HomeIndustry SectorsBusiness and marketsIfeoma Malo has just one goal: Ending energy poverty

Ifeoma Malo has just one goal: Ending energy poverty

The Nigerian power and energy market has been the right fit for Ifeoma Malo, who acquired cross-cutting experience through her work with the Government of Nigeria in various roles and involvement in the fiscal, policy, and regulatory management and oversight of the power sector. It’s a long journey to achieve rural electrification and universal energy access but one which she is willing to take.

The article first appeared in ESI Africa Issue 4-2020.
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On leaving government to join the international donor sector, Malo focused her work on technically assisting the government and private sector to address bottlenecks in the energy sector and advance energy access in Nigeria. Currently, as the CEO of Clean Tech Hub and the Energy Innovation Center in Abuja, she is proactively addressing the need for research, development, demonstration, and incubation of clean technologies to increase energy access and improve climate resilience.

You have quite a busy career, where apart from your work at Clean Tech Hub you sit on multiple non-profit boards. What books have you read that have given you grounding and shaped your professional thinking to manage your responsibilities?

Dr Spencer Johnson’s well-known book Who Moved My Cheese. Reading this taught me to think of change and adaptability in a fast-moving world and in a very different way. Adaptability has become more prescient in this time of global COVID-19, which has forced several organisations and institutions to suddenly rethink their business and operational models to meet the challenges of the times in which we live.

Also, the best seller by Bruce Patton, Douglas Stone, and Sheila Heen, called Difficult Conversations. It’s this book that I read for my postgraduate studies. As a leader, it has taught me how to frame those ‘best to avoid’ conversations into positive communications.

Those are insightful books to recommend! Apart from reading, who were your mentors, and how did they inspire you in your career?

My very first boss, Dr Chichi Aniagolu – under her guidance, my professional life experience started. She met an inexperienced 21-year-old girl, gave her an opportunity of a lifetime and helped build the vision of the career that she has today.

Dr Aniagolu believed in me, was patient, allowed me to make mistakes, and ensured that my dreams and personality were never stifled. She encouraged me to take risks and supported me to achieve whatever goals I set for myself. I admired her as a boss and a professional, and I still consult with her today on many issues. It is because of her that today I mentor and support younger women who are starting their career journey.

Another mentor is Dr Sam Amadi, former CEO of the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Agency. It was he who encouraged me to move back to Nigeria and was instrumental in helping me find my feet in the public sector. When I wanted to move into the power sector, he became my champion and helped find the opportunities that eased the transition. He is also someone I call my moral compass; sometimes, when situations arise, and I find myself at crossroads, he always reminds me of my core. Through his guidance decision-making becomes clear.

Having these two strong mentors by your side shows the importance of having mentors.

Absolutely! They also showed me that mentoring is a professional activity, a trusted relationship, and a meaningful commitment. Mentors provide knowledge by sharing their experience so that the mentee can learn and grow and apply these lessons to their personal and professional lives. Mentors also help to broaden one’s professional networks as they tend to be better connected. They can introduce you to their professional network and help to set you up for success in your career endeavours.

It’s a relationship that has no quick wins. It would be best if you gave your mentors time to learn your strengths and weaknesses to help you improve and to play a critical role aiding becoming the best version of yourself. My mentors are advisors and a sounding board, especially when it comes to big decisions.

We learn so much from each other’s experiences. Tell us about projects that have left you feeling incredibly proud.

Two projects completely stand out. Firstly, the Enterprise Development Programme that launched on the back of our Technology Meets Renewable initiative. This project focuses on helping to incubate early-stage companies in the clean renewable energy space that will be driving products and services across the country. We had 100 applications for our hackathon where we selected the first three teams. For the 2nd cohort, which was a pitch contest, we had almost 150 applicants and have narrowed it down to 18 teams. Only eight teams will make the final cut and will be funded by our partners, All On.

Ifeoma Malo pictured with Dr Wiebe Boer, CEO of All On. Credit: All On

Another programme that I’m excited about is the BudGIT for gender and MSME programmes – where women-owned and led MSMEs and women agriculture smallholder farmers become critical stakeholders in the quick adoption of clean energy technologies to drive and grow their businesses. This project builds off our local solutions lab projects where we engaged in design thinking to work with identified communities to create more cost-effective energy solutions and increase the rate of adoption of clean technology. The result will see thousands becoming adopters of clean technology to grow their businesses.

The uptake of clean technology is driving the energy revolution. How do you foresee this changing the energy landscape?

Through my engagements, it is evident that people and communities realise that they don’t have to wait for electricity from the grid and that renewable energy is a viable option to meet their energy needs. We see how ideas and initiatives on big and small solar technologies – and projects around wind, biomass, and mini-hydro – are gaining traction as pathways to electrification.

To achieve the goal of universal energy access in a sustainable way (SDG7), coupled with the need to reduce carbon emissions, many countries around the world are adopting larger renewable energy technologies.

Some of the achievements and efforts include the 310MW Lake Turkana wind power project launched by the Kenyan government in March 2019; the Grand Inga project on the Congo River with a projected capacity for 40GW of hydro generating capacity (the largest hydro project worldwide); the Great Millennium Renaissance Dam currently under construction with the capability of adding a further 6GW to the Ethiopian national grid; the Nigerian target of 13GW of off-grid solar power-driven largely through the Rural Electrification Agency’s mini-grid revolution; Ghana leading in the adoption of solar dryers to improve its agricultural produce at Silwood Farm.

These achievements and efforts show the optimism that the adoption of renewable energy on a large scale, is capable of changing the energy landscape in the future. The energy landscape is bound to witness a more diverse energy mix and larger adoption of clean energy sources. With the population increasing across regions and communities needing electricity to drive productivity, nations are prioritising energy access to boost local economies and foster national development.

The recent synergy between key sector players – national governments, sub-national governments, private developers, impact investors, advocacy groups, energy think-tanks, and communities – has yielded innovative ways to advance energy access and efficiency. The current inadequacies of existing grids have also created an avenue for efficient decentralised alternatives.

The Nigerian Government, through its 30:30:30 Agenda, has the vision to achieve 30,000MW by the year 2030, with at least 30% from renewable energy sources. This strategy has resulted in private-public partnerships (PPPs), deploying various sustainable energy solutions across the country. Nigeria has also witnessed a growth in the number of renewable energy enterprises that are operating profitable business models, with many of them reaching last-mile communities. As the DRE sector continues to grow, clean energy solutions will prove to be viable for the energy market: lighting communities, growing business, and creating jobs around the globe.

What is on your wish list for the electricity supply industry in this new decade?

I have a ‘small’ wish list, so here goes…

• In the new decade, there should be an increase in the power generation capacity of the industry across the board. Africa needs to be industrialised, and we can only achieve this if the generation output meets the needs of production.

• That there will be more renewables in the energy mix to reduce the current global energy mix dominated by fossil fuel by 80%. I believe this can be done through several renewable energy options. The increasing adoption of solar and mini-grids across the world, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, points to a growing awareness of the place of renewables in bridging energy access gaps and mitigating climate change emissions.

• That there be an elimination of VAT and import duty exemptions on solar and other renewable energy products to crash prices and make them more affordable to end-users.

• There should be an increase in energy access distribution into the last-mile communities through solar and mini-grid projects.

• There should be deliberate long-term investments into the power sector, and governments should make the sector more attractive to investors by de-risking the sector and providing bold incentives.

• There should be more participation of the private sector and civil society organisations in energy policy formulations.

• There is a need to improve on the existing power infrastructures, particularly in the transmission and distribution sub-sectors in Nigeria. Some of the issues around metering, collections, and distribution are issues that should not be beyond resolution for us as a country and as an industry in this new decade.

What is your message for young women who are starting out on their careers in the power and energy industry?

They must be ready to work twice as hard and twice as long. This is still relatively a male-dominated sector even though it is changing in the renewable energy field. However, there is still a long way to go to reach gender parity in terms of size, opportunities, or even pay scale. So young women must be deliberate with the choices they make when they enter the sector. They must be innovative, proactive, and resilient and must leverage on any opportunity to grow that comes their way.

The energy sector is a place where young female leaders can thrive and even become change agents. Lastly, as they go along their career path, they need to leave egos at the door and put in hard work as nothing will be handed to them easily just because they are women. After all, with hard work comes the recognition.

Congratulation on your Power Industry Leader of the Year award! What does this mean for you and where to from here?

First of all, being nominated alongside amazing people in the same category, who are frankly doing incredible work, was already a huge win for me. To then hear that I was selected as the winner in that category was a major surprise. I felt honoured, humbled, and happy to have been selected.

I am glad that it mirrors the decades of hard work I have put into my profession. It’s an encouragement to keep striving and to stay disciplined in trying to make an impact and to end the energy poverty I see all across the continent. There is a saying that goes “the reward for good is more work” so I do not intend to quit or relax the reins anytime soon. There is a lot more work to be done to achieve universal energy access and rural electrification across Africa.

Final words to stakeholders on the role they must play to facilitate progress in the industry?

Power sector planning decisions are complex. They cannot be solved by a single government agency, institution, or interest group. Even if they could be, failing to involve all affected parties in project planning will undoubtedly lead to a less successful project. Almost any power sector project will benefit from greater communication, collaboration, and knowledge sharing. The success of the industry depends on active stakeholder engagement and the flow of information between stakeholders and decision-makers.

Significant involvement of stakeholders in power sector planning activities across the value chain will drive the best possible outcome. From government to investors, to developers, and civil society: that it is time we all understood that our communities would thrive if they were electrified. Our businesses and bottom lines would look better and the overall growth and development of Africa, of Nigeria, rests on designing and collectively defining an industry where everyone is playing a part to move things forward. ESI

Nicolette Pombo-van Zyl
Nicolette is the Editor of ESI Africa print journal, ESI-Africa.com and the annual African Power & Energy Elites. She is passionate about placing African countries on the international stage and is driven by the motto "The only way to predict the future is to create it". Join her in creating a sustainable future through articles and multimedia content.