Ujunwa Ojemeni is the Senior Investment Associate of All On, a clean energy company in the off-grid power sector, who initiated the African Women in Energy Development Initiative (AWEDI Network). In this interview, she tells us more about the network, her career and theSMEs transformation project.
Could you tell us a little about your early years?
Ojemeni: I was born and brought up in Jos, Plateau State, and attended Fatima Private School and thereafter, Bethany Christian Academy (BCA) in Barkin-Ladi, also in Plateau State. My time at BCA was defining – I was in the midst of a unique set of brilliant young people with various backgrounds from all over Nigeria.
You grew up in the northern part of Nigeria; did that have any impact on you as a person?
Growing up in Northern Nigeria is a memorable experience – the people are mostly genuine, and Jos has a way of making you determined to find a way to make an impact in society. Most importantly, I travelled around with my dad and noticed that the level of poverty and underdevelopment was significantly higher than in other regions. This sparked my interest in the field of ‘development’.
Give us a brief about your educational background, where did you start off in your career?
At 17 I travelled to the Eastern part of Nigeria to study at the University of Nigeria Nsukka (Enugu Campus – popularly called “UNEC”), where I graduated with a First class Bachelor’s Degree in Banking and Finance. Thereafter, I participated in the National Youth Service Corps, then enrolled for my master’s programme in International Development – Development Finance at the University of Manchester. Upon my return, I joined the Management Consulting unit of KPMG Advisory Services – it was a hectic one year but definitely taught me a lot of skills I still use today.
Tell us about your SME transformation project, what do you hope to achieve?
The SME transformation project is aimed at assisting SMEs, particularly those in rural and peri-urban areas to thrive. In 2018, we focused on Dustbin Estate in Ajegunle, Lagos working the LOTS Foundation. I provided business advisory to over 50 businesses, conducted due diligence on others, and provided micro-credits to some SMEs particularly women-led businesses that find it difficult to access traditional credit. This year, we hope to expand the micro-credits to many more businesses and continue to provide them with basic business advisory.
Working with SMEs, what were your discoveries?
First, SMEs are very innovative especially in a tough business environment like Nigeria. Secondly, they are mostly resilient and persistent especially when the enterprise is the main means of livelihood for their families. Finally, a good number of these SMEs have very good informal credit history. Even when they have a delay in repayment, they notify you; this is usually as a result of family challenges or a bad business cycle which traditional financial institutions are too rigid to accommodate.
How has it been like climbing the ladder in your career?
It has been an interesting journey and a great learning experience. From KPMG, I moved into the energy sector – Axxela Limited (formerly Oando Gas & power). I was the primary lead on the maturation of selected gas and power opportunities and coordinated the financing efforts for all the projects.
Currently, I work as the Senior Investment Associate of All On, a clean energy company in the off-grid sector, structuring and providing them with appropriate financing for their businesses along with strategic support.
In all of these, I followed my unique path based on my areas of interest, skills and passion, and I have been sensitive to the energy sector transition and plugged in appropriately.
What are the major barriers women face in their journey to leadership positions in the energy sector?
First, the socio-cultural perception that certain jobs are for men and others for women limits the number of women in the sector particularly in technical, engineering or field based roles. This is worsened by inadequate facilities to cater to women in field locations. This is gradually improving as more attention is drawn to the issue.
More general challenges include the reluctance (although not openly acknowledged) by some organisations to employ women who are at child bearing age or newlywed since they assume they would take maternity leave soon. Also, most roles are not flexibility – even roles that claim to have that option in practice it is difficult to take advantage of this.
All of these is worsened by the additional responsibilities that most women bear – care of the home and the children.
How do you think we can amplify the role of women in the energy sector?
The energy sector is male dominated and thus can be intimidating for women who are new to the sector or even veterans to reach top leadership positions within the sector due to various reasons.
To promote the participation of women in the energy sector, I recently registered a Woman in Energy programme (African Women in Energy Development Initiative – The AWEDI Network). The first Nigerian organization focused on women across the energy value chain. It offers networking opportunity, professional development, mentorship, career sponsorship (acceleration) capacity building, leadership training for women at all stages of their energy careers and for female students at the secondary and tertiary levels.
The network provides a platform for women to meet other professional women in the energy industry and to enhance their knowledge of issues facing the industry and skills required to succeed.
How do you juggle the home front and your career?
It is also important for us all, not just women, to realize that balance is a myth – they may not have everything working at the same level all at one, there will likely be some imbalance at various points – but being aware of this an actively managing the competing priorities will make a difference.
The book ‘How Will You Measure Your Life’ by Clayton M. Christensen has been critical in helping me set clear priorities in my life. Overall, I work closely with my partner, organize myself, and get other additional external support as needed.
How supportive has your spouse been in helping you build a career?
He has been super supportive of me pursuing my various goals; he acts as a sounding board for my various ideas and is my go-to person to review most documents – advantages of marrying a smart spouse. In general we constantly support each other.
What is your advice to young women coming into the energy sector?
Be confident and give yourself credit. Secondly, know your worth and do not let anyone demean you. Third, read, read, read and learn continuously. Finally, be bold, step up, and seek out opportunities; do something while waiting for your preferred opportunity.
What is the future of the energy sector in Africa given the high?
The energy sector in Africa is key to the attempt to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Clean energy is definitely gaining ground as a reliable source of energy in many countries in line with global energy transitions; and renewable energy is becoming common place given the falling cost of the technologies.
Finally, I believe affordable energy storage solutions will be transformational for Africa.