a number of circumstances. First things first, I enjoy what I am doing right now and I am trying to help humanity and help my people at the same time.
Now your people have asked you to do just that because there is even a Face book page called “Why Dr. Kandeh Yumkella should run for President” have you seen that?
Yumkella: I have read about it, yes I have heard about it.
Well it has been a pleasure talking with you; we hope to have you again on the show whenever you come to New York. We thank you so much for joining African New Dawn Radio heard Sundays from 8 pm – 9 pm on WRSU, 88.7 FM at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
Yumkella: Thank you for having me, I hope that I can do another interview in the future, thank you so much!!!
Dennis is a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Licensed radio engineer, print reporter, producer and news director of African New Dawn Radio heard over WRSU, 88.7 FM at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New jersey. He is currently a reporter and producer for Pacifica Network Station WBAI, 99.5 FM Morning Show in New York City. He formerly served as international news editor at Rutgers University's WRSU, 88.7 FM News at 10 ; record review contributor and office manager of Accent/LA Publications in Los Angeles and a co-founder of Kronick Magazine in Los Angeles.