As the first female Managing Director of the Nigerian Rural Electrification Agency (REA), Damilola Ogunbiyi has the herculean task of implementing the Nigerian Off-Grid Electrification Programme and the Nigerian Electrification Project, a $550m facility (World Bank $350m and AfDB $200m) to rapidly construct solar mini grids and deploy solar home systems across Nigeria. But there is no doubt that she is up to the task. Her reputation precedes her.
She was previously the first female General Manager of the Lagos State Electricity Board, where she was responsible for public lighting, independent power projects, and energy development in Lagos State. Under her leadership, five independent power projects were completed to deliver over 55 megawatts of power to Lagos State hospitals, schools, streetlights, and the Government Secretariat. In renewable energy, she completed a 5MW decentralized solar project for 213 schools and clinics in Lagos State.
The responsibility for her present position is no less herculean. She is responsible, among other things, for the Energizing Education Program which will provide uninterrupted electricity to Nigerian students through off-grid captive power plants to 37 federal universities. The University electrification project will be commissioned next month.
In this interview, Damilola Ogunbiyi tells Daily Sun, the nitty-gritty of work in making electricity accessible to Nigerians, and the agency’s impact project “Energizing Education” that will provide electricity across 37 public universities in Nigeria.
As MD of Rural Electrification Agency, your job comes with a huge responsibility. How are you coping?
I am responsible for implementing the Nigerian Off-Grid Electrification Programme which consists of the Rural Electrification Fund (REF), Nigerian Electrification Project, which is a $550m facility project, funded by the World Bank and Africa Development Bank (AfDB) to rapidly increase the development of solar mini grids and the deployment of solar home systems within Nigeria. I am also responsible for the Energizing Education Program (EEP), an effort by the Federal Government of Nigeria (FGN) to provide uninterrupted electricity to Nigeria students by providing power through off-grid captive power plants to 37 federal universities and seven university teaching hospitals. Finally, I developed and lead the implementation of the Energizing Economies Initiative, which provides sustainable and affordable off-grid power solutions to the largest markets in Nigeria
I am here leveraging my technical experience working in the UK and in Nigeria. It has helped me become a seasoned development project implementer.
I cope by making a conscious effort to achieve balance in my life by prioritizing my goals and protecting my private time. I feel lucky and privileged, because I work with a wonderful team of people on the work front whom I can rely on.
What impact has been made so far by the REA under you?
In the last 20 months, the REA has achieved over 99,000 connections, impacted over 450,000 people and created over 5,000 jobs. The Agency also successfully secured $550 million in funding for electrification projects across the country. REA has also developed the first energy and community profile database that will foster data-driven decision-making. We completely rebranded the agency with a new website, increased social media presence as well as being one of the few agencies that are powered by solar electricity. These are landmark achievements I am very proud of.
According to your credential, your career is entirely in the power sector. How did you find yourself in this area of endeavour?
I started my career in construction engineering in the UK, after which I moved to Nigeria to work with Lagos State government in the areas of Public-Private Partnership (PPP), infrastructure development and power projects. After that, I was appointed the Managing Director of the Lagos State Electricity Board.
What is the idea behind the Energizing Education Programme?
The idea behind the Energizing Education Programme (EEP) is to empower the important sectors in Nigeria into driving socio-economic development in Nigeria; being the Education and Health sectors. Access to constant power supply in educational institutions and healthcare facilities in Nigeria has been identified as a major challenge and barrier to effective learning, institutional operations, student residency and access to quality health, hence the EEP was conceptualized.
Why is the REA particular about gender mainstreaming?
Gender mainstreaming in the power sector will stimulate economic growth, create jobs, raise productivity and reduce poverty. Having women in decision-making roles in energy is the key to achieving the gender mainstreaming objectives. Women as primary residential electricity users are natural change agents in the sector.
The FGN through the REA is championing gender inclusion in the Nigerian energy sector to promote and drive increased female participation in electrification initiatives.
Through this programme, the REA is looking to develop frameworks for women taking more active roles in the renewable energy sector and to secure stronger stakeholder-ship by women.
The STEM education for young women under EEP also aims to promote female participation in STEM-related courses and careers. Within REA, we have made specific strides in gender balance with the increase in the number of women in senior management from 1 to 6. We have a record 25 female Project Managers working across different REA programmes and initiatives.
Under the REA’s Nigeria Electrification Project (NEP), tender companies must have 30% female employment. The REA also partnered with USAID’s Nigeria Power Sector Programme – Gender and Social inclusion programme to host the flagship gender workshop for women in the power sector.
As a woman who has broken the glass ceiling, you must have gained some insights. What are the benefits to society when women are empowered to occupy positions of importance?
Women are at the heart of any nation’s development. As the saying goes “if you empower a woman; you empower a community.” Women are responsible for shaping their families, communities and by extension countries. In leadership roles in society, women represent a large percentage of the population that have vested interest.
Women play significant roles in societies globally. The benefits of empowered women to the society cannot easily be quantified. Equal participation of women in existing markets drive productivity and improves their income, which impacts poverty reduction and drives economic growth, particularly in rural areas
When women are empowered to aspire and occupy positions of importance in society, everybody benefits. Female leadership is more inclusive, it brings a diversity of thought and leads to better problem solving. Having women in positions of leadership places them in a position to also make decisions that address issues which benefit them, children and families in general.
Electricity [from the grid] is unreliable in Nigeria. How has your agency been able to tackle this problem and change the narrative?
The FGN has made vast improvements in power from the grid. Our role as REA is to complement these efforts through off-grid decentralized energy solutions, especially in areas where extending the grid is not economical.
Through decentralized energy solutions, the REA is able to power economic clusters across the country. Currently, over 10,000 shops are receiving uninterrupted power supply in 9 markets in Lagos, Kano, Abia, Ondo, Edo and Ogun states. The REA has successfully engaged the private sector to invest in the decentralized energy space, which is making significant progress.
What is the key role of power in women empowerment?
Power plays a significant role in driving economic development and women are at the core of economic development. Women are the front-end users of household energy, having access to energy improve their lives and increase their productivity. Under one of the REA’s Initiatives, the Energizing Economies Initiative (EEI), REA implemented the Sura Independent Power Solution for the Sura Shopping Complex. One of the female beneficiaries, who owns a tailoring business, increased her staff strength from 35 to 50 in about six months, due to adequate power supply thereby creating employment for people and expanding her business. This shows that with adequate power supply, women can be enterprising which has a multiplier effect on the economy. In addition, improving a woman’s income has a greater impact on poverty reduction and driving economic growth.
How has REA improved the systems of supply viz affordability, reliability and supplier-customer relationship?
The off-grid electrification strategy is demand driven and market-oriented.
This means the REA carries out extensive demand studies and customer enumeration and engagement prior to the implementation of any power intervention. Additionally, an analysis of willingness and ability to pay for power is conducted to determine affordable tariff to the end users, based on what customers are currently paying for as an alternative source of power.
During each project phase, customers are being engaged, all data collected and agreements are signed between the customer, traders and government representatives. These engagements are carried out through town hall meetings, community sensitization, road shows and town criers in various communities or market clusters.
Additionally, each customer is equipped with a meter in order to pay for what they use in an efficient manner; while state-of-the-art customer service shops have been established in all the Energizing Economies Initiative (EEI) for market clusters.