First Full Day in Nairobi

Today was a busy Saturday, packed with meetings with the Swiss ambassador to Kenya, the executive director of Climate Network Africa, and the Deputy Head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in charge of Kenya's Diaspora. We were also due to meet with the Prime Minister, Minister of Trade, and former Minister of Finance, but they had to cancel at the last minute due to the death and funeral of another minister.

Each of the meetings was very interesting, although I didn’t like the one with Climate Network Africa. The presenter was full of climate change blame for the US/Europe, didn’t offer any constructive solutions, and demanded reparations for the damage that would surely come to the African environment. I found this unproductive for several reasons.

First, her supporting data were misleading. She drew facts and figures from several years ago, when the US and Europe were way ahead of everyone in carbon emissions. Don’t get me wrong; the US and Europe are still way ahead, but the gap is closing a little and the trends, which show developing nations like China overtaking them in the future, reveal that the problem must be addressed globally, not just in a few countries. She also used exclusively per capita carbon emissions statistics, which are irrelevant. The environment doesn’t care how many people are producing the emissions; it just cares that they are being produced! By her logic, the US could become a better global citizen just by increasing its fertility rate instead of reducing its emissions!

Second, she was all problem and no solution. Yes, we all know that the industrialized countries have been the greatest emitters, but it is unproductive to rehash this over and over and over again. Yes, we screwed up. No, we didn’t know the consequences industrialization would have until recently but yes, we accept responsibility for it. Now let’s stop playing the blame game and all work together to find a solution!

Finally, her antagonistic “The West is evil” presentation isn’t likely to motivate any action. I’ve blogged before about how a large organization exhibits a collective subconscious that behaves in a very irrational, human way. Attacking developed countries is likely to induce defensiveness, not action. A collaborative approach would be much more constructive.

Her presentation did motivate me, however, to think about a topic I often ponder: what IS the solution? Specifically, she motivated me to think about it in an African context. Africa has huge, open spaces with significant sun exposure so one idea might be to develop solar and wind farms there. In addition to generating renewable energy, this would create jobs on a continent that has major population growth and poverty. In fact, Africa could become a hotbed of renewable energy generation, producing even more than its current (No pun intended!) needs and exporting the surplus around the world.

The problem with such a plan is two-fold. First, these renewable energy technologies are expensive and the political climate in Africa is somewhat volatile. Investing in such projects is therefore risky. Furthermore, to export power—or even to distribute it around such a huge continent—would require major advances in transmission technology. Current power lines are very lossy, losing a significant percentage of the power transmitted over them over long distances. This is especially important for centralized solar and wind, which A. are usually located far away from power consumers (in areas with the least obstruction of their power sources) and B. are bursty—we can’t control when the sun will shine or the wind will blow. More efficient transmission (and storage, for that matter) technology would allow areas that need power, regardless of weather conditions there, to draw energy from areas where the sun is shining or wind is blowing around the world. This problem of energy transmission and storage is the main theme addressed by the vision of Nobel laureate (and Rice professor!) Dr. Richard Smalley. His proposed solution naturally uses nanotechnology, his principal area of research.

As I am no great nanotechnologist, this leads me to the fundamental question that drove me to IMD and that still drives me today: what can business leaders do to address this energy/environment challenge? We can certainly enforce responsible energy usage within our companies but that won’t be enough. It will barely make a dent in consumption and won’t address any other social issues. To effect more profound change, business leaders will need to invest (either by starting up new ventures or by launching initiatives within their own companies) in R&D of renewable technologies (reducing renewable production costs and increasing efficiency), R&D of energy transmission and storage technologies, and development of renewable operations in places like Africa.

These are just my initial ideas. What ideas do you have? How can business leaders change the world for the better? The answer to this question will significantly impact my thinking about how to shape my career post-IMD.


Anonymous said...

Nice post. This week's economist has a special report on Alternative Energy.

The report talks about the need of technology innovation, smart grids, VCs etc. I am looking for answers to the same questions as you are, although not for a post-mba career, but how a mba would help me shape my career in alternative energy sector.

In one of your previous posts, you replied to one of my questions on the opportunities for MBAs in alternative energy sector. Thanks for the reply. You mentioned that R&D and innovation management are pivotal to companies in alternative energy. I talked with a couple of leading fuel cell manufacturing companies and the folks there told me that they hire MBAs mostly for marketing. For R&D management, they seem to value R&D experience a lot more than business experience/MBA degree. But, this is just for fuel cells. With oil crossing $145 a barrel, this might change.


Bryan Guido Hassin said...

Thanks for the article; I really enjoyed it. And hey, it never hurts to quote [Rice alumnus!] John Doerr. :-)