Damilola Ogunbiyi
Damilola Ogunbiyi

What does it take to become the CEO and Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Sustainable Energy for All (SEforALL) and Co-Chair of UN-Energy? We caught up with Damilola Ogunbiyi who has walked this path, taking up the role in January 2020.

This article first appeared in ESI Africa Issue 3-2020.
Read the full digimag here or subscribe to receive a print copy here.

Having taken up her new position at the start of what would prove to be a year of unprecedented crises, this extremely dedicated professional shares her insights and goals for the energy landscape with ESI Africa’s editor.

This Women in Energy feature is brought to you by Nyamezela.

Damilola, let’s start by giving our readers a brief look into your background in the energy sector.
One of my first major roles in the energy sector was serving as General Manager for the Lagos State Electricity Board, which is responsible for public lighting, independent power projects, and energy development across all of Lagos State.

This was a great experience, which gave me an understanding of projects on a regional level before moving to the Nigerian Rural Electrification Agency (REA) where I was appointed the first-ever female Managing Director. At REA, I focused on a national approach, helping to connect Nigerians across the country to electricity.

At the start of this year, I became the CEO and Special Representative of the United Nations SecretaryGeneral for Sustainable Energy for All (SEforALL) and Co-Chair of UN-Energy.

In these roles, I lead the work with governments, business, UN agencies, philanthropy and civil society to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 7 (SDG7) – access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all by 2030.

During your career, has there been a project that has stood out for you?
One project I’m particularly proud of is a joint effort I led with the UK government Department for International Development that provided solar mini-grids to health clinics across Nigeria. This was quite early on in my career, and watching expectant mothers try to access healthcare that they and their baby needed in a clinic without electricity literally showed me how energy access can save lives and created a huge drive within me.

The project was a big success and to this day, I still treasure the picture of the first baby that was born safely using medical equipment powered by the solar mini-grids. The renewable technology installed through the project is still going strong – helping show the longevity and true value in providing clean, sustainable resources for these communities.

Her belief in mentorship led to the Lagos State Energy Academy… building the capacity of young people in renewable energy technology.

Who were your mentors and how did they inspire you in your career? In your view, what is the importance of having mentors?
I’ve been very fortunate to work with some incredibly inspiring people throughout my career. This included Minister Babatunde Fashola, Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), the former Governor of Lagos State. As my former boss, he would often say “impossible isn’t a word that should be part of your vocabulary”, and his commitment, belief in giving young people a chance and approach of rewarding hard work has stayed with me.

Empowering someone at the start of their career can have a major impact on their career path, and from such a positive, inspiring experience with the Minister I went on to head up a government agency in my 20s. Success, of course, takes hard work and dedication by the individual but a good mentor has the power to propel them forward.

From this experience, I am a true believer in the power of mentorship and actively try to support young people with new skills and connections. This belief is also a big reason why I created the Lagos State Energy Academy, focused on building the capacity of young people in renewable energy technology.

Damilola Ogunbiyi pictured with high-level participants at COP25, in December 2019 in Madrid, Spain.

There is an energy revolution underway that the market cannot ignore. Damilola, how do you foresee this changing the energy landscape?
The energy landscape will be fundamentally different in the future. We know it must be different, as today over 840 million people still lack access to energy – 573 million of whom live in sub-Saharan Africa. The global COVID-19 pandemic also shows us that when every part of the world is under pressure, access to electricity is critical to be able to provide the healthcare people need in emergency situations.

To truly deliver the vision of SDG7 and universal energy access in a sustainable way, decentralised solutions must be our focus to reach the most vulnerable and remote populations. We also need to build a bigger market for clean cooking fuels, so women don’t have to use dirty fuels to cook dinner for their family. And we need to invest in renewable energy technologies so that everyone can have access to reliable, affordable and clean energy.

Success, of course, takes hard work by the individual but a good mentor has the power to propel them forward.

What is your message for young women who are starting out their career in the power and energy industry?
This is a really important time for the energy sector, and a moment when we need the talent, innovation and enthusiasm of young female leaders to help move us forward. For those that want to be challenged, are committed and want to make a real difference, the energy industry is one of the few sectors where you can really help create change and be part of something that delivers impact.

Whether it’s working on projects that help deliver your very first, first hundred, or even first thousand new connections – you will never forget the difference that you’ve helped achieve.

Already you have a long career behind you. Share a professional challenge that others can learn from and how you overcame the difficulty and the outcome.
A recurring challenge has always been explaining to decision-makers why we need faster progress and investment in renewable energy access to ensure we leave no one behind in the energy transition. This challenge is especially true when these leaders are faced with so many competing priorities.

What I have learnt in my career is to never underestimate the power of data to motivate and give leaders the confidence to act. By showing them evidence of how many people will be impacted by a new project, how many jobs created, or how much money saved, you’re helping them make data-driven decisions that can benefit everyone – and help us achieve progress at the rate we need.

What is your wish list for the electricity supply industry in this new decade?
We need to focus on three key areas. First, embrace new business models. Second, support and engage the off-grid sector. Third, prioritise and invest in green infrastructure that will help achieve faster progress on SDG7 in line with the Paris Climate Agreement.

Post-COVID-19 pandemic the electricity supply industry has the opportunity to recover better from coronavirus and focus on these key areas that can deliver faster and greater results.

What I have learnt in my career is to never underestimate the power of data to motivate and give leaders the confidence to act.

Damilola Ogunbiyi, thank you for sharing your experiences. Please share your final words to stakeholders on the role they must play to facilitate progress in the industry.
The private sector is crucial to deliver sustainable, modern and reliable energy for all by 2030. With less than a decade to go, it is critical we work with local, African and global businesses to deliver progress at the speed and scale we need.

In particular, this means working with them in accelerating the decentralised market. Decentralised energy solutions are a huge opportunity and a vastly untapped market, yet for this to truly realise its potential, we need greater private sector engagement. I encourage all of those innovative, forward-thinking businesses to join us and be part of the solution. ESI

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