‘Beyond the gender perspective, women must go after specific skills set’
Some sectors have traditionally been male-dominated and energy is one of such. In this interview, Ololade George-Aremu, vice president, People, and Culture at Arnegy, a renewable energy startup and Mariam Melchior, chief finance officer at Arnergy, share their experiences and show readers the factors stopping women from progressing in the renewable energy sector. Additionally, these accomplished women professionals in renewable energy have also outlined what women require to excel in general and renewable energy in particular. They spoke to Stephen Onyekwelu. Excerpts:
The focus of this interview series has been women entrepreneurs who have founded and are running renewable energy companies in Nigeria. You two bring a new angle to this; you work as women professionals in the renewable industry. How did you get into this industry?
Melchior: I think I will answer this question from the point of view of what motivated me to get into this industry. There are several reasons for this, but I will say the one that stands out most for me is the unfortunate decline in the availability of power to the Nigerian public, and the impact that has had on her people at a socioeconomic level. Nigeria is a great country rich in potential, natural resources, raw talent and tenacity in her citizens. For several reasons, the industry as a collective has fallen short of being able to provide consistent and sustainable infrastructure and resources to the citizens of this country. It’s great to see the considerable efforts and intentions being made to improve this in recent years. Having worked in the energy industry for the bulk of my professional career, I’m no stranger to the knowledge of how fossil fuel-generated energy impacts on climate change. The by-product of our current infrastructure being: severe air pollution, rising sea levels and temperatures to mention a few. Our nation contributes its quota to this which has a direct impact on public health and the sustainability of the human race. Through my experiences working in oil, gas, and renewable energy over the last 20 years I have wanted to contribute to addressing these issues, so when I decided to actively seek out an employment opportunity in the renewables energy space, I was pleased to find a home with Arnergy Solar Ltd.
George-Aremu :I have always been interested in startup companies, especially given the under-representation of women in tech startups. I have a deep passion for seeing businesses grow and thrive. I am particularly interested in nurturing them during this stage, given that the foundation of any business is very critical in its growth. Furthermore, given the current Nigerian climate and the potential of renewable energy that is not being utilised, I saw this as an avenue to solve one of Nigeria’s most significant problems which can be such a unique income source. With these in mind, I took up the role with Arnergy in 2019.
You are the vice president People and Culture at Arnergy Solar Limited. What is your evaluation of the impact women employees at Arnergy are having, some examples would help?
George-Aremu: Being the Vice-President People and Culture at Arnergy Solar Ltd comes with a lot of responsibilities. Still, it is also an opportunity to show the younger women and even my younger colleagues that it is possible to be a woman in a male-dominated industry and still make maximum impact. This is not a role I take lightly, and this has nothing to do with fame or even the title associated with it. Organisations must understand the role women play at work and the competing demands that demand their time and attention. I am happy to work in such a role because I play a key role in representing women employees and providing a blueprint for what other organisations should strive for, especially in driving gender diversity and improving women’s impact and effectiveness in the workplace. Being able to shape the culture on the value women bring to Arnergy has resulted in a happier labour force, reduced job turnovers, and higher job satisfaction and productivity levels.
What do you see as some of the barriers limiting the entry of women into renewable energy businesses and where are the opportunities for women in renewable energy?
George-Aremu: There are many barriers preventing women from entering jobs in the renewable energy sector. I have been studying this in recent times and I can attribute some of the major barriers to – gender perspectives, cultural and social norms, unequal asset ownership, lack of skills and lack of gender-specific training are known problems. There is also a significant role gender perspective plays, and women must understand that there are women in other parts of the world who are leading this industry. Beyond the gender perspective, women must go after specific skills set to bridge the knowledge gap in this sector. I think it’s also a mindset where specific roles or jobs are perceived to belong to the men-folk. However, strengthening women’s role in renewable energy through better education and other measures would boost progress towards SDGs on energy, gender equality, health, and education, among others. The opportunities are unparalleled, and until women begin to seek out these opportunities consciously, they will never know they exist. By consciously seeking, they need to belong to communities that promote this, attend networking events, seek mentorship and expose themselves to new knowledge by reading books and even materials that are readily available online.
Your role as the chief finance officer for Arnergy means you oversee operations of its financial engine at high levels. Arnergy has received series of funds to expand its operations. What is responsible for these fund-raising successes?
Melchior: There are many reasons I could give to address this question, but I believe ultimately the reason is linked to how we differentiate in the market. Firstly, I must mention our CEO. His vision, dedication and adeptness lend an immeasurable contribution to where Arnergy is today, not to mention its contributions to electrifying Nigeria and reducing global emissions. Secondly, our products have been intelligently designed with a focus on the user. The size and modularity of our systems allow us to be able to cater to all types of customers based on their energy requirements. We pride ourselves on the affordability, design and technology of our systems. We designed an encasing that houses our batteries and inverter; we also deploy a smart system with remote monitoring capabilities. This allows us to provide a balance between functionality and aesthetics that does not currently exist in the market. It is something that I’m very proud of, and our investors recognize the value . Thirdly,I would say our contribution to reducing emissions, providing clean energy and addressing the power shortage issues in Nigeria were compelling reasons for our investors as well as the opportunity to invest in an early-stage growth company with profitable prospects.
You have worked at several multinationals in varying sectors, spanning chemicals, soft commodities and most of your experience has been in the energy sector. In what roles have you seen women in the energy sector in the past compared to the roles they now play? How can more girls be encouraged to seek careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics?
Melchior: Interestingly enough, my mother worked in the Energy sector and rose through the ranks in her organisation over time. I was extremely in awe of my mother and wanted to grow up to be like her one day. It never occurred to me that when I finally joined the workforce, being a woman would mean I would be part of a minority group. I started my career in a Global oil trading company based in London, which lacked diversity not only in its ratio of male to female employees but also in race. I recall there being 3 senior women, none of whom were at the executive level but all worked in the front office. They also inspired me to rise to such ranks one day in my future – most women worked in the back and the middle office. I love that the number of women working in positions of influence and power is on the rise and we’ve not yet hit critical mass.
It’s great that our generation, and definitely the ones that have come after ours are vocal and present advocates for girls and women in STEM. I was privileged and blessed to have a role model in my fearless, trailblazing mother, and champions and mentors in the women I mentioned earlier. So, I guess to answer your 2nd question, it comes down to encouragement and education. We need more progressive, intentional, and sustainable programs to provide our girls with STEM skills, and open doors to STEM job opportunities they would not previously have had access to. Critical to the success of this will be penetration at a grassroots level. Our society needs to be more intentional and consistent in sending positive signals to girls and young women. I tell my daughter every day, believe you can do anything you set your mind to – the stars are the limit.
George-Aremu.. your preoccupation at Arnergy is People and Culture. The employability of graduates from Nigeria’s educational system has been a major concern of companies, what in your view is the cause of this and what are some of the solutions to it?
The educational system in any country is a major innovation driver. I believe that everyone has a role to play and so if companies worry about the educational sector, they need to create campaigns and collaborative programs with universities that train and equip students for these roles. I think it is wrong to blame anyone. If we must advance Nigeria, we must work together, and this applies to every sector. At Arnergy, we are conscious about bridging this gap through our six-months Graduate Internship/Trainee program. This program allows fresh and bright graduates to develop their skills and learn the workplace’s nuances and culture. A conscious effort of more organisations to focus on approaches and similar initiatives will be of great value to Nigeria’s educational systems. I know we need to do more and we are consciously working on this.
From computer information systems to industrial relations and human resource management, what personal experiences influenced your career choices?
George-Aremu: In my first job, I identified a need to integrate structures and automation in the workplace. But most importantly, I saw the need to have the human side of things, especially the human interaction in these structured systems and organisations, which fuelled my desire to work in the Human Resources department. Being an expert in Computer Information Systems, I found it very interesting and fulfilling to solve problems by automating processes in return, contributing immensely to the organisation’s growth. But more importantly, I realised that organisations thrive and fulfill their missions when the human element is not missing, and I have been conscious about incorporating this in all of the roles I have been involved in.
No organisation should eliminate human interaction
Melchior: You volunteer and are an associate at WIMBIZ. Why are such organisations important? So, I’ll link this answer to my prior response on how to encourage girls to seek careers in STEM. WIMBIZ has been a pioneer and a strong advocate on precisely this topic. To quote their vision and mission: WIMBIZ VISION: To be the catalyst that elevates the status and influence of women and their contribution to nation-building. WIMBIZ MISSION: To inspire and empower women to attain leadership positions in business, management, and public service. They do this by advocating, mentoring, empowering, inspiring, and fostering networks between women at all stages and from all walks of life. Their programs address so many topics from teaching financial literacy to young schoolgirls and entrepreneurs, investment opportunities, career, and personal development advice, and so on. As women, our experiences in the workplace are different from that of men as are some of the social structures and expectations, therefore we require a different kind of support. I am happy to have found this support in WIMBIZ. It is also good to know that my challenges are not just unique to me and should I require a platform to connect with other women and to share experiences, one is always available to me.
What is the proportion of women to men in Arnergy’s staff?
The ratio of women to men is 30:70 and still growing.
What are some of Arnergy’s biggest achievements and their impact on beneficiaries’ lives?
Again, we have quite a few, but we will focus on a few as follows: We have a 6 member executive management team of which the female to male ratio is 50:50. In addition to that, our C-suite is made up of 3 people. 2 of whom are female.. We are proud of the caliber of investors we have attracted into our organisation in Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Norfund, EDFI management, and All- on. The level of support and encouragement each of them provide to us collectively and in their own unique ways is indeed priceless and we don’t take that for granted. We are very proud to contribute to reducing global emissions, providing sustainable power solutions within our nation and beyond as well as the quality of the solutions we provide, which are affordable, safe, reliable, smart and extremely user friendly. Also, Arnergy prides itself in employee development and growth. We are deliberate about building a learning organisation and have created avenues that support individual growth. One of our core achievements is the Graduate Internship Program. So far, the conversion and retention rate of our interns to full time employment is over 80% and still growing.
To be a chief commercial officer in an organization such as Arnergy requires a lot of creative imagination. How do you see your market in terms of demography, size, scope, and outlook? Omobola Omofaiye: Nigeria is the biggest economy in the African continent and has the largest population in Africa. However, about 40% of the population has little or no access to reliable electricity to drive the sustainability of businesses and human lives. Considering the increasing energy demand in Nigeria, and the inability of the grid to sufficiently meet the energy requirements from different sectors of the economy, there is a shift towards renewable solar energy which is expected to bridge the energy gap and strengthen the power market in Nigeria. Arnergy, as a company is positioned to be the leading solar energy company in Nigeria, providing reliable and sustainable solutions to energy reliability issues in Nigeria and other emerging markets.
Your career path has crisscrossed information communication technology, financial services, energy management, oil & gas, and renewable energy. What is your assessment of the opportunities open to women in those fields?
Omobola Omofaiye: The technology space is still yet to see gender equality in the industry. This space comprises a higher percentage of men with fewer women playing in this space. However, in the past few years, there has been accelerated awareness around gender balance in the technology industry. There are huge opportunities in this space which is available for both men and women to benefit from. The narrative is changing gradually, and more women are playing in the technology space and also taking on leadership roles. More so, many organizations as part of their corporate culture, now drive gender diversity as a way of achieving a gender-balanced workforce.
On a personal level and without glorifying the “good old days” what was it about your family, environment, and choices that got you to wherein you are today in your career and what other young women learn from your experiences?
Omobola Omofaiye: I grew up in a closely-knit family with principled parents that hold integrity and hard work in high esteem, which shaped my background and orientation for life. I learned early in life that there are no shortcuts to sustainable success. I am driven by results and am always ready to consistently put in the work to succeed. I strive to put my best foot forward at the instance of any opportunity. I enjoy learning new things and taking on challenges as a way of growing and broadening my horizon. To other young women, building capacity and learning should be continuous to get you prepared for the opportunities ahead. “Success is not final; failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts.” Winston Churchill
What energy mix would the most optimal for Nigeria given our vast natural gas resources, which is perceived as a transitional fuel, and the rapid advancement of various green energy solutions?
Omobola Omofaiye: Renewable solar energy will be an optimal energy solution for the Nigerian market as Nigeria is blessed with an abundance of sunlight and good weather. Green energy is more environment friendly, reduces carbon footprint, and produces no noise pollution. As the adoption of renewable solar energy increases and more people “go green”, more job opportunities continue to open up to reduce the unemployment rate in Nigeria, and also for faster growth of the sector.