The business of renewable energy: How do engineers fit in?

rita nkathalaibuta
There are a lot of investment opportunities in renewable energy in Africa right now. What is the role of engineers in this sector? Rita Nkatha Laibuta, an Electrical Engineer practising in the Renewable Energy Industry, tells us how her training puts her in a unique position to identify opportunities and catalyse involvement of partners towards implementation. 

Question: Why did you choose Electrical Engineering?
Rita: In high school, I loved physics, chemistry and mathematics and was interested in statistics. I was not too sure about the next steps in terms of building a career. I actually wanted to be a doctor, almost every child’s dream. However, when I consulted my dad, he felt it wasn’t the right choice for me. Through his guidance, I chose to pursue engineering because it was actually in line with my academic strengths. I am grateful that I had a strong father figure who knew how to align my strengths with in the right career path. My journey makes me realize the lack in informed career mentorship within the Kenyan education system.

Question: How did you make the shift from electrical engineering to renewable energy?
Rita: I have been blessed in that there are people I meet along my journey who direct me in the way I should go. After tarmacking for 2 months after graduation, one of my friends who was working as an intern in a building services company directed me to a contractor who had an vacancy. I applied and got the job. Though the pay was not so much, I gained good experience. After a few months, I applied for internship at Orange and got the position. I took the internship because of the benefits of experience and visibility of the company. During this time, I was trained on everything involved in the networking and telecommunications industry. After the internship, I was retained as a performance engineer. My role in the back office was to ensure that network downtimes were managed on time and that the team was meeting KPIs. The background that I was given during the internship came in handy, since I knew how everything worked. I later moved to Siemens, and since my interest had all along been in the Power sector. I was excited about this opportunity. I was the Project engineer for various substation and transmission line construction projects. Siemens gave me a lot of exposure and this is how I got interested in the Renewable Energy sector. I, then, pursued a scholarship for a Masters in Energy and Environmental Engineering at the University of Sheffield. And the rest as they say is history.

Question: How did you get into the Renewable Energy industry on your return?
Rita: After the exposure of study abroad, I got a change in mindset. I was really open minded and did not want to limit myself to the same roles I had previously. Two of my colleagues and I founded a company with a specific focus on renewable energy. We began research on biomass related technologies such as biomass, biogas & CHP plants, which a lot of people were not aware of. During this period, I also got a business development role with a German solar company that was offering solutions for diesel and hybrid systems in off-grid and poor-grid areas. My specific task involved testing out various energy products in the Kenyan market. I visited various manufacturers, in order to gather information on their electricity challenges and of course, selling to them hybrid systems to supplement their current power. During this period, we found that the Kenyan market is quite aggressive and not as easy to get into in regards to the hybrid systems, as compared to other East African countries.

Question: What opportunities do you believe exist in the renewable energy market?
Rita: The renewable energy market is largely untapped by local engineers. I was identified for my current job due to my past activities in the industry. I was very excited about this but it got me thinking. Why do they keep hunting for the few people who are doing these things? It is because they are not enough. Investors are ready to invest and, yet, there are very few local developers in the country. There are limited players in the market and barely any local engineers involved in project development, particularly in the energy sector. I believe that some of the best solutions towards national electrification could come from our own experts. There is a lot that is yet to be done by the government as well as engineers themselves.

Question: What are you doing personally about the skills gap in the Renewable Energy sector?
Rita: I realize that we have such a massive skills gap especially when it comes to innovation and project development. There are a few local companies doing it now, but nowhere near enough. A lot of the companies in the market are affiliated to the international community. I am involved in various forums which enable me to interact with like-minded people. I mentor young engineers who are interested in joining this sector. I am also looking at ways of setting up or supporting a program that will show case the variations in career directions in engineering, as well as the journey to get there.

Question: Tell us three things you have learnt as an entrepreneur.
Rita: I have learnt that your earnings depend on the business model. Our business model takes longer. I have learnt patience because when you get into it initially, the mathematics can be deceptive compared to the real situation. For example, our business model had us setting up a 1MW plant that would have earnings in millions within the first year.  But it is not as easy as you would think. Networking: I am not, naturally, a person who just puts themselves out there. I have had to force myself. I identify and attend events, approach people, stick out my hand and introduce myself and my company. Most times it goes very well. I also participate in various programs, for example, I am a Mandela Washington Fellowship (2016) alumni. In this way, I am able to strengthen my leadership and networking skills. Discipline: It is very easy to burn out. Growing my business and career takes a lot of discipline and it is a learning process.

Question: Do you have any mentors and what mentorship activities are you involved in currently?
Rita: I am very fortunate to have mentors in various stages of my life. Through the Mandela Washington Fellowship, I was assigned a brilliant business mogul as a mentor. I would say this is the best thing that has happened to me yet! On mentorship, I believe one of the ways to encourage capacity building in Kenya is to focus on career mentorship especially for the youth. There are very limited career mentorship opportunities available in Kenya. I started an informal information pipeline as a Tutor Fellow at Technical University of Kenya. I reached out to female engineering students and created a mailing list to send information to them on available opportunities. There are a lot of programs available that target the youth but we don’t have enough people sharing this information with them. I also encourage them to be aggressive in searching out these opportunities. There is room in the industry for innovation, entrepreneurship and personal growth. Having a single-minded approach of working for specific parastatals is not tenable. At one time, Strathmore University was holding an event on renewable energy for university engineering students. I informed my students, who applied and were able to attend. They would not have been aware if I had not provided this information. I believe it is part of our mandate as professionals, is to share any and all information relevant to the students’ career.

Question: How do you balance out all the work you do?
Rita: Of course, you cannot be a master of all trades. Right now, my priority is seeing the Mini Grid program that I am working on succeed. This program is envisioned to build capacity in the Mini Grid sector and particularly enhance private sector participation in the national electrification efforts. My family and friends are also an important part of my life. So with proper planning, I usually find time to spend with them. As for mentorship, it really does not take much. If my mentor has time for me, how would I not have time to mentor someone else?

Question: What comes next for you?
Rita: I want to be the go-to when it comes to renewable energy because I believe that there is a huge skills gap which needs to be filled. I want to be involved in capacity building and empowering youth.  I also want to focus on climate financing and how local players can gain from this. As I have mentioned, there is a lot of space for renewable energy in Africa because it is the most accessible resource we have.

Question: What is your favourite quote?

“To become a chess grandmaster also seems to take about ten years. (Only the legendary Bobby Fischer got to that elite level in less than that amount of time: it took him nine years.) And what’s ten years? Well, it’s roughly how long it takes to put in ten thousand hours of hard practice. Ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness.”(Malcolm Gladwell)


Question: Any hobbies left after a full day of work?
Rita: One of my new found hobbies is Bikram Yoga. I also love reading, especially around entrepreneurship and self-development. My current read is ‘The Lean Start-up. I believe reading is a means of empowerment through knowledge. I also enjoy hanging out with friends.

Brief Bio:
Rita Nkatha Laibuta is a trained Electrical Engineer practising in the Renewable Energy Industry. Her expertise in Renewable Energy systems enables her to identify investment opportunities for renewable energy in Kenya. She is currently the Supervision consultant for AFD on the DFID funded Green Mini-Grids Program in Kenya. Her passion is to catalyse private sector involvement in line with the Government of Kenya’s goal of achieving 100% National Electrification by 2030.

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