Currently pursuing a PhD in business administration-strategic management, Phyllis Engefu Ombonyo, director for business development at the National Environment Trust Fund (NETFUND) in Kenya, has put her B.Sc. computer science and engineering and MBAstrategic management to good use in serving the development needs of diverse communities in the African region.
Under her leadership in 20142016, NETFUND conducted an aggressive awareness campaign on energy and water, and raised over $4 million for the organisation’s Green Innovation Awards (GIA) annual programme, which represents a 400% annual funding increase. Having left her mark in five countries, namely Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and South Sudan, through the establishment of systems and structures to ensure technology is leveraged to achieve organisational objectives, Phyllis was named the 2016 African Utility Week Power/ Water Woman of the Year award winner. ESI Africa caught up with this lively personality to discover what drives her success…
You have worked on some interesting projects; what has kept you motivated in this challenging environment?
NETFUND is a state corporation within the ministry of environment whose mission is empowering Kenyans to sustainably manage the environment through promotion and support for green growth.
As the director for business development at NETFUND, among my many responsibilities, I spearhead fundraising, donor and partner relations, grant writing, communications and capacity building in order to achieve a sustainable funding base for the organisation.
I am also involved in the execution of NETFUND’s GIA programme that involves business incubation for green entrepreneurs in energy, agribusiness, water and waste management – with gender mainstreaming and youth empowerment as a crosscutting theme. This has given me the opportunity to witness the development of individuals and communities first-hand.
My greatest motivation comes from knowing that African communities are able to identify their problems, challenge the status quo, find and implement solutions that work for them – and do this on their own! I have seen this happen with NETFUND’s green grassroots innovators who are engaging in initiatives such as minigrids – home-grown development of energy-efficient multipurpose clean cook stoves and micro-manufacturing briquettes from waste and other materials. Briquettes are not just affordable; they are a perfect substitute for wood fuel, which also translates into less tree cutting as this is the main source of cooking energy in Kenya.
For instance, Narok in Kenya is where most of the charcoal burning takes place. One of our entrepreneurs, Maa Briquettes based in Narok, has come up with a way of creating charcoal from waste. He sells 1kg of briquettes at KES15/kg ($0.15c) compared to charcoal’s market price in the region at KES30/kg ($0.60c).
This translates into 50% cooking energy savings in addition to realising multiple environmental benefits. This is significant given that Kenya is 80% arid and semi-arid and only 7% forested.
All of these initiatives are also significantly being championed by youths who haven’t received advanced education, but are making a great difference in their communities. They inspire me quite a lot and give us great hope for the future.
The biggest proportion of my portfolio entails fundraising in order to scale up these initiatives. The challenge I have experienced is tight competition in light of dwindling resources. Funding decisions also take time, which impedes one from moving as fast as you would have wished. The lack of affordable and accessible financing for these entrepreneurs, which would have greatly enhanced their business and created greater community impact, also continues to be a challenge. Quite a number of them also require risk capital, which is not always forthcoming. If this doesn’t change then it becomes a missed opportunity to transform people’s lives through innovation.
Who were your mentors and how did they inspire you in the choices you made?
My mother is my number one role model. She was not fortunate enough to get a decent education, but worked tirelessly to raise our circumstances. She would buy second hand clothes, fix them in our house using a manual sewing machine, wash and resell them through her established social network – she never had a shop of her own. This enabled her to support my siblings and me, and provide for our education. Seeing her resilience, given these odds, makes me believe that determination, not circumstances, is what it takes to achieve greatness. I’m also extremely grateful for my husband and children’s daily support.
I am also greatly inspired by Wangari Maathai, the first African female Nobel Peace laureate 2004, for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace. She fought against all odds to safeguard some of Kenya’s premier forests and parks within the city.
Maathai was quite unwavering, which is remarkable given the tough political regime during her time. If it were not for her efforts, Nairobi would not be as beautiful and green as it is today – in the words of the Nobel Committee: “she thinks globally and acts locally”. I aspire to live by this same philosophy.
Are there enough women in the power industry? Should gender matter?
Let me start by saying that I have an interest in broader development areas, which I feel privileged to have been exposed to in my career journey. There are some crosscutting similarities in all of these e.g. marginalisation of women, and I don’t think the number of women in the energy sector is sufficient. For example, the entries we receive from women for the NETFUND GIA has been quite negligible in the past. Unlike previous phases, in the most recent awards’ motivations we managed to attract just slightly above 30% from women entrepreneurs and this was as a result of several deliberate and quite aggressive gender mainstreaming measures.
Gender shouldn’t matter at all – and not just for the power industry, but in all sectors. Women have been empowered to do jobs that were traditionally reserved for men. Gender studies conducted by McKinsey & Company demonstrate how beneficial diversification is, highlighting that each gender excels strongly in certain characteristics/qualities that are critical for organisational success. I therefore believe that both genders can complement each other to make the world a better place. The more both genders are involved the faster we get to achieve our development objectives. This should concern us even more given the recent adoption of the sustainable development goals (SDGs).
What is the current situation in the east African energy sector?
Biomass is still the most important source of energy for the majority of East Africa’s population. In Uganda for example, about 90% of the total primary energy consumption is generated through biomass, which can be separated into firewood (78.6%), charcoal (5.6%) and crop residues (4.7%). Access to electricity is generally very low! The access level at national level in Uganda in 2013 was recorded as 15% (a steady rise from 1991: 5.6%; 2006: 9%; and 2010: 10%), but only 7% in rural areas.
Rwanda‘s energy balance shows that about 85% of its overall primary energy consumption is based on biomass (99% of all households use biomass for cooking), 11% from petroleum products (transport, electricity generation and industrial use) and 4% from hydro sources for electricity. In April 2011, about 14% of the total population had access to electricity from the grid and government has since started a roll-out programme to rapidly increase this to 60% by 2020.
What projects are you currently busy with and what are the objectives?
NETFUND has just identified 30 green initiatives and 10 ideas that will undergo a pre-incubation process to determine their viability. This is exciting because in the past we’ve seen tremendous social and economic impact generated from these initiatives. Not only has there been an impressive increased access to energy and clean water, we have also witnessed an increase in the number of green jobs created, production efficiency and incomes for the entrepreneurs. I am excited at the prospect of greater impact, given the comparatively high number of incubatees that were selected this year.
According to an evaluation exercise conducted last year, NETFUND has helped to create 1,080 green jobs. Current estimates stand at 1,200 jobs, but a formal evaluation is to be conducted in the near future. Jobs created include machine handlers (briquette) and electricians. The organisation has received over 13,000 applications during the current phase out of which approximately 1,000 were evaluated as ‘qualified’. However, we could only support 40 through incubation due to budgetary constraints.
We are also exploring various alternatives with development partners on affordable financing mechanisms for green entrepreneurs given the large number of applicants that we receive, some of whom only require some capital to propel them to the next level, and the great opportunity for impact we see if these can be supported.
What are your top predictions for the energy market in Africa in the next five years?
Renewable/clean energy will be on the rise, even for commercial purposes, because this is more sustainable and governments are beginning to realise the importance of this, in the wake of climate change realities and the recent global climate change accord in Paris (COP21), 2015.
Energy will become more decentralised. We shall increasingly see mini-grid development, along with solar projects large enough to sell back to the main grid; we have already seen the start of this exciting transformation in Kenya. Lastly, that Africa will take very decisive steps that will put the continent on a pathway towards shedding of its title as ‘the dark continent’and we are very grateful for President Obama’s Power Africa initiative that’s catalysing this reality.
What is your message to the sector?
My vision for the energy sector in Africa is a continent where each of us has access to energy regardless of economic and social background. Energy should not be a basis for segregation; and must be seen as a basic need similar to food, clothing and shelter. That way we will be very deliberate about finding solutions.
I believe in the African continent’s ability to rise above its current status as a developing region via its vast natural resources and the Ubuntu spirit of its people. I want to be counted among those who enabled Africa to become an energy power house; and believe this will happen in the next few decades to come during my lifetime.
The continent awaits its ‘women in energy’ to come and shape its future. Our forefathers played a major role and we equally have an obligation to our forebearers. It’s not going to be easy, but as the saying goes: “Smooth seas do not make skillful sailors”. With each of us playing our role, it is VERY ACHIEVABLE – let’s do this together, let’s do this now…