Mrs. Damilola Ogunbiyi is Managing Director of the Rural Electrification Agency. REA is mandated to advance the process of providing electricity to millions of Nigerians, mostly in the rural areas, but it is yet to accomplish this core objective due largely to the effects of past political interferences, which affected its operation. Appointed in April last year, Ogunbiyi says she is on a mission to turn things around in the agency. She says REA under her leadership has developed an off-grid electrification strategy and improved its communication with stakeholders. Ogunbiyi speaks with Chineme Okafor. Excerpts:
You are the first woman to lead the Rural Electrification Agency, an important government agency that has the mandate to provide access to electricity to millions of Nigerians. How do you feel about this role?
I am very honoured to have been given the opportunity to serve my country. I have always been an advocate of renewable and off grid energy. Therefore, this role felt like a natural fit. With the REA, I am provided with a unique position in terms of developing the off-grid energy market, and also training and mentoring young women in the power sector. Developing and implementing sustainable solutions for millions of Nigerians that are currently underserved or unserved is critical to our nation’s economic growth.
But about 80 million Nigerians are still without electricity. How close are you to giving electricity to the people?
The first step was the development of the off-grid electrification strategy, in line with the Power Sector Recovery Programme. The primary objective is to increase electricity access to rural and underserved clusters. This strategy supports energy access and economic growth by providing power solutions through mini grids, solar stand-alone systems, and power to universities – through our energising education programme, and power to major SME’s through the energising economies initiative. We have just commissioned the virtual power plant running on solar and lithium batteries in Sabon Gari Market, Kano, and will provide sustainable power to Ariara Market and Sura Shopping Complex this year. The success of the REA programmes has been in the use of data and technology to plan projects. We have an energy database on the REA website and conduct extensive energy demand studies to determine the actual needs of the people before a solution is proposed.
How far have you gone with the Energising Education Programme, which is meant to take some federal universities and teaching hospitals off the national grid?
With the universities, it’s a transformational programme which will allow us to see the direct correlation between sustainable energy and education. It is also important because a lot of research centres and hubs, and teaching hospitals have been underutilised because they don’t have enough energy and there has been a lot of international funding that can be channelled to these institutions as well. I think the knock-on effect is going to be phenomenal, particularly in the quality of future Nigerian graduates as a result of uninterrupted electricity.
Do you have enough funds to complete the power projects in the universities?
We have funding to commence the programme in phases and that is why we have decided to commence immediately with phase one starting with nine universities and one teaching hospital across all geopolitical zones.
REA has a chequered past – many observers believe it has never really done things rightly. Even a former president once disbanded it. How are you trying to clean things up in the agency and convince potential partners that you mean business now?
I think it would be wrong to say the REA never did anything well. Some issues may have transpired in the past but it does not take away from the thousands of communities the REA has electrified. In terms of “cleaning up the agency”, without the commitment of the REA staff I met when I became MD, we would not have achieved this much within these past six months. Finally, with regards to potential partners, the first thing we did was to develop the off-grid electrification strategy and improved on how we communicate. We have a new website and communicate in real-time, through our twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts.
What about project initiation and planning, do you have the capacity to do these now?
I think we are currently doing a very good job. We have split up responsibilities between the headquarters of the six zonal offices and made the zonal coordinators my ambassadors within each political zone. Processes and procedures are dynamic and will constantly be improved.
The use of technology has been important in the way we plan and implement projects.
We have a dedicated REA App for project planning and monitoring. This App, together with our internal projects database, has increased transparency and reduced timelines for approvals.
How independent are the zonal offices in terms of decision making and project implementation?
The zonal offices are the project implementation offices. Decisions on the projects are made by management with input by the zonal coordinators who are responsible for monitoring and ensuring successful implementation of the projects.
REA is believed to have the potential to take a lot of Nigerians out of poverty. Do you share this view?
Providing adequate and sustainable power supply will go a long way in alleviating poverty.
Back in December 2017, you assembled the world in Abuja to look into the prospects in Nigeria’s mini grid power market. That assemblage got very good business reviews from investors like Richard Branson. Have you gotten any traction in trying to actualise the benefits of that conference?
The mini grid forum allowed us to show how serious this administration is about mini grid development. This forum was used to showcase ‘energising economies’ and our private sector focused projects like the Sabon Gari Market energy project, which when completed, will be the largest solar powered mini grid project in Africa.
Where would you go next after Sabon Gari Market with regard to the Energising Economies Programme?
We are also providing similar energy solutions for markets in Abia and Lagos. We are actively developing a portfolio of viable projects across the country for the energising economies programme. It is really an exciting time and year for the REA.
You are the managing director of REA, a senior advisor to the president on power, and also coordinator of the Power Sector Recovery Programme. How are you combining these critical tasks?
It’s important for me to remain focused because all the effort we are making with the off-grid space is intended to complement the on-grid efforts. This is why the PSRP clearly articulates all the actions that are required to constantly improve power delivery to Nigerians.
What would you like to be remembered for after your job at REA and the power sector, generally?
I would like to be remembered as someone who was hardworking and one who made a difference in the lives of people through the projects and programmes that were implemented under my direction.