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Green Talent: Understanding Green Sales

Updated: Oct 4, 2023



Africa’s private sector can bolster its green agenda and drive increased GDP, higher income per capita, create tens of millions of jobs, and foster collaboration between governments, businesses and local communities, according to a comprehensive study published by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).


There is clear potential for African businesses to drive green growth, create jobs, and contribute to sustainability goals by adopting sustainable practices across various sectors, including agriculture, renewable energy, the blue economy, and circular economy initiatives.


Robust go-to-market (GTM) strategies are instrumental in unlocking the potential to drive green growth, create jobs, and contribute to sustainability goals. These strategies help businesses expand their markets, educate consumers, access finance, build partnerships, and navigate regulatory challenges, ultimately supporting the adoption of sustainable practices across various sectors in Africa.


Our journey in Green Skills Development thus far has been marked by our steadfast commitment to youth employment, forged through partnerships with Shortlist and various initiatives aimed at placing sales professionals in green companies. However, we acknowledge that our expertise, honed in sectors such as retail sales and tech-sales, may not seamlessly translate to the intricacies of the green industry, given its evolving nature. The added complexity stems from the relative novelty of climate change sales strategies, which presents a substantial learning curve.

Despite ongoing requests from funders and companies seeking our support for workforce development in green sales, we recognized the need to address these challenges proactively. We held a pivotal breakfast session, convening industry leaders, funders, business owners, sales executives, and HR professionals to collectively tackle these issues. We understood that continuing the same approaches while expecting different outcomes would likely lead to stagnation, and we were determined to chart a more effective path forward.

The goal of the session was to:

  • Learn from leaders and founders who have navigated the green sector successfully, discovering innovative approaches and strategies that have yielded tangible results.

  • Engage in an open dialogue with peers and experts to identify practical solutions to the unique challenges posed by the green industry.


Summary of findings and recommendations.


The path to decent employment in Green Sales

Some green companies are hesitant to provide a basic salary to sales talent, making recruitment and retention a significant challenge. To this end, we sought to understand some of the reasons. We also asked how they would allocate any extra resources/cash if there ever was a chance.


The unique challenge arises from the newness of the clean energy sector. Sales teams often find themselves wearing a dual hat, tasked with both generating demand and converting leads into sales. This dual role can significantly lengthen sales cycles, and since demand generation, when not meticulously tracked, tends to be quantitative rather than immediately qualitative, it may appear that sales teams are not making progress. This situation can lead employers to hesitate in providing a base salary to their sales professionals.


Secondly, businesses owners lack a strong sales background, which impedes their ability to establish systematic support structures for the effective onboarding and development of sales teams. Instead, they often rely on naturally gifted salespeople.

Consequently, young talents entering the workforce face a steep learning curve and often depart from the sector prematurely, without realizing the full potential of a sales career.

In light of this, the imperative lies in establishing comprehensive systems encompassing the right hiring profiles, robust onboarding processes, continuous training initiatives aligned with evolving market dynamics, and enhanced support from experienced sales managers. These measures are essential for the recruitment and retention of sales teams within the industry.


Performance Impact:

Our efforts to recruit, place, and train sales teams in the clean energy sector have often fallen short of delivering the expected positive impact on business outcomes. To address this, comprehensive training programs, improved teamwork, and better benefits packages are seen as potential solutions. To this end, we sought to understand the ideal green sales profile and the following were our key observations:


Ideal Green Sales Profile

  • Rural Sales/B2C Sales

From the feedback, the ideal profile for successful sales professionals often involves individuals with strong community leadership qualities who can effectively (using the right language and cultural nuances) act as marketers, energy coaches, and negotiators to drive demand, educate buyers, and close sales. To scale energy initiatives, it becomes imperative to invest in training programs for rural youth, nurturing their potential to become community leaders in the clean energy sector.


  • Technical/B2B products

In the case of products necessitating a higher degree of technical sales expertise, companies often seek talent from technical colleges and universities. However, this recruitment process can prove challenging due to the current career trajectory, which typically does not emphasize technical sales as a viable career path. Consequently, employers in search of sales professionals may find themselves selecting candidates driven by immediate job needs rather than those inherently suited for the role. This initial misalignment can result in quality concerns and extended onboarding periods, in turn, incurring additional costs for the employers.

There is an opportunity to reshape the perception of sales as a meaningful and rewarding career for engineers etc. Collaborating with institutions to incorporate sales training into their curriculum could be a strategic step, as it would prepare the youth for technical sales roles.

Furthermore, launching campaigns to promote green jobs as fulfilling and purposeful can help attract students in colleges and universities to consider careers in green sales. In the short term, partnerships with employers seeking technical sales teams can facilitate collaboration with educational institutions, creating pathways for youth seeking meaningful employment opportunities. These investments are critical to addressing the unique challenges faced by the clean energy industry and building a skilled workforce for sustainable growth.


  • Agency Model

Many green companies currently rely on agency sales, predominantly engaging youth and women who often own small businesses or participate part-time alongside other income sources. While this approach reduces business overhead costs, it carries the disadvantage of potentially lacking brand loyalty among agents. Consequently, businesses must invest time and effort in recruiting territory sales representatives to maintain brand prominence in the eyes of retailers. To address this challenge, some green companies have attempted to enforce product stocking requirements within agencies, a strategy more effective for established brands offering sufficient returns to justify agent efforts.


Presently, this model predominantly relies on individuals with inherent sales skills, potentially excluding motivated youth and those who could thrive with adequate support. An opportunity exists to assist businesses in developing accessible training materials, making them available to individuals interested in augmenting their income. This model can extend to universities and technical vocational education and training (TVET) institutions, enabling youth to engage in early career green sales while earning income, fostering a valuable learning experience.


  • Teams from traditional industries

Some companies in an effort to build systems to train sales teams in the clean energy sector have opted to recruit sales teams and managers with backgrounds in traditional industries. This approach offers the advantage of bringing in individuals with the requisite sales skills and experience. However, they acknowledge that these professionals may face challenges in adapting to the unique demands of green sales, as they are accustomed to markets with established products. Feedback from discussions highlighted their struggle to simultaneously promote the brand and the solution in greenfield sectors. Thus, they would require substantial support and training to excel in this context.


It is worth emphasizing that enabling a seasoned salesperson to transition to a different product is generally more feasible than attempting to train an industry expert in sales. This presents an opportunity for traditional sales teams to make a meaningful contribution to the clean energy sector, particularly at more senior levels, provided they receive comprehensive training and support to navigate the nuances of this emerging field.

Understanding the Green Space:

One challenge that came up often in the discussion is that many potential customers lack technical knowledge about clean energy solutions, extending sales cycles. Furthermore, there is a shortage of experienced mentors in this relatively new industry.

In light of the nascent nature of the clean energy sector, there emerged a prevailing consensus on the critical need to establish robust mentorship programs to facilitate the dissemination of knowledge and promote scalability of learning within the industry. The emergence of mentors and structured mentorship opportunities holds immense promise. Many startup ecosystems have flourished because of strong mentorship networks. Silicon Valley is a prime example, where successful entrepreneurs often mentor and invest in early-stage startups. Mentorship has played a critical role in helping startups navigate challenges, secure funding, and scale their businesses.


Furthermore, the implementation of cross-border mentorship platforms offers an additional advantage. By leveraging the expertise of businesses in regions with more mature green initiatives, such as those in developed nations, this approach allows emerging businesses in Africa to access a wealth of knowledge and experience. This knowledge exchange can be instrumental in accelerating the development of effective sales strategies, sustainability practices, and market penetration techniques. Such platforms not only bridge knowledge gaps but also foster global collaboration in advancing the clean energy sector, ultimately contributing to the attainment of sustainability goals and the creation of a more interconnected and environmentally responsible global community.


Emerging Market Dynamics:

From the discussions, we gleaned that emerging market dynamics in the clean energy sector necessitate adaptability to ensure alignment with environmentally sustainable solutions. The industry is witnessing rapid transformations, marked by the decentralization of energy sources and the emergence of facilities dedicated to recycling clean energy products.


Amidst these shifts, there are valuable opportunities presented by prominent market trends. Notably, the growing relevance of carbon credits and the innovation surrounding green hydrogen are actively shaping the sector's trajectory. Embracing these trends not only ensures resilience in a changing landscape but also positions businesses at the forefront of sustainability efforts while fostering growth in the clean energy industry.


The role of a salesperson in the emerging dynamics of the clean energy sector is multifaceted and pivotal


Examples:

Market Awareness:

Salespeople must stay abreast of emerging market dynamics, including shifts in energy sources, regulatory changes, and sustainability trends. They act as the frontline scouts, gathering intelligence and insights to inform sales strategies. Imagine a salesperson working for a solar panel manufacturer. They continuously monitor regulatory changes in renewable energy incentives. When a new subsidy program is introduced by the government to promote solar adoption, the salesperson quickly adapts their pitch to highlight cost savings for customers, leveraging the incentive.

Adaptability:

In each of these examples, the salesperson's role extends beyond selling products; they actively engage with emerging market dynamics, adapt their strategies, educate customers, and collaborate with stakeholders to drive sustainable growth in the clean energy sector.


Conclusion

Africa, least responsible for carbon emissions but severely impacted, faces an urgent challenge. Sales in the green economy can be the beacon of hope for its youth.

Sales professionals are crucial in responding to and capitalizing on emerging dynamics in the clean energy sector. They bridge the gap between businesses and evolving market trends, fostering sustainability and growth.


This report sheds light on the intricate landscape of green sales in Africa, emphasizing the importance of investment in training, mentorship, and adaptation to evolving market dynamics. By addressing the unique challenges and harnessing the opportunities, the continent's private sector can pave the way for a greener and more prosperous future. But this demands immediate action, increased funding, and resources to make sales a compelling career choice.


The time to act is now.

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