Interview: Adaku Ufere-Awoonor

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Energy is set to be one of the key themes at the 2019 Africa Shared Value Summit in Nairobi. We spoke to Dax Consult CEO Adaku Ufere-Awoonor, one of the 37 young women from across Africa who recently graduated from the Young Women in African Power programme presented by the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) Regional Leadership Centre for Southern Africa (RLC-SA) at the University of South Africa (Unisa), which supports the career development of a new generation of women leaders in the energy sector. Adaku is an international oil and gas lawyer with over a decade of legal experience, a Mandela Washington Fellow and was named Young African Professional of the Year at the 2018 African Leadership Awards and Nation Building Series. She is dedicated to leveraging her knowledge and experience to increase participation of women in the energy industry, drive better access to energy, achieve gender equality, and fight gender-based violence.

SVAI: What drew you to the energy industry?

AUA: I think it was [in] 2010, thereabouts, Nigeria got a new Minister for Petroleum Resources and it was a woman. It was the first woman to ever be Minister of Petroleum, and it blew my mind: “Oh wow, so a woman can do that – why don’t I do it?” And so I quit my job and I went and got a Master’s in oil and gas law at the University of Aberdeen, and that’s basically how my oil and gas journey started.

Sometime this year, I started to get more interested in energy access. I read an article in Medium, by two ladies who work with Power Africa, called ‘[Exploring] the Relationship Between Energy and Gender-Based Violence’. I had never connected the two before. Women bear the greatest burden of energy poverty. If there’s no electricity or water in the home, it’s the woman that goes out to fetch the firewood, the woman that goes out to fetch water, and this over long distances. There’s actually a phrase for it: ‘time poverty’ – and women suffer huge time poverty, because they’re the homemakers, they run businesses, and they also have to do all this demanding domestic work that the men don’t have to do.

Also in homes where there’s less energy access, you know, they don’t watch TV, they don’t listen to radio, the men are less… informed on how to treat women, on how to behave. So that’s when the gender-based violence comes in: literally, when there’s no electricity, women get beaten more.

That was the first time I ever heard the term energy and gender. For a long time I’ve done a lot of women’s rights advocacy, a lot of women’s empowerment, mentoring young women, giving pro bono legal services to charities for domestic violence and all of that and I always wondered – I’d wanted to do that full time, but it doesn’t pay very well and I need to pay bills. And I was just like, “oh, this is a way for me to merge my background in energy with the advocacy that I love”.

SVAI: What is the current energy landscape in Nigeria?

AUA: I feel, with energy, they like to cite a lot of problems with different African countries, not in Nigeria only, they all have this thread running through them – aging infrastructure, they don’t implement the regulations – but I think like the foundation kind of like of all these problems is corruption. Which a lot of these countries have, which Nigeria has a lot of.

And, because I’d say, in my entire life, 1985 until now, there’s never been a week where power hasn’t been out in the country. And you wonder, like, why can’t this be solved? What is the problem? We do have a lot of gas supply, power and now… renewables is getting there, biomass, biogas is getting there as well, green energy. Nigeria’s actually getting to a lot of green energy, because it’s cheaper than piping gas over kilometres. So I’d say the energy landscape looks bright, in the sense that we’re making a lot of changes.

Initially, Nigeria had just one utility, and everything was bundled in it. Then it was unbundled to private sector companies, and also previously everyone had to connect to the national grid, now that’s been relaxed – now you can go off-grid, you can do your own transmission lines and the government is releasing that stranglehold they had in the past. So now it’s creating this, almost like a system of smart grids all over the country that is not reliant on our epileptic national grid… And also with this push for gender equality in the energy sector, we’ve seen productivity go up in a lot of institutions and companies just by including gender into what they’re doing, so… I hope we stay on course, because these things tend to – you do well for a few months, and then you derail. But so far it looks like they’re on course.

SVAI: What do you believe is the future of energy in Africa, and how can we drive electrification across the continent?

AUA: I’d say smart grids – the system of many grids is the future. We can’t just have one huge monolith of the national grid. It doesn’t work; it hasn’t worked. So smart grids, renewable energy, biogas – I don’t know why a lot of African countries are not taking advantage of biogas, because we have mounds of refuse everywhere that can be turned into methane and people are not just taking advantage of that. So that would be my thing: smart grids, renewable, biogas.