DAMILOLA OGUNBIYI: President Buhari’s Target of Universal Accessibility to Electricity is Yielding Results

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Damilola Ogunbiyi

Mrs. Damilola Ogunbiyi, Managing Director/CEO of Rural Electrification Agency is an Amazon who has shattered the glass ceiling and trod the terrain once reserved for men. Prior to her appointment as the REA boss, Ogunbiyi was the first female to be appointed as general manager of the Lagos State Electricity Board. Today, she is responsible for implementing the Nigeria’s off grid electrification programme and the electrification project which is a $550 million facility (World Bank $350m and AfDB $200m) to rapidly construct solar mini grids and deploy solar home systems across Nigeria. She speaks with Funke Olaode about REA and lighting up the nook and cranny of the country. Excerpts:

What the focus of Rural Electrification Agency’s projects?
In line with the mandate of the Rural Electrification Agency to increase energy access to unserved and underserved communities across Nigeria; REA projects are focused on the use of renewable energy solutions for rural electrification. Reason being that renewable energy is clean, safe, reliable, affordable and the least cost way to provide electricity to millions of Nigerians. REA’s paradigm has also shifted to providing enablers for private sector developers to participate in the off-grid sector. The aim of this is to drive growth in the off-grid/renewable energy space through private sector investment.

What grounds have been covered so far?
So far, the REA projects are targeted to cater for unserved and underserved communities, which include families, viable economic clusters, rural communities, universities and teaching hospitals. The Energizing Education Programme (EEP) is an initiative conceptualized by Mr. President in 2016. The overall objective of the EEP is to provide reliable, affordable and sustainable power to 37 Federal Universities and 7 Teaching Hospitals through solar hybrid and gas-fired power plant solutions and the rehabilitation of existing distribution infrastructure. The EEP also seeks to install streetlights for improved security within the beneficiary universities’ campuses and construct training centres for the provision of training in renewable energy technology, for existing students. Phase 1 of the EEP, which is fully, funded by the Federal Government will power 9 Federal Universities and 1 university teaching hospital across the 6 geo-political zones. The World Bank and Africa Development Bank are to fund Phase 2 and 3 of the EEP respectively. The initiative is gradually yielding result. University of Ebonyi Solar Project will be commissioned in early August.

During President Buhari’s first term, the federal government approved REA’s projects in 70 rural communities. What are the updates?
The REA’s primary focus is the exploration of grid extension and renewable energy, which involves provision of solar mini-grids and Solar Home Systems (SHS) for rural communities. Renewable energy provides a viable answer to challenges faced with grid extension to rural communities especially those sited in remote locations. Since I joined as MD two years ago, 471 Projects have been completed across all 36 states of the federation.

What’s the source of funding for the REA projects?
Sources of funds for REA projects include and not limited to, yearly appropriation in the budget by the Federal Government, loans and grants from financial institutions such as the World Bank, Africa Development Bank etc.

Some will argue that the cities need more electricity supply than the rural areas. Why expend a lot of money on rural electrification?
Unserved and underserved communities have significant productive capacity and opportunities that are untapped. For business growth, job creation, and wealth redistribution, we need our rural communities to grow. It is a globally accepted fact, that electricity is the second most important resource for development and as such, both urban and rural areas need reliable electricity access to grow.
The REA is also implementing power projects in major markets, economic hubs through the Energizing Economies Initiative (EEI) in universities and teaching hospitals across Nigeria through the Energizing Education Programme (EEP) –then there is the deployment of Mini Grids and Solar Home Systems through the Nigeria Electrification Project (NEP) and Rural Electrification Fund (REF).

How do you think the REA projects will bring about rural development and perhaps transformation and with the sale of power assets to the private sector, how does REA provide power to the people?
As said earlier, the mandate of the REA is to provide electricity access to both unserved and underserved communities in Nigeria. It provides cost savings from the use of expensive and inefficient fossil fuel generators. As a result, it reduces the health risks associated with the use of kerosene lamps, candles and other forms of harmful energy sources. This subsequently, decreases the number of deaths and strain on hospital services and healthcare spending. Increased electricity from REA projects are already extending business hours for business owners thereby increasing their income and business growth. Introducing productive uses of power and energy efficient appliances for economic development is actively nurturing micro, small and medium sized enterprises. It also creates employment opportunities from power investments in various project host communities from construction phase to operations and maintenance.

Apart from the Federal government and foreign partners, are state governments involved in the projects?
Yes, the state governments are especially supportive and partnering us in all our projects. A recent collaboration with the state government occurred during preparation to conduct community engagements for the Nigeria Electrification Project (NEP), which aims to provide electricity access across the country. The state government alongside the state energy working groups accelerated our engagements with the communities within their respective states while we seek to align our activities with the state’s development objectives.

When should rural dwellers across Nigeria expect to enjoy electricity?
It’s a gradual process. As you may already be aware, the REA’s off-grid strategy, which aims to increase electricity access to approximately five million, Nigerians to underserved and unserved areas. NEP activities have already commenced, and various communities are being engaged and sensitized to ensure their support and alignment to project objectives. Our plan is to roll out mini-grids and deploy solar home system to accelerate progress towards the achievement of the federal government’s target of universal access.

What keeps you going on the REA initiative?
The opportunity to make a difference in an obviously challenging environment requires creativity, significant personal sacrifice and dedication. However, the transformational impact makes it worth every effort. The changes we are already witnessing in our project communities, hearing the success stories and energy users’ testimonials on how their businesses are now growing thanks to reliable electricity. The REA staff, development partners and public sector colleagues who are aligned and proactive towards the achievement of the REA mandate are all at the heart of what keeps me going.

Have you always dreamt of being part of this kind of programme?
I always dreamt of being a part of Nigeria’s development; however nothing could have prepared me for what I am doing now. Interestingly, my dreams today are a lot more ambitious because I am working with an administration that is committed to delivering on its promises.

Can you throw light on STEM Education and efforts being made to ensure that women or girl-child tilt their career towards energy. Also, how many women or girls have been trained so far?
STEM relates to courses in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics field. REA’s Female STEM Internship Programme, under the Energizing Education Programme (EEP) aims to train young women and to acquire skills to design power systems; gain knowledge of contemporary issues and the ability to work with multi-disciplinary teams; as well as apply skills and knowledge of mathematics, science and engineering techniques.

The STEM education for women under EEP also aims to promote female participation in STEM related courses and careers. Within REA, we are made specific strides in gender balancing 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.

Tell us about the implementation of the Nigeria off-grid electrification programme. What are some of the challenges and achievements?
The Nigeria Off-Grid Electrification Strategy is a shift from centralized power generation and distribution to a demand-driven, market-oriented, decentralized approach. It is private sector focused with emphasis on economic viability.

So far, under the Energizing Economies Initiative (EEI), over 10,000 shops are currently receiving clean, reliable and affordable power supply across 9 markets, with a target of 80,000 shops under Phase 0 and Phase 1. The REA has identified another 97 markets to be connected under Phase 2 of the EEI.

On the other hand, the Energizing Education Programme (EEP) is expected provide sustainable electricity access to 37 federal universities and seven university teaching hospitals across Nigeria. Phase 1 of the EEP, which is fully, funded by the Federal Government will power nine federal universities and one university teaching hospital across the 6 geo-political zones. The World Bank and Africa Development Bank are to fund Phase 2 and 3 of the EEP respectively.

Let’s talk about your experience working as the general manager of the Lagos State Electricity board and the project executed during your tenure?
Working as the general manager of the Lagos State Electricity Board has been one of the most fulfilling part of my career. I was responsible for public lighting, independent power projects, and energy development in Lagos State. Under my leadership, five independent power projects were completed to deliver over 55MW of power to Lagos state hospitals, schools, streetlights, the government secretariat and other government buildings.

In renewable energy, I completed 5MW decentralized solar project for 213 schools and 11 primary healthcare centres in Lagos State and established the Lagos Energy Academy which provided world class hands-on technical engineering training on a wide range of topics and subjects important to the Energy/Power Sector Value Chain. In energy development, I implemented the following; Lagos State Energy Audit Program – a state-wide energy audit strategy to capture power consumption data, which provided training and employed over 100 field engineers; Conserve Energy, Save Money (CESM) Campaign – an ongoing project to discourage people energy waste in Lagos and encourage energy efficiency in homes and businesses; Lagos Youth Energy Career Program- a programme aimed at developing well trained energy/power development operatives for employment in the Nigerian energy/power development market. Selected engineering graduates are trained on SMART grid, protection of electrical networks, power distribution and economics, power projects and renewable energy. Some of these students are now working for General Electric (GE) and International Finance Corporation (IFC). Lagos Power Kids – a programme for children in Lagos state governments secondary schools, designed as an extra-curricular club that holds weekly in schools and focuses on harnessing children’s creativity and imagination through teaching them about renewable energy and practical experiments on how power is generated. As said earlier, the transformational impact in carrying out these responsibilities diligently makes it worth every effort.