The Electrical Engineer & her agenda for Africa

Martha_WakoliPassion, tenacity and a force to be reckoned with. Three words that barely scratch the surface when talking about Martha Wakoli. An Electrical Engineering with Kenya Power and the co-editor of Queengineers, she is dedicated to being exceptional in her career in energy, as well as encouraging young girls to pursue technology. She is, also, at the forefront of being part of the dialogue on affairs affecting the youth through the online platform, Shaping African Conversations. Read more about this phenomenal woman.

Question: Why did you choose Electrical Engineering? Several reasons actually. First, my father often fixed things at home when I was growing up. He piqued my curiosity by encouraging me to work with him on simple repair projects. This grew my interest in understanding how things worked from an early age. Second, I’ve always been interested in learning new things and as far as I can recall, I was a kid who enjoyed school. I had an aptitude for math and the sciences and also had great teachers both in primary and secondary school. In fact, in high school both my Mathematics and Physics teachers were women. I think this subconsciously helped to reinforce the notion that women too can excel at sciences. Third, my family is very close knit and extremely supportive of each other’s choices. As the last child, I was lucky enough to have a variety of perspectives before settling on a career path. My primary consideration while choosing a career was, “Is this what I care about and am I any good at it?” With the answer to those two questions, it’s not surprising that I ended up here.

Question: What is your typical work day like? I am fairly new at my current job role. I joined the Customer Service Division of Kenya Power as a 4th Assistant Engineer in Installations Management in January this year. My job deals, primarily, with Energy Meters, which are used to measure the units of electricity consumed by a customer. I am currently learning the wide array of tasks that an entry level Engineer handles. These can be broadly split into 2 types of tasks: Managerial tasks such as division of labour and resources, team supervision, attending meetings and engaging with clients; and technical tasks such as installation of new meters, replacement of faulty meters or the recovery of idle meters from the site. Since I shadow an experienced colleague, my work day depends on what learning opportunity presents itself every morning. My current routine is, therefore, get to work in the morning, generate or update a report of what was achieved the previous day, respond to any urgent emails then get instructions from my immediate supervisor on the planned work for the day. However, over time, it is expected that I shall settle into my new role and delegate most of the technical work and shoulder more of the managerial responsibilities.

Question: What was your first position after leaving campus? I started my career in 2013 as a management trainee at Rift Valley Railways. We were tasked with initiating and implementing projects that would positively impact the company’s bottom line. I chose to introduce the ISO process to raise the maintenance standards of locomotives at the Makadara depot. I led a team of 25 male technicians, yet I was inexperienced and roughly 20 years younger than the members on my team. Within eight months of implementation, depot service quality had improved. This role taught me humility and teamwork but most importantly, it built my self-confidence; a trait that has been of great use navigating my career to date.

Question: How did you get into the energy sector? From Rift Valley Railways, I moved on to Virunga Power as a graduate intern because I was interested in learning about the energy sector and the feasibility of micro-grids being used to electrify rural areas. This was really my first insight into the energy space but from a private sector lens, especially the gaps to be filled and the challenges with our existing process. I learnt community engagement skills and human-centred design, since understanding the needs of the people guided the structure of the project. At the same time, I was fortunate to work on an energy study at the International Finance Corporation as a Short Term Consultant. This role taught me how to write high level proposals and engage productively at multi-stakeholder forums.Once the project was completed, I joined Kenya Power as a Trainee Engineer in September 2015. I learnt just how vast the utility is and the scale of responsibility it holds in the growth and prosperity of this country.  I also learnt the various technical aspects of our power system and the initiatives being undertaken to make our grid more robust and reliable. With the team leadership and project management skills acquired over the years, I like to think I am an empathetic, result-oriented engineer, but most importantly one who’s still learning and making her way to full competency.

Questions: What three conversations do you believe women in technology space in Africa should be actively engaged in? I believe they should be actively engaged in all conversations actually. But if I were to highlight 3 main areas of interest, I would suggest the following: First, how to build a sustainable talent pipeline for African Women in STEM. That conversation needs to focus on defining clear roles for each stakeholder and having deliverables and timelines against which impact MUST be measured. I believe the issue of ridiculously few ladies in STEM will never be fully addressed unless we normalize the idea of little girls participating in and enjoying Science. Second, a conversation on how to work together across borders to accelerate the pace of meaningful engagement between African governments and Women in STEM. The objective then would be that affirmative action in workplaces is adopted and implemented as policy rather than the suggestion it is today. Finally, African women in STEM ought to be thinking seriously about a platform to recognize and reward the efforts and achievements of ALL the ‘Hidden Figures’ who’ve made a worthwhile but often downplayed contribution to the development of the continent.

Question: What mentorship activities are you involved in currently? I receive great satisfaction being of service to other people and adding value to their lives and I believe in mentorship as a tool of nurturing a more enlightened youth population. My objective is to expose young ladies to alternative stories of ethical, visionary African leaders that they can emulate. To contribute towards my vision of an Africa where more women are empowered and participating in the development of the continent, I choose to share my experience with teenagers in an attempt to provide a role model but also share information that may enable them to make informed choices. I have been volunteering as a mentor for Akili Dada, an organization that provides mentorship, leadership, training, and scholarships to gifted but underprivileged female students in Kenya. I share my experiences as a young engineer with the aim of encouraging more girls to consider a career in engineering. To date, I have participated in multiple mentorship sessions in various schools specifically on leadership and STEM and engaged in discussions with approximately 200 girls. Over the past year, I have also volunteered as a mentor and speaker for Batian Girls School, The Mekatilili Program and Innovate Kenya, an innovation challenge run by an organization called Global Minimum. Lastly, I also participated in a mentorship session at St George’s girls school organized by the Women’s Chapter of Institution of Engineers of Kenya, during this year’s International Women’s Day.

Question: Your passion for creating change in Africa is evident. What change or impact do you believe you will have made in the next ten years? I am passionate about making a difference in 3 main areas with regard to Africa. First, the under-representation of African women in Engineering. In the next 10 years, I hope to have made a significant contribution towards creating a sustainable talent pipeline. My hope is to create a database for internships, mentorship and job openings for young ladies in the Engineering space. I would also like to tell that story of progress as it unfolds to motivate future generations to build on what we shall leave behind. Second, the potential of the Energy sector to completely revolutionize Africa’s growth story. Professionally, I am working towards being an African Energy Policy expert within the next 10 years. I am currently building capacity to allow me to leverage my varied experience, both in the private and public sector to provide complementary solutions to energy access and affordability especially in rural areas and informal settlements. I am excited at the prospect of shifting from a centralized grid to a more hybrid system that delivers much needed electricity a lot faster and to a lot more people than we are currently doing. (speed and scale). Finally, the often ignored voice and contribution of youth in the leadership of this continent. I truly believe that African youth are the continent’s greatest asset.  In 10 years, I hope to have created and shared widely my database of Pan African thought leaders in all major sectors and disciplines through my work at “Shaping African Conversations”. I look forward to contributing towards sanitizing Africa’s image from within where stories of success, innovation and good governance in African countries will be the rule not the exception. Overall, I hope to impact the lives of young Africans by consistently reminding them, through my words and deeds, that we too deserve the best and that our stories matter.

Question: Most women drop their pursuits for ‘normal’ careers or are dissuaded by the hours that the job requires after qualification, which will take them away from family. What advice would you give about creating the balance between work and home life? Honestly, I’m doing very little balancing at this point as I have no family to take care of, and I’m not juggling between work and school. However, I sincerely believe that women make the best possible decisions for themselves and their loved ones given their set of circumstances and should never be victimized for it. I think the world will truly move a great deal when we stop thinking about the various aspects of a healthy life such as work, school and relationships as things to be balanced, and instead accept shifting priorities for what they are without being judgmental about women’s individual choices and sacrifices. I find it funny as well, that men are rarely ever, if at all, expected to strike this same ‘balance.’ My advice to young African women is to certainly chase relentlessly after their dreams. This doesn’t guarantee that it will be easy, but it implies you will be willing to live with the consequences of your choices. You will have the patience and humility to learn. You will be willing to put in the time and hone your skill until you’re the absolute best at the career of your dreams. Then you will be willing to put that gift to use in driving Africa and her people forward. In the words of Howard Thurman, “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

Question: What is your favorite quote? 

“I come as one but I stand as 10,000.”
-Maya Angelou, from the poem ‘Our Grandmothers.’

ALWAYS reminds me to be grateful for all those whose efforts have got me to where I am today. It also challenges me to strive and be the giant whose shoulders the next generation of African women stand on.

Question: Any hobbies? I love listening to music and reading novels; Jeffrey Archer is my favourite author. I also spend a lot of my time having conversations and laughing with my friends and family. Lastly, I write.

More about the author: Martha is a Graduate Electrical Engineer and the co-editor of Queengineers. She was recently interviewed on the Africa Leadership Dialogues  discussing the role of African youth in shaping the continent’s development narrative. In January 2017, she served as a panelist at the WomEng Kenya Fellowship discussing the role of women engineers in achieving the SDGs as well as at the annual IEEE Kenya Symposium discussing leadership, breaking barriers and creating change.  In December 2016, she received the Power Gaga Award, an award given to outstanding women in the energy sector under the age of 30. In July 2016, she was featured in the Daily Nation for being among the 250 best young leaders from across the world selected to participate in the UNCTAD Youth Forum. In March 2015, she won the inaugural World Bank Kenya #Blog4Dev contest and this inspired her to start the online platform, Shaping African Conversations, which stimulates progressive youth dialogue on current affairs, trade and development and positive initiatives being undertaken by fellow youth.





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