British International Investment

Virunga Energy

Unlocking local talent in the Democratic Republic of Congo

We worked with Virunga Energy to implement international environmental and social standards in one of the most challenging environments to do business.


The challenge

The breath-taking Virunga region in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is famed for its imposing volcanoes and vast national parks. Outside the protected reserves, the area is one of the most densely populated in rural Africa and severely afflicted by poverty. Although the civil war officially ended in 2003, decades of conflict and political instability have created one of the most challenging operating environments in the world. The eastern area of the country is still affected by violence from rebel groups and in 2018 the country was ranked 184 out of 190 in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business index. Our commitment to hydro-electricity company Virunga Power in 2016 was the first investment in the area from a development finance institution (DFI) in twenty years.

We backed Virunga Energy to help bring clean energy to communities living in and around Virunga National Park. Our aim is that reliable electricity supply from Virunga will boost business activity to provide sustainable livelihoods.

We also recognised the potential to work with the company to support it to implement international environmental and social standards. Implementing such standards in conflict-affected areas is a challenge. It can be difficult to attract and hire specialists with the relevant technical skills. Often businesses need to rely upon expatriate international specialists, which does not necessarily result in direct and long-term skill development for the company or the economy.

The action

We supported Virunga Energy to develop and grow its own Congolese E&S team, with the goal of creating local employment and building a sustainable E&S management function for the long term.

Working in partnership with the company, we designed a bespoke capacity-building programme which would train local staff to better identify and manage key environmental and social risks, based on the needs and priority areas of the business. With support from CDC Plus, CDC Group’s technical assistance facility, we engaged international technical and E&S experts to support us with delivering the programme on the ground.

The training focussed on face-to-face delivery and ‘learning by doing’. Over the course of the programme, which ran from 2016 to the beginning of 2019, we delivered around 600 hours of training to the Virunga Energy team. Using real-life situations at the company, we talked through management approaches and technical solutions which could lead to better E&S outcomes. This included a broad range of topics, such as how changes to working practices can improve workplace health and safety, how influencing the labour practices of local contractors can lead to better social outcomes and the importance of community engagement in building a social licence to operate.

Training session with the Virunga team

The result

During the programme we observed a change in the way the Virunga Energy team managed some of the complex E&S issues it encountered. The company now employs a dedicated E&S team and has developed an E&S management system which has had a positive impact. Engagement with the local community has considerably improved. Individuals in the Virunga Energy team have benefited directly from the capacity-building programme by developing new skill sets which allow them to better analyse and manage the environmental and social aspects of their projects.

Capacity building represents a long-term investment in people and it can take time to see significant benefits, especially in fragile settings, such as Eastern DRC. Our work has helped to unlock local talent and create a long-term, sustainable E&S management function for Virunga Energy. Our hope is that implementing international environmental and social standards will make the company more attractive to other investors in the future, which in turn will help to bring much-needed additional stability to the business and local economy.

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