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‘It isn’t okay that 700 million people still don’t have electricity’ – transitioning the developing world


8 min read

Damilola Ogunbiyi talking from stage at International Energy Week Dinner Photo: Oliver Dixon Photography, for the Energy Institute
Damilola Ogunbiyi (foreground), CEO and Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Sustainable Energy for All, and Co-Chair of UN-Energy, with EI President Juliet Davenport OBE HonFEI (far left)

Photo: Oliver Dixon Photography, for the Energy Institute

Damilola Ogunbiyi, CEO and Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Sustainable Energy for All, and Co-Chair of UN-Energy, was the guest of honour at the International Energy Week Dinner, where she was presented with the Energy Institute’s President’s Award. Speaking with EI President Juliet Davenport OBE HonFEI, Damilola reminded the audience what the energy transition means for the developing world. Here follows an edited transcript of their exchange.

Juliet: How did you get involved [in the energy sector] and why did you make this the passion for your life?


Damilola: I’d really like to start by thanking the Energy Institute because it’s not very often that you see women from developing countries of colour being recognised in leadership roles. So when you talk about change, it is very important to me.


That leads me to my career. I grew up in England, went to boarding school, studied engineering, started off in construction. Then I got married to a very traditional Nigerian man. When we decided to move back to Lagos, I knew I wanted to do something in development. My thesis in university for my Master’s was on how infrastructure can alleviate poverty. It wasn’t looking at energy infrastructure, it was just infrastructure as a whole. So, I moved back to Lagos and I said I wanted to work in government. I understood that to make real change, especially in developing economies, you really have to be in the heart of not just policy, but delivery for millions of people.


A true story. One day I walked up to the governor of Lagos State. Lagos is a city of over 20 million people. The governor’s like a president there. And I said: ‘Hi, my name is Damilola.’ I was in my 20s! And I said: ‘I know you want to provide power for your hospitals and your schools, and I think I can do that with independent power.’ For which I was flung, literally, by his security to the other side of the room where someone caught me, just before I was going to land on the floor! They said: ‘Don’t be silly, just go away.’


I say this because you also have to be brave in these roles. Luckily, for me, the governor called me about two and a half weeks later, and said: ‘Young lady, come and make a presentation to me.’ So, I traipsed around Lagos looking for space for an IPP (independent power producer). I spoke to every single developer. I understood everything about power systems engineering, and I made that presentation. And he said: ‘If you can do this, and it wouldn’t cost me any money, go ahead and do it.’ And the rest is history.


We did about five IPPs in Lagos. And then I focused on renewable energy for schools and hospitals as well. I say this because you have to understand that it is so hard sometimes to do projects, but you just have to keep going. I was probably 29 at the time that I headed that agency.


That is the beauty about having young people. Because there’s a fearlessness that I don’t have now. Definitely. Now we’ve got to look at protocol – What did you say? How did you say it? But before, that’s how it was.


After a few years, I was asked by the President of Nigeria to be his special advisor. And then, one day someone called me and said: ‘You’re going to be the head of the Rural Electrification Agency.’ I’m not sure if you know about rural electrification agencies in Africa, but they’re not the most glamorous places. So I cried for about a week, I wondered who I had upset in federal government. I almost used my British passport to come back!’


But then I was mentored, and I’ve had so many wonderful mentors, and I said [to myself], look, if it all worked, you wouldn’t be here. Just bear that in mind, how are you going to really transform the sector?


I’m really proud that I got about 24–25 of what I believe are the smartest Nigerians in energy to come back and say: ‘How are we going to provide electricity?’ At that time, I think we had about 85 million people without electricity. And our target was 10 million people. So we went to the World Bank. And if anybody has ever worked with the World Bank, those are two years of your life you cannot get back! And we said: ‘Please, can you give us some money?’ And we were successful in negotiating $350mn for Nigeria.


Then we went to the AfDB (African Development Bank), which is another year of your life you can’t get back! And we got $200mn. So, we had about a half a billion [dollars] programme for energy access, matched by the Nigerian government by another half a billion [dollars]. It’s important because where I come from, projects drive policy. So, when you come into this world where they don’t have the right policy and untested leadership and untested models, you can’t really test anything until you do it.


I come from a world where people said: ‘Solar doesn’t work. Solar just doesn’t work. Go away.’ Or: ‘IPPs don’t work. Go away.’ It’s just these set things, and I think what I’ve been successful in doing, because I’ve had so much support with so many wonderful people working with me, is just that kind of disruption. So, because you say it can’t work is what drives me.


Then, a few years after that, I got a call saying there’s this UN role. At which I dropped the phone. Like yeah, that’s how it works – someone calls you and says: ‘You want to work at the UN?’ Don’t be silly! And they kept calling, until I thought, oh, maybe I should take this seriously. Then they sent an email, and I was like, oh, this is serious!


One of the reasons why I wanted to make the switch, [was] not because I wasn’t thoroughly enjoying my role and the impact that we were having. It was because I hadn’t ever seen anyone who looked like me in that position in energy, or in engineering, or in STEM or anything like that, on the global arena. Someone who was just so unapologetically African and black and female, and just very, very proud of it coming on stage. I felt I owed that to all the young women, so they don’t have it as hard as I did. Because it is difficult. Especially if you are with literally the largest bureaucracy in Africa, there’s a lot of difficult points. I just wanted to create that pathway [for them].


I also wanted to bring this energy access issue to the global arena, because that’s the unsexy side of climate change. It isn’t okay that 700 million people still don’t have electricity today. Those guys don’t worry about what fuel source [they use], that’s a luxury. They just want electricity. It’s not okay that there are 2.4 billion people that don’t have access to clean cooking solutions – which kills a million African women every single year because they are using [dirty] fuel. These are the realities that we have on the ground. So, while here [in London] and in the developing world you can debate these things and you can have activists, [there] people just want power. They just want to live a dignified life and you cannot live a dignified life without energy.


Juliet: Damilola, that is amazing. Thank you for that inspirational romp through your life. So, if we bring ourselves back to today, how do you feel about the crisis and the transitions that we’re seeing? Do you think we’re going fast enough? Should we be listening more to Extinction Rebellion who came and smoke-bombed us earlier? What should we be doing?


Damilola: We’re definitely not going fast enough. But it’s not just the problem of one sector. It’s a problem of economies as well. I feel there’s also a lot of hypocrisy in the room about how a certain economy should grow, and another economy has to grow in a different way. It’s almost like the mentality of: You don’t have it, so just stay poor. You know, while we continue growing, then we’ll get to you later. So, it doesn’t make sense.


In Sub-Saharan Africa, even people who have energy have barely 404 kWh. That’s roughly 20 times less than Americans. It’s the same [power] as the American fridge. So, you are born into energy poverty, right. You have multiple generating sets, if you actually have [electricity]. I don’t think people connect the fact that we all have to be in the room to solve this issue. It’s not an issue over here; climate change doesn’t affect just one country.


There’s no world we can live within where energy poverty can remain, but we hit our climate goals. That’s why gatherings like this are really, really important – to have everybody in the room working to a solution.


I say it all the time. ‘For the African continent, the energy transition is actually more energy. Do you understand that?’ And everyone says: ‘What do you mean by more energy?’ I say: ‘That is what it actually means.’ You’re not going to keep people at a pace of lack of development and hide on the climate. You know, it doesn’t work.


Climate, energy and development have to go hand in hand, or we will have failed. So, for me, it’s not about the pace, it’s to recognise that there are entire sectors and billions of people that are not even in the conversation right now. Because everybody is just focused on one thing instead of how you actually understand what the energy transition pathway would be. That changes for every single country. There cannot be one size to fit all – you can’t do the energy transition in Nigeria and then give it to Ghana and say: ‘That’s how you should develop.’


Even in Nigeria, the way states develop will be different and I think that there’s not enough effort being spent understanding what is really needed. The country should also determine that. Instead, there’s a lot of dictation on what [leaders] should do when you’re not even there. That’s what I have a problem with.


It’s not about the pace, it’s to recognise that there are entire sectors and billions of people that are not even in the conversation right now.’ – Damilola Ogunbiyi


Juliet: What’s next for you, and what’s your vision for where we should be going?


Damilola: I think we should obviously recognise the energy transition as an opportunity. I feel that if you have, like I said, 700 million people who have no access to energy, there is that opportunity. I don’t like using [the term] ‘leapfrog’, because I don’t think the poorest people can leapfrog out of anything. But there is that opportunity for providing that energy to be clean; there is that opportunity, at least part of it, for lower carbon.


There’s a big opportunity also in clean cooking, but it all depends on the modelling. We’ve been spending a lot of time on helping countries realise what do you have to do, what does your energy transition plan look like?


I'll give you an example from my country, Nigeria. The Nigerian government said to me point blank, we need to uplift 100 million people out of poverty but we still want an industrial base – people forget that countries still want to develop industries – and if you can do it clean, figure it out. You need to integrate that into that plan. What it showed clearly was that for a country like Nigeria to transition by 2060, because 2050 is not possible, it means $1.9tn. That’s the figure.


We broke it down from the transport sector, the oil and gas sector, the building sector, the transformation of just the ease of doing business. And I don’t think we’re really honest with ourselves, and with [leaders] of what it will take and how much it will cost. And this means perfect elections, or the policies in place – but the political economy is not like that. So that is key, helping governments understand that and then asking everybody where that money will actually really come from.


The other big thing that we’re going to push forward, which some people say is controversial, but I think is really important, is African carbon credits, and how to actually utilise that as a tool to fund the transition. We’re doing a lot of work with that. I’m happy to put it on your website and share with people on how they can get involved in [it].


The last thing is, looking at Africa, the delays we’re having in the supply chain as a renewable base, at least for two pieces of equipment, which will be solar PV and lithium batteries. So it’s not just an extractive continent, you actually try and produce something there. That’s what’s next for the next year.


You can also watch the full discussion here.