In the new year, Ms. Damilola Ogunbiyi will lead efforts on Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7 to achieve universal energy access by 2030 as CEO of SEforAll. Ms. Ogunbiyi has spent much of her career to date securing funding and bringing power to communities in Nigeria.
She spoke with SRI Executive following her appointment to discuss her experience and the importance of accurate, country-level data collection in the push for energy for all in the coming decade.
This conversation was edited for length and clarity.
You’ve taken up the role of CEO for SEforAll at a time when there’s a decade left to push for achieving SDG 7. What attracted you to take on the challenge?
I thought it was important for Africa to be part of the conversation in terms of what must be done to achieve sustainable energy for all and leave no one behind. Most of the countries that have not achieved SDG 7 are in Africa. I had been working in an African country for so long, and I realised there was this impression that people are not doing anything, which wasn’t true.
What I found was that African leaders want to do what’s right, but sometimes they don’t have enough information. Many leaders just need more data to see what’s going on. Let’s take a country like Nigeria: there are about 200 million people and the stats show there are about 22 million not electrified. That kind of information is fine on a higher level, but where are these people and what’s the best way to get them access to electricity? Many countries don’t have that information. The question of ‘what does your universal access map really look like?’ – that’s the type of information that attracts people to come and provide solutions in your country.
In my new position, I’m going to emphasise the role of data as key and push to get more country-level data, because the decade ahead is really all about implementation. There’s a need to implement and show it’s working. I’m a projects-type person and I felt I would be the right fit going into a critical decade of implementation.
Another aspect that attracted me to the CEO role was the fact that renewable energy was going to play such a big part. We’ve already seen from the modelling we’ve done in Nigeria that it’s the least-cost way of connecting the unconnected people, at least in my country, and this has probably been the case in many sub-Saharan countries. Renewable energy as a solution is attractive because you can bring the private sector and different players into the market, and off-grid solutions can now be sustainable by themselves.
What has your journey been to reach this point in your career? Why is this work in sustainable energy important to you?
I was typical of many Nigerian families; I went to boarding school in the UK. During University I wanted to understand how big infrastructure projects got done, and I studied how culture affects project delivery in construction. That’s when I fell in love with the idea of making lives better. Not in a cheesy way, but in a practical way.
After a few UK projects, I moved back to Nigeria. I knew I wanted to work in infrastructure and government, and luckily I met the government and helped them put together their Public Private Partnership (PPP) strategy to get private sector funding for development projects.
I was involved in a project to provide electricity to houses and hospitals in the middle of Lagos. This was one of the first independent power projects the state had done. The private sector funded it, and the state paid them back over a ten-year period.
I worked on a few power projects where I saw real impact. On one we provided street lighting, which made a difference because illumination reduces crime rates and similar issues.
“We provided 24-hour power to hospitals and started to see infant mortality rates going down. There’s no better job than one where you wake up and realise you saved a baby’s life.”
When the new administration came, I became the Senior Special Assistant to the President on energy, working in the VP’s office. After a couple of years there, I moved to my most recent role as the Managing Director of the Nigerian Rural Electrification Agency (REA). We look at how to achieve universal electrification access, and that’s where I find myself. I have the most amazing team. We’ve done a lot on hospitals, universities, etc., but most importantly we’ve shown that when you have data-driven decision making, that allows you access to funding.
We’ve received now $350 million from the World Bank and $200 million from the AfDB, and lots of technical support from many DFIs. If the information you’re using for your projects is detailed and correct, then you achieve more impact and you attract more support. For me, collecting and using data in the correct way is key.
Part of your role in SEforAll is as Special Representative for Sustainable Energy for All and Co-Chair of UN-Energy. How do you see yourself in that role, and what do you think the UN should focus on in the sector over the next decade?
I think that that biggest responsibility of UN-Energy is to convene leaders. In this context, at the country level, they need to help country leaders to achieve their goals. They need to highlight the importance of universal energy access in achieving all the SDGs.
“SDG 7 is a goal that affects everything else. You can’t achieve the SDG goals on climate change without universal access, it just can’t happen.”
I think UN-Energy also has a role to play in encouraging leaders to track everything they do, to have KPIs and really build an M&E framework around achieving SDG 7. If you take a sector like the health sector, they collect very good data down to the district health level.
What is hard with development projects is that people tend not to want to give money to develop the project, especially when they can’t see the outcome. It’s harder to raise $10 million to collect data and develop functioning business cases to get a pilot than it is to collect $100 million for a big project. That’s the way financing is right now. If I have the funding or assistance, I collect the information. It’s critical to demonstrate how important data collection is. Having the right data prevents overspending on projects, it prevents delays on projects. It’s necessary to ensure that you spend wisely and give people an accountability framework. If you have to spend this money, what are you going to show for it? That is what I think is most critical, instead of thinking of these inputs as ‘just data.’
After working in the power sector in Nigeria, how do you perceive the renewable energy sector in Africa, and how do you think this might apply to other regions?
I prefer to find solutions that work for the environment you’re in. You need to use your own resources to make a difference and I feel there should be the right balance. Africa doesn’t need to be this give and take of exclusively renewables.
Having said that, my experience to date has shown that it is easiest to power people using renewables, especially if we’re looking at people who don’t have energy access and have a low demand for energy.
So, there is this return to the SDGs and there will always be a push to say, ‘can this be done with renewables?’ And it is likely it will be done using renewables, but it’s important that you go into the country and you give them solutions that will work for them. For example, Togo is different from Nigeria, you can’t just give Togo the Nigeria blueprint. You really need to understand how that country works, what resources they have— dams, for example— before you build the final solution. But, while you’re doing that, the advocacy needs to be for renewables.
As a leader and role model in the sector, do you have any advice for people who are just entering the energy space?
I would say first, work extremely hard, and get out of your comfort zone. Don’t just work in the area that you know, try to know everything you can. Particularly, read as many case studies as you can. It’s about working to better yourself and building a support system around you. Then you’ll have done everything to enable yourself to think outside the box, provide solutions and become the ‘go to’ person on an issue. It is most helpful to be a project or programme manager, to be known as someone who can get things done in the space.
It’s about going around and understanding that someone’s life can changed by such little effort. Then, it dawns on you that you can help, you can make a difference, you can make a career of this. It’s a lot of work, I think with any government, but then the reward is just so great as well. I don’t believe that if I hadn’t taken that path, that I would be CEO today of SEforAll. It’s not like I did it alone, there’s an army of amazing young, talented Nigerians who also took a chance on me, because everyone took a pay cut, everyone wanted to do these amazing projects and we’ve achieved a lot in a relatively short period of time.
Sustainable Energy for All (SEforALL) is a global organisation cooperating with governments, private sector and civil society to drive the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal 7: universal access to sustainable energy by 2030.
SRI Executive had the honour to collaborate with SEforALL’s Administrative Board in the selection of Ms. Ogunbiyi as their new CEO. Ms. Ogunbiyi, current Managing Director of the Nigerian Rural Electrification Agency (REA) will succeed former CEO Rachel Kyte in 2020.