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VOME AGHOGHOVBIA-GAFAAR, keen on shaping Africa’s future through energy technology

Vome Aghoghovbia-Gafaar is an award-winning chemical engineer, energy consultant and the founder of Ignite Energy Africa, an energy consultancy and innovation hub that helps shape the future of energy in Africa. Their mission is to shape Africa’s energy future through knowledge, innovation and education. They deliver high-quality energy data, research and consultations across the energy ecosystem, focusing on clean energy technology, fostering a culture of innovation in the energy sector in Africa. They have global clients, such as Hitachi, and their work has been quoted by academics and institutions worldwide.

Before starting Ignite Energy Africa, (https://igniteenergyafrica.com/ ) Vome had diverse experience working as an energy specialist at Bulb, UK’s fastest-growing energy company, to working as a management consultant across the energy space. She also has work experience at Google and British Petroleum (BP).

She is a speaker and writer and has written for publications, such as The Financial Times, Business Insider and The Independent. She is the author of ‘Everyone Deserves to Sparkle’ and the founder of the Sparkle Initiatives. This social enterprise empowers Science Technology Engineering Mathematics (STEM) education and inspires young people worldwide to thrive and set the world on fire with their gifts. As a speaker, she speaks in several schools worldwide, such as St Paul’s Girls’ School, Hammersmith, Haberdashers’ Aske’s School for Girls, and Pembroke School South Australia.

Vome holds a first-class honours MEng in Chemical Engineering from University College London (UCL) and an MSc in Global Management of Natural Resources. She was awarded a first prize young engineers award for a technical breakthrough by the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) Milton Keynes.

Vome, along with her sisters, co-founded DVees, a West African food and drinks luxury brand pioneering West African fine dining and flavours through the creation of products, such as DVees Chapman and Rodo sauce.

She is married to Dr Tunde Gafaar, and together they enjoy setting up educational initiatives.

Early life and influence till date

I was raised as the last born of four girls by extraordinary parents. Growing up, we were surrounded by family, love, and strong role models. Gender was never a limitation; we were always encouraged to shoot for the stars and empowered with the tools needed to thrive. I have always felt comfortable in male-dominated environments and have never felt like I did not deserve to be there.

I chose STEM subjects in school because they were my strengths and interests, and I never considered that it was not for me because of my gender. I studied chemical engineering, and I felt comfortable being amng a handful of girls in most lecture rooms. Since I started my career, the situation in the room has remained the same (I hope change comes soon), and I have never felt like I should be limited because I am female.

This is attributed to my parents raising us to have strong faith in God and confidence in our abilities to achieve. Also, the opportunities they gave me to explore my passions and interests.

My father, Godfrey Aghoghovbia, always says, “His girls are enough for him” and he is proud of us. Whenever I was making educational or career decisions, he always encouraged me to explore my options and aim for the best. My father is an extremely hard-working man.

My mother, Ese Aghoghovbia, is an Economist and an Insurance practitioner who was among a handful of women in meeting rooms, especially as she worked in the Special Risks Division of Engineering, Marine and Aviation in the Insurance industry.

These values were instilled in us. From my mother, I learnt that I could wear many hats, and my gender should not limit my aspirations as a woman.

My upbringing has been fundamental in helping me explore the different paths I have ventured on. I grew up surrounded by support, and my family has been my cheerleaders.

Why chemical engineering? How can Nigerian government encourage STEM especially among girls?

In primary school, I was average at mathematics. My mother recognised that I could be doing so much better and decided to get me a tutor. My exceptional tutor, Mr Ojimmy Iyakakwa, taught me in a way that unlocked my mind. Mathematics became my favourite subject from then on, and I had a natural flair for sciences, literature, and economics. This taught me that children could excel if they have someone who believes in them and can identify their strengths and areas where support is needed.

I was torn between studying mathematics and economics or chemical engineering at university. This is where my father’s advice was pivotal. He advised me to do an internship at an insurance company to experience actuarial science and at ExxonMobil to see first-hand what different engineers do. I immediately fell in love with chemical engineering. As an analytical and creative person, I found that chemical engineering is a degree that combines both elements with endless possibilities.

As a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) advocate and enthusiast, I often speak to students about its benefits.

STEM subjects have developed transferrable skills in me that are invaluable in any sphere. That said, I believe that every child should be encouraged to take their unique path and make decisions in line with their strengths, passions, and interest. Literature developed my imagination and writing skills, and I am glad my parents encouraged me to explore other passions.

STEM is sometimes taught in limited ways. It should not only focus on the facts and figures but also explore creativity and encourage innate curiosity and independent thinking. The solution-focused nature of STEM helps students become great problem solvers. STEM is about learning by doing, and it should not be about ‘not failing’. It is supposed to encourage experimentation and help students embrace mistakes as part of the learning process. As an inventor, Thomas Edison made 1,000 unsuccessful attempts at inventing the light bulb before succeeding.

The Nigerian government should encourage STEM because there is hardly any country that has become a world power without science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. According to the World Bank, 43 % of the Nigerian population is between 0 and 14. If the nation invests in STEM education, this can be crucial for technological advances, economic growth, and wealth creation. This can set Nigeria up to become a global force as one of the countries with the largest population of young people.

In today’s highly technological society, scientific innovations have become increasingly important, and students need to develop their capabilities in STEM to levels beyond what was acceptable in the past. In addition, STEM education gives students skills to help them understand a wide range of concepts and raises young people who can transform society with innovation and sustainable solutions.

In particular, girls should be actively encouraged to explore STEM subjects. We often see fewer women in STEM fields, not because they do not have the ability, but because STEM subjects are seen as traditional male subjects. This starts as young as primary school, where boys are expected to enjoy and do better in mathematics and sciences, and girls are expected to enjoy English and social studies.

Also, we become what we see. If you see more men as doctors, engineers, and software designers, it will be instilled in girls from a young age that those fields are not for them. So, girls should be specifically encouraged to explore STEM subjects, and they should be exposed to more female role models in those fields.

The more women we have in various areas, the more diversity of thought we will have in innovation. This will lead to more well-rounded global solutions, economic growth, and a better society at large.

Working for Bulb

Bulb is the fastest-growing energy supplier in the UK and the UK’s biggest green energy supplier, providing all their customers with 100 % renewable electricity. I joined Bulb as a start-up, and I got to see the company rapidly grow from about 40,000 customers to over 1 million customers in two years.

Working for an innovative energy start-up, I got to see what was possible in energy tech and innovation. This helped to expand my mind and horizons. I learnt a lot about renewable energy, energy compliance, and operations.

Also, working for a start-up, I got to function in different roles and learnt rapidly about energy, business, and start-up life.

Share on your research work in Australia and your experience

I did an MSc in Global Management of Resources at University College London (UCL). Today, there is a growing demand for versatile managers in the globalised natural resources and commodities industries. The course aims to equip students to become well versed in subsurface and surface energy and mineral industries.

In addition, students develop an understanding of geology and engineering, become effective communicators, and become aware of their socio-economic responsibility.

During my masters, I researched the economic, environmental, and social effects of transitioning to a low carbon future (in terms of stranded assets and acquiring solar technology) in South Australia for six months. It was a transformative experience. It helped me grow individually as I explored a new continent and culture and learned a new way of life. I think travel is an effective way to grow individually. Also, I got to expand my horizons as a professional. I developed my research and analytical skills and increased my energy knowledge.

Ignite Energy Africa

With a population of over 1 billion in Sub-Saharan Africa, we cannot afford to ignore the energy access challenge in the region. We cannot solve the global climate change crisis if we do not tackle the issue in all corners of the world. Climate change is having a growing impact on Sub-Saharan Africa. In the last year; there have been distressing floods and an invasion of desert locusts. Secondly, energy is essential to everyday life.

A secure, reliable, and affordable energy future is needed for education, economic growth, job creation, and so on. Also, the pandemic has highlighted the need for efficient energy systems across the world for global health and effectively managing pandemics. A significant barrier to solving the energy crisis in Sub-Saharan Africa is the lack of high-quality data and insights that can drive innovation.

My passion for helping solve this challenge motivated me to start an energy knowledge and innovation hub for Sub-Saharan Africa called Ignite Energy Africa. Our mission is to shape Africa’s energy future through knowledge, innovation, and education. We have defined a new standard for access to high-quality energy data, in-depth research and analysis and insights across the energy ecosystem focusing on clean energy technology.

We are building a comprehensive knowledge-base and providing advisory services on energy access, e-mobility, energy transition, and environmental sustainability. We foster a culture of innovation in the energy sector in Sub-Saharan Africa by analysing ideas, concepts and forming partnerships that help drive innovation in the region.

We aim to build a comprehensive knowledge hub and energy innovation incubation to allow more people to innovate in the energy space. Our goal is to help shape the energy sector in sub-Saharan Africa by transitioning towards a safe, secure, and affordable energy future powered by high-quality data, research and analysis and consulting.

Delivering high-quality energy data, research and analysis that fosters a culture of innovation in the energy sector in Africa

Ignite Energy Africa is an expert in novel areas, such as electric mobility and clean energy technology. We conduct in-depth research into those areas in the energy space in sub-Saharan Africa. For example, we researched the technical and economic feasibility of electric transportation in African cities and the barriers and opportunities in Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa.

Another critical research area was the logistical issues of distributing COVID-19 vaccines to millions of people in Sub-Saharan Africa. We advised developing an innovative and climate-friendly cold chain distribution network using mobile clinics and innovative transport systems.

We have comprehensive knowledge of the energy ecosystem from a technical, financial, environmental, and social perspective. Our approach also builds on existing data and research and expands on areas that have been explored. We share our research and analysis in the public space and offer research, analysis and consultation services to governments, public bodies, private organisations, academics and so on. Our work is used to explore opportunities, innovate, make key investment decisions among others.

Our in-depth research has been used worldwide. Our energy policy analysis and research work have been published in mainstream media, such as the Financial Times, Business Insider, The Independent. Also, our work is used and quoted by academics, energy professionals and more.

How can Nigeria’s energy sector be best optimised?

Renewable energy resources and technology can play a significant part in optimising the energy sector in Nigeria. Some years ago, renewable energy was still viewed as an inefficient source of energy. According to the International Energy Agency, the share of renewables in global electricity generation jumped to nearly 28% in Q1 2020. It is estimated that by 2030, renewable energy sources will power over 60 % of new electricity access. This shows vast opportunities within renewables to help meet the increasing global energy demand and economic growth.

According to the Economist, Nigeria’s population is forecasted to double and reach 400 million by 2050. This population growth and the increasing industrialisation in Nigeria means that the energy demand in the country is predicted to increase rapidly. Utilising renewable energy combined with efficient use of fossil fuels with clean technologies can help meet this increasing energy demand and help tackle climate change.

While some parts of the world struggle to have the natural conditions needed for renewables, Nigeria is blessed with sufficient sunlight, adequate wind conditions in certain parts of the country, and ample biomass waste required for renewable energy generation. What makes renewables unique is that they cannot be deleted. If used appropriately with the advances in energy storage technology, it can provide a reliable energy supply almost indefinitely in the coming years.

Secondly, the energy sector can be optimised by developing more off-grid decentralised energy. At the start of the pandemic, energy storage and decentralised energy solutions were used to power isolation centres in Nigeria.

The pandemic presented an opportunity to accelerate access to clean energy across Nigeria. Off-grid renewable energy systems are generated close to where they will be used, mostly by renewable sources, can deliver reliable electricity to rural communities. Off-grid solutions are effective for households and can also be used to support public services, for instance, to aid healthcare and provide clean water.

If given the opportunity, what will you seek to improve in Nigeria’s energy sector?

The aim will be to increase access to reliable and clean energy across Nigeria. The three ways I will seek to do this is through renewable energy, microgrids, and electric mobility.

With renewables, it will be looking into small changes, such as creating incentives and initiatives for new buildings to have solar panels and using solar energy to power street lamps. In addition, exploring more significant investment opportunities to build wind farms and biomass sites. The cost of solar energy and batteries have made renewables an efficient and viable solution.

I think utilising microgrids can be successful in Nigeria. Microgrids connect communities to a decentralised group of electricity sources that generally operates while connected to the grid but can break off and operate independently using local energy generation. This helps to relieve pressure off the grid. Microgrids can be powered by distributed generators, batteries, and renewable resources like solar panels. It can be utilised in a way that the localised energy is shared between households in a community.

According to the World Economic Forum, using real-world data, researchers found that microgrid technologies could make local communities 90 % energy self-sufficient, with the potential to become fully self-reliant in the future.

Finally, I believe electric mobility presents a leapfrogging opportunity for Nigeria. I researched the feasibility of electric mobility in African cities. Although there are glaring limitations, the application of electric mobility is possible. This will require changes in policy, the use of solar-powered charging stations, significant investment and so on.

Facts and figures on Nigeria’s energy sector

Energy is vital for economic growth. According to the World Bank, about 85 million Nigerians do not have access to grid electricity. This represents about 43 % of the country’s population and makes Nigeria the country with the largest energy access deficit in the world. Also, only an estimated 30 % of Nigerians are connected to the national grid.

The lack of access to energy hinders the provision of basic needs, such as education, health care, good hygiene and so on. Nigeria has a population of over 200 million and 176 million people without access to clean cooking fuel or technologies.

According to UNESCO’s 2018 Global Education Monitoring Report, only 22% of African primary schools in sub-Saharan Africa have access to electricity. In addition, in 2020, only 46.6 % of the Nigerian population were internet users.

With the increased connectivity in the world and global opportunities, energy is critical for advancement. As mentioned earlier, there are vast opportunities to optimise the grid, develop renewables and off-grid solutions, and utilise fossil fuels in a clean and efficient way to help make energy access a reality.

Challenges in your line of work and how you surmount them

A big challenge I have experienced in my line of work is finding where I fit in and my unique voice in the energy space. Energy is a rapidly growing and evolving sector with varying sub-sectors. It can be a bit confusing to know where you fit in.

However, one thing that has helped me along this journey of finding my unique voice has been exploring the opportunities available, being resilient and learning from other energy professionals.

Also, it helps to know that it is a journey and as you make meaningful contributions, you will find your fit and voice.

Balancing work and family

I am married to a wonderful man, Dr. Tunde Gafaar. He is a great support and encourager. He constantly encourages me to spread my wings and achieve my best at work and he is a true partner at home. We support each other with work and at home. Our partnership has helped me balance work and family effectively.

I am also a very organised person and I value work-life balance. This means that I plan my schedule in a detailed manner and I stick to the time I make for work, family, leisure and other activities.

Sparkle Initiative

My passion for seeing people thrive led me to publish my first book, ‘Everyone Deserves to Sparkle’, an inspirational non-fiction book about discovering your uniqueness, understanding the purpose of your gifts and unique attributes, and making a difference.

I am passionate about empowering young people and helping them develop and use their gifts to make the world a better place. This passion led me to start a social enterprise, the Sparkle Initiative. We aim to set people on a journey of embracing their uniqueness and using their gifts to light up the world!

From inspiring content to engaging brunch clubs to captivating talks, the initiative aims to empower education, set young people on a journey through embracing their uniqueness and being positive agents of change to their society.

As a speaker, I have delivered talks and organised workshops at schools such as St Paul’s Girls’ School, Hammersmith, Haberdashers’ Aske’s School for Girls, and Pembroke School South Australia.

What can be done to encourage people like you to come back to Nigeria?

I may not be able to speak for every Nigerian that is contributing to other economies however, there are a few things that I think will be helpful which includes: An enabling environment that empowers people to develop their skills and thrive in education, career, and business. Furthermore, excellent public infrastructure is needed to aid good quality of life for individuals and families. One other key element is providing learning opportunities that are on par with global standards.

Giving back to Nigeria

At Ignite Energy Africa, we give a portion of our profits towards providing solar lamps to the most remote regions in Africa, including Nigeria, to combat poverty and climate change.

As part of my Sparkle Initiatives, I have given free talks and run workshops on confidence and academic excellence at an orphanage in Nigeria, and I have given out my books and resources for free.

The Nigerian youth

I am proud of your resilience and drive against all odds.

Final words

You are a masterpiece, and you can use your gifts and uniqueness to set the world on fire and make a difference by helping others in any way you can.

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