Ejiro Gray: Energy Access, Transition not Mutually Exclusive

As the world continues its march towards energy transition, stakeholders maintain the need for energy access must be a critical part of the conversation, especially in developing economies. In this interview, Ejiro Gray, recently appointed Director, Governance and Sustainability at leading energy and infrastructure conglomerate, Sahara Group shares her views on the issue, among others. She spoke with Peter Uzoho

Sustainability has become a global focus for governments and businesses. Is this a fad or do you see credible action in this regard?

Sustainability is not a fad and that is becoming more apparent to all. Our daily activities continue to pose an existential threat to the environment, the people, and the resilience of businesses across the globe. Here in Africa, the consequences of the threats are not as far removed from us as many may think. Take for instance the area of climate change. Though research has shown that Africa has contributed just about 3% of the cumulative carbon emissions (largely due to the slow pace of development in the continent), the continent is the hardest hit by climate change but the least equipped to tackle the consequences. Sustainability has not had the required level of attention until recently, is because of the competing challenges faced across the continent, such as hunger, poverty, and the infrastructure deficit which are generally thought to be more pressing issues that need to be addressed.

Developing economies mostly have argued that energy access should precede energy transition. What’s your position on this?

Energy transition and energy access should not be treated as two mutually exclusive concepts. Whilst it may be true that many developing economies are still grappling with the challenges of energy access, when it comes to the sustainability of our energy sources, the transition cannot be successfully achieved without tying it to the plan to improve energy access. The success of any energy transition plan must be predicated on cost-effectiveness, economic viability, and scalability of renewable energy projects for improved access to energy, especially in technologically disadvantaged or developing economies. SDG 7 speaks to this question further buttressing the point – Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all.

What would you say are the most common governance infractions in the energy sector and how can they be addressed?

Governance infractions cut across industries regardless of sector. No society is by nature more inclined to follow the rules than others. Infractions will abound in any sector where the regulatory framework is not effectively enforced, or the regulations do not take into adequate consideration, the economics, and peculiarities of the operating environment to create an enabling regulatory environment. Technology is an enabler for improved governance and regulatory compliance both from an operational efficiency perspective, and the enforcement perspective. So, technology, effective stakeholder dialogue, and enforcement are all required to drive compliance.

Businesses often complain about the duplicity of operational requirements as one moves from one jurisdiction to another. Is there a way of pursuing harmonization whilst still maintaining standards?

Each jurisdiction is unique and a sovereign state. As such, it is expected that each one will devise its rules and requirements to match its level of development as well as its economic and investment goals. However, there is room for a collaborative effort, particularly for neighbouring countries with similar economic and development goals. ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States), the AU (African Union), SADC (Southern Africa Development Community) are all vehicles for identifying commonalities among the sovereign states, in pursuit of opportunities for the desired harmonization.

There have been several net carbon emissions targets set by different businesses and governments.  What needs to happen to move the world closer to low carbon emissions?

The developed world needs to take greater responsibility for moving the world closer to low carbon emissions, due to their position as having contributed most significantly to historic and current carbon emissions. The developing world and for instance, much of Africa is disadvantaged, in that it is still largely reliant on fossil fuel-driven economies for its growth and development initiatives, with significant levels of untapped reserves across the continent. For this, there must be an intentional drive towards technological investments in sustainability projects, in the developing world by the developed world. This is not to absolve developing economies of the responsibility for their energy transition, but to ensure that the global drive is just and equitable.

Are energy companies doing enough to champion the cause of access to clean, safe and reliable energy?

Energy companies are coming into a greater consciousness of their role in the energy transition journey and are taking active steps to match their walk to their talk. At Sahara Group, our commitment to the SDGs has led to the development of the “extrapreneurship” concept, which refers to our unique strategy for creating enabling environments for entrepreneurs. The “extrapreneurship” model is propagated through projects centered on two key impact areas of Energy and the Environment. These projects seek to drive awareness and affirmative action in support of resource efficiency, sustainability, and economic development through socially and environmentally sustainable ventures.

Africa appears to have a peculiar case when it comes to the energy transition. What role can leading energy conglomerates like Sahara Group play in facilitating a clear path for Africa towards energy transition?

With vast operations across and beyond the continent, the path towards energy transition impacts every sector of our operations. Gas has been recognized as a transition fuel in the global energy transition journey. Sahara Group continues to invest in infrastructure and technology that will enhance access to gas as an option of clean fuel across Africa. Our Liquefied Petroleum Gas vessels are transforming the LPG market, facilitating seamless supply, while our existing and targeted infrastructure outlay will drive efficient storage and distribution of LPG across markets. Sahara Group is also taking a foremost position in advocacy, development of a gas utilization strategy to be balanced with investments in renewable energy projects and carbon storage projects. These plans underpin our areas of focus of resource efficiency and carbon emissions reduction in the drive for sustainability.

What is the focus of Sahara Group in terms of its sustainability and governance strategy?

We believe all three Environmental; Social and Governance (ESG) pillars must go hand-in-hand to build a truly sustainable organization for a sustainable planet. In driving our sustainability agenda, however, we have prioritized, for immediate attention, resource efficiency and carbon emissions reduction.

Our governance strategy is founded on assurance-based enterprise risk management, supported by systems and processes, which serve as enablers for sustainable and mutually beneficial alliances across stakeholder groups.

Sahara has operations across Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East.  What has been your experience regarding multiple governance and compliance requirements across these locations?

As a global energy conglomerate, we are no strangers to cross-border operations and regulatory compliance. We understand that this is core to our risk management and governance framework and so we ensure holistic periodic compliance audits conducted by independent expert consultants across jurisdictions, always supported by internal compliance reporting for effective monitoring and management at both entity and Group levels.

Human capital sustainability is a critical factor in creating enduring brands. After hitting your 25th-anniversary milestone in 2021, what people strategy is the company putting together for the future.

At Sahara Group, we are consistently implementing various development programs that ensure that top talent and high-value employees are taken through the best of the best local and international development programs. This strategy creates deliberate endless career opportunities for our people to grow and develop. We promote a collaborative and team-focused culture that is supported by diversity, equity, and inclusion.

The companies, which today comprise the Sahara Group were incubated on the premise that as a budding energy conglomerate, a high level of creativity, strategic thinking, versatility, tenacity, and teamwork would be required to succeed. Over the years, our people have brought these attributes and more to bear in the growth of our business, proving that truly, “impossible is nothing” and thus stirring up a keen desire to share and develop these same attributes in younger generations of African youth. The Sahara Graduate Trainee Programme was birthed fifteen years ago and successfully implemented as a deliberate strategy, predicated on this need to restore the competitiveness of the African graduate on the world stage. In order words, we take pride in being MAD, that is, making a difference and bringing energy to life responsibly. We have since introduced The Future Project, which will be the pathway for shaping the future of Sahara along the lines of evolving innovations and realities. 

Sahara is one of the energy conglomerates with roots in Africa that has given the continent global competitiveness. How was this achieved and what’s the plan to sustain the Africa for Africans narrative?

There was a time the world would not have imagined looking to Africa to implement global energy solutions. Today, the narrative is rapidly changing, and the Sahara Group is at the vanguard of the transformational story from Africa to the world. We are rapidly establishing our footprint across Africa and beyond, by identifying infrastructure and supply chain gaps across systems and borders. Our collaborative approach to value creation ensures that the ultimate development of the region and social impact remains at the heart of all that we do and this has earned us the right to corporate citizenship wherever we operate.

Sahara subscribes to doing well and doing good as the foundation of its corporate citizenship strategy. How has this helped to drive Sahara’s contribution to sustainable development goals, especially in locations where it operates?

In the words of Harvard Business School Professor, Rebecca Henderson, “Doing well and doing good are intertwined, and successful business strategies should include both.” Beyond improving shareholder value, at Sahara, we understand that the development of Africa lies primarily with Africa, and this is the focused approach we take in identifying and addressing the supply chain, infrastructure and social empowerment gaps required to drive socio-economic growth.  Our development projects leverage the “extrapreneurship” model e.g. The Sahara Impact Fund, a strategic partnership between Sahara Foundation, Ford Foundation, LEAP Africa, and Impact Investment Foundation. It was established to boost the generation of ideas and solutions, which will work towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals in a manner that results in measurable social impact.

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