Working in a group of 23 drilling engineers at the Geothermal Development Company, Kenya is an indication that this field is on a healthy trajectory.

In an exclusive interview with Phyllis Gathoni Mathenge, the company’s drilling engineer, ESI Africa undertakes a bit of ‘excavation’ to uncover how to succeed in the geothermal domain.

This article first appeared in ESI-Africa Edition 1, 2017. Read the full digital magazine here or subscribe here to receive a print copy.

Holding the unofficial title of being the first-ever female drilling engineer at GDC, your training has required you to undertake intensive local, international and on-the-job training to execute your duties efficiently and effectively in this highly skilled and specialised field. Now that you are in this position, does the learning stop there?

It was a new and exciting field for me and I loved the experience. I hold a BSc. Electrical and Electronic Engineering from the University of Nairobi, and joined Geothermal Development Company (GDC), Kenya as a graduate trainee.

My first deployment was to the maintenance department as a rig maintenance engineer (electrical). I later moved to the more exciting field of drilling operations where I doubled as a shift supervisor. Currently, I am a drilling engineer deployed in the Menengai Geothermal Field in the Kenyan Rift Valley.

GDC makes use of seven 2,000Hp rigs to drill for geothermal and as I am a shift supervisor on one of these rigs, the drilling operation crew is my responsibility. Duties entail crew supervision, execution of the drilling programme, liaising with maintenance crew to ensure maximum availability of equipment, monitoring material movement and usage, ensuring safe operation of equipment and crew while conserving the environment.

With this level of responsibility, the learning never stops; keeping abreast of the latest trends by reading relevant articles is essential in this sphere, thereby comparing our challenges with those faced in other parts of the world and coming up with best solutions.

Your work hours are quite intensive; tell us about a day in the life of a drilling engineer for us to get a fuller picture.

A drilling engineer in the geothermal field develops, plans, costs and supervises the operations necessary for drilling of geothermal wells. We are involved from the initial design of the well to testing, completion and abandonment (cradle to grave!). Our shifts start at either midday or midnight. At the rig, we hold a handover meeting with the outgoing crew where we discuss the operations over the past 24 hours, challenges, successes and way forward.

Time is money. With my crew, we discuss fastest, best and safest ways to execute the duties at hand, procedures and safety measures; staff to do it, equipment needed and any other resource that might be required. A day at my rig desk involves tracking costs, managing material movement, dealing with rig personnel issues and record keeping. I closely monitor day-to-day drilling operations against budgets; prepare work schedules and comprehensive drilling plans to meet project objectives and to ensure the optimisation of drilling operations.

A drilling engineer works in consultation with other professionals such as geologists and geoscientists to monitor drilling progress, oversee safety management and ensure the protection of the environment. You have to coordinate with several teams, contractors and consultants to achieve the best results.

What have been the challenges and successes that you have experienced during your career?

There is nothing more satisfying than drilling a well to completion within the planned duration and seeing it productive. I was part of the team that worked on MW1A, the largest geothermal well in Africa with a capacity of about 30MW. My most recent project was working on MW18A, which has capacity of about 7MWe.

I can’t express the excitement and satisfaction when you see steam gush out of the deep well. Drilling is a capital-intensive industry. Working for government can be challenging due to delayed release of funds and hence delayed project implementation time. This in turn affects timelines, which in turn affects the budget, as more money is then required. Another aspect is working ‘on shift’ and for long hours as these can be very challenging – fatigue sets in and more often than not, you miss family and friends’ functions. You sacrifice a lot.

When I joined the drilling team, I met a female roustabout, who gave me a lot of inspiration. The tubulars she cleaned were always perfect and arranged well and she was (and for that matter still is) very self-motivated. One day, we had a chitchat over lunch and I realised she was married with a child. With the inflexibility and long hours, she had learnt to overcome. Despite her being very good at her job, not many people knew much about her or her duties. I was moved. From that day, I always knew I would dosomething to make the world know the existence of such people, how their efficiency and effectiveness speed our operations.

WING AFRICA, a voluntary, non-for-profit association for women in the African geothermal industry was launched on 1 November 2016. This is a platform where I hope such women can be more visible. On my appointment as the president of this group, I was delighted, humbled and honoured. It is a chance for me, and the organisation, to promote and mentor more women.

This sounds like a wonderful opportunity and I hope to hear more about WING ARICA in the news. Is being a woman in your position challenging?

Yes. This field is heavily male dominated. Culture and unconscious bias (prejudice by men) fuels most of our challenges. Depending on where someone has been brought up, they have certain perceptions about women, which unconsciously influence the decisions they make, which often involve women.

As a woman in this industry, people are quick to label you without being aware of the complexity it takes for you to succeed. But, it is for each individual to decide and to create their own label/brand. Quality sells. Competence is key. You must be specific about your values. Don’t be afraid to let the people around you know what you can or cannot take, nor allow yourself to be forgotten.

Who were your mentors and how did they inspire the choices you made that brought you to where you are today?

My grandmother, Cucu Isabel. God bless her! She is a phenomenal woman who successfully manages her own company whilst pursuing a PhD (and should graduate soon). Through her watchful instruction, she has kept me on track with my career and taught me to set high goals, persevere at achieving them and to keep improving my education.

She has a quaint yet relevant saying, that your brain might shrink if you are not engaged in something. In my professional capacity, Dr Meseret Zemedkun, Programme Manager at ARGeo, based at UNEP, and Eng. Martha Mburu, a mechanical engineer and a manager at GDC, are my mentors. These women are high performers, delivering quality – they are truthful and real. They are swift, brilliant, influential and most importantly are family women!

Every day, I choose to be better and to do better. I have come to realise that in my own capacity I am a role model to someone. And then there is my mother. She is a wife, a mother, a home maker, a friend, a disciplinarian, a prayer warrior and an exceptional cook. She has taught me patience and to listen more while focusing on important things. The many hopeful women doing their best in their capacities inspire me to do better in my own. Poor women who hope for a better world for their children. Young boys and girls who must be mentored.

Are there enough women in the power industry? Should gender matter?

Gender matters! And emphatically, no, there aren’t enough women in the power industry. If 50% of the world’s population are female, then it would make sense to have a similar percentage at decision- and policymaking levels. Sadly, this is not the case.

Women are still lagging far behind in representation. There have been deliberate attempts to improve the numbers. Kenyan law is such that no gender should have more than 2/3 of the population in a work place. This has helped to bring the numbers up.

However, there is room for improvement. Women in tech-related fields are almost always less than 1/3. In specialised sectors such as geothermal, the numbers are even worse. As women, we must work harder to be more visible and to ask for more opportunities. We must volunteer more and must get out of our comfort zones.

We must dare to dream bigger and perform. We must mentor each other and grow together; and for those already high up on the ladder, you have a duty to assist your female colleagues and peers.

What do you think was the most important decision/stepping stone for you to enter the energy sector?

I always wanted to study engineering. In my final year in school, I learnt about the geothermal sector from a friend and about GDC in particular. It sounded very exciting to me. The thought of drilling kilometres into the ground to get steam was something I had not heard of. A friend had mentioned that the field was too technical and dirty (as if it was such a terrible thing!). In fact, he advised that I should probably seek alternative opportunities. He said it was “not a place for women”.

This should have discouraged me; instead, it charged me to dare to dream and since then I have never looked back. My grandfather, who is a civil engineer with his own consultancy firm, also encouraged me to follow the dream and I did. He has been supportive and with extensive experience in the private and public sectors, has a lot of advice to offer.

Tell us about the current situation in Kenya’s geothermal sector, how this has developed over the years and what we can expect in the future.

Kenya is Africa’s leading geothermal producer with over 600MWe connected to the grid. Globally, Kenya is in the top 10 of geothermal producers. We have the capacity to produce 10,000MWe. The country’s Vision 2030 required that we develop more ways to generate the anticipated power demand, which was forecast to greatly rise. Government therefore founded GDC to be a special purpose vehicle to fast-track exploration and exploitation of geothermal resource in the country.

At GDC’s inception in 2009, Kenya was producing 167MWe, which has grown to over 600MWe by December 2016. This has greatly lowered the cost of electricity. Furthermore, considerable resources have gone into training and capacity building and Kenya now hosts experienced and highly skilled geothermal experts. In future, we hope to have more power from geothermal and to lower electricity tariffs even further.

Kenya is the best natural geothermal laboratory. We exhibit all rounded geothermal aspects from virgin fields, drilled geothermal fields, power plants all the way to transmission. African countries have used this for training and I believe we can do more.

What are your top three predictions for the energy market in East Africa in the next five years?

African countries’ economies are growing fast. The demand for power will greatly increase. There are deliberate efforts to connect every household to power, especially via rural electrification and slum upgrade projects. East Africa shall achieve power interconnectivity. Already, Ethiopia is connected to Djibouti and Sudan. In terms of development, facilities like the ARGeo are taking the lead to help countries with geothermal resource to explore and develop.

Tanzania will soon commence drilling. Kenya is setting up the largest wind power farm in Africa. My personal vision for the African energy sector is to have all households in Africa connected to cheaper and affordable electricity; with NO BLACKOUTS. To have the African woman embrace cleaner energy like biogas, LPG and bioenergy. It is my firm belief that Africa will solve its own energy needs. Africa will buy more ‘made in Africa’ and truly rise economically and socially.

What energy legacy do you wish to leave behind?

To have fewer women ‘hoping for a chance` and more women doing/ acting. You see, hope is a good thing but not a strategy. We must act. We started WING AFRICA to get more women at the table, not on the tabled agenda and not near the table. The awakening in the African woman cannot be stopped. Better yet, we mean good for us and for our families.

What words of encouragement do you have for women wanting to enter the energy sector, and for any women currently in the industry?

You will never be ready. Step up at every opportunity now and make a choice to be great. Show up and network with experts in the sector. You must be visible and stay visible, remain relevant and always invite yourself to the table.

You are your own source of power. Self-promotion is not wrong. If you feel you can do a certain task, do not be afraid to ask. Believe in yourself. You are your own number 1 fan.  

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