Dr. Sheila Oparaocha, Executive Director of the ENERGIA International Network on Gender and Sustainable Energy
Dr. Sheila Oparaocha holds a master’s degree in Gender and Development Planning and has over twenty-one years of experience working at the intersectionality of gender equality, women empowerment, and energy access.
The 2021 recipient of the Carnot Prize, Sheila is a renowned leader in the gender and sustainable energy sector, and as the Executive Director of the ENERGIA International Network on Gender and Sustainable Energy, since 1999. She initiated, developed, and led numerous programs on the institutionalizing of gender transformative approaches in the energy sector in developing countries, specifically in the areas of women entrepreneurship development, gender mainstreaming in energy access projects and (sub) national energy policies, international policy advocacy, research and evidence development, network building and knowledge management.
Sheila is a strong project manager who is primarily responsible for the quality control and delivery of ENERGIA’s multi-partner/donor project portfolio, who provides technical support and leadership to her team together with ample experience in annual planning, budgeting, monitoring and evaluation, and donor relationship management. Sheila is the co-chair of the Technical Advisory Group for the Sustainable Development Goal 7 convened by UNDESA; and a member of the Steering Committee of the Health and Energy Platform for Action and the High-Level Coalition on Energy and Health that operates under the auspices of WHO.
Who is Sheila Oparaocha and what is your background?
I have over twenty-one years of working experience in the gender and energy sector. I hold a Bachelor’s Degree in Veterinary Medicine and a Master’s Degree in Gender and Development Planning. I am currently the Executive Director of the ENERGIA International Network on Gender and Sustainable Energy, which is an International Network of like-minded organisations and professionals that was established in 1996 to create an institutional base for galvanising action aimed at integrating gender into the energy access agenda of developing countries. We have various programmes working with 31 partner organizations in 18 countries in Africa and Asia.
My overall and primary responsibility for managing ENERGIA’s international programmes is planning, monitoring, reporting, and liaising with ENERGIA’s donors. I also provide technical support to ENERGIA’s activities on women’s entrepreneurship development, gender mainstreaming in energy programmes, international policy advocacy, research and evidence development, network building, and knowledge management.
I am also the co-chair of the Technical Advisory Group for Sustainable Development Goal 7 and a member of the Health and Energy Platform for Action.
As the Director of the ENERGIA International Network on Gender and Sustainable Energy that develops, and led numerous programs on the institutionalizing of gender transformative approaches in the energy sector. How do you think Renewable energy can improve Africa's access to electricity - and improve digital connectivity for education and information, including early warning of natural disasters?
I believe access to adequate, reliable, and affordable energy will open a lot of opportunities for the region, in terms of job creation, energy efficiency, and accessibility to impoverished communities. Sustainable, renewable energy is fundamental to Africa’s future. According to World Economic Forum By 2050, the continent will be the home of 2 billion people, and two in five of the world’s children will be born there.
Meeting our needs with sustainable sources of modern energy – for consumption and production – will be essential to social welfare and economic development.
The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA)’s modeling reveals that when accompanied by an appropriate policy basket, a systematic shift of Africa away from fossil fuels towards an energy system based on renewable energy could lead to 6.4% higher GDP, 3.5% more economy-wide jobs, and a 25.4% higher welfare index throughout the outlook period of 2020 to 2050.
Two of the most notable opportunities associated with the energy transition in African countries identified by IRENA’s and the AfDB are greater fiscal stability and job creation.
We have seen how renewable sources like solar energy have had a significant impact on the livelihood of so many communities. You look at projects like our own that is supporting partners such as Solar Sister that are providing access to clean entrepreneurs. To date, over 7,400 solar sister entrepreneurs have reached over three million people with clean energy access. products sold by solar sister entrepreneurs have eliminated over 894,848 metric tonnes of co2 emissions.
This project drives impact by investing in women’s clean energy businesses in off-grid communities in African countries including Nigeria and Tanzania. It eradicates extreme energy poverty by empowering African women with economic opportunities and provides essential services and training that enable women entrepreneurs to build sustainable businesses.
What is the purpose of the campaign launched by Power Up?
The Power Up campaign is focused on increasing access to renewable, affordable energy for the billions of people who go without it. Specifically, Power Up aims to influence politicians and decision-makers in countries where the population has little access to energy – and also the wealthy nations that can help fund solutions – to increase commitments on energy access at the COP27 climate talks in Egypt this November.
How will the campaign work?
At this present moment, the expected activities are to run in Kenya, South Africa, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, and Rwanda.
The discussions around sustainable solutions for clean energy in Africa have been ongoing for decades. Even though considerable progress has been achieved in some areas, there is still much work to do. With the Power Up initiative and campaign, we want to clearly communicate the following:
- Access to sustainable energy for all Africans is a non-negotiable if the continent is going to achieve its economic growth projections, sustain social cohesion and give future generations of Africans a chance at making a significant contribution. It should not be a debate, it is non-negotiable, we need to get there.
- Affordable clean energy is essential to preparing communities for the dangers of climate change – powering irrigation and cold storage for crops, health centers, and other infrastructure, and creating resilience by boosting jobs and economic growth. Climate change is happening- Africa needs to adapt.
- It is an achievable goal if we take a multi-sectoral approach- we need all hands on deck.
It is an urgent need for a continent with a sizeable youth dividend that can either be an asset or disempower the continent if opportunities are not immediately created. There is a sense of impatience with the status quo and rightly so. The time is now!
You are taking this campaign to COP27, tell us more about this?
With COP27, only weeks away we have no time to lose. Now is the time for all of us to work together and ensure the negotiations at COP27 deliver good results for Africa. We can see every day how the climate crisis is impacting the world around us, and how we must adapt to this challenge.
However, lack of access to energy in communities most threatened by climate change is a major barrier to adaptation. Energy is essential for key adaptation solutions – such as strengthening agricultural through improved irrigation and cold storage, equipping clinics to deal with new or increased health challenges, and connecting people with news and information about climate threats.
We must bring the message loud and clear to COP27, as what happened at COP27 will send ripples across the whole world.
But, the relationship between energy access and climate change adaptation is often overlooked in policy and practice. If this understanding does not become more widespread we miss out on opportunities to maximise the use of scare resources. This limits the flow and more efficient use of funding (especially climate finance) for joint energy access and climate action. People need access to clean energy and adaptation efforts urgently and a concentrated effort must be taken to deliver these elements together.
That is why at COP27, Power Up will be calling on wealthy nations to greatly increase climate adaptation funding, with a large amount supporting access to clean, affordable energy for those facing climate catastrophe. This funding should put energy access at the heart of climate and development agendas, unlock private sector investment, and support low-income nations to prioritise the issue.
What in your opinion are the biggest obstacles to a green energy (renewable energy) transition in Africa?
Africa is a continent with abundant resources that are required for sustainable and renewable energy sources, such as hydropower, wind, and solar energy. However, our biggest obstacle remains to access to be funding. With the necessary funding in place access to renewable and clean efficient energy can be achieved. 57% of the population in Africa is without access to electricity, which hinders the continent’s socio-economic development and prevents the continent from reaching its full potential. This has a severe impact on access to better education, health, well-being, and employment opportunities. This is something we need to tackle as a continent and ensure that access to clean energy is realised across the region.
According to the World Bank, Renewable energy can help countries mitigate climate change, build resilience to volatile prices, and lower energy costs—this is especially critical now as spiking fossil fuel costs are debilitating poor energy-importing countries. Solar and wind technologies can become a game changer for many developing countries like Africa as solar and wind are abundant, cost-competitive, and a source of reliable power when combined with battery storage. Hydropower also provides clean, renewable energy that is one of the lowest-cost sources of electricity for consumers.
The most significant and well-known obstacle to renewable energy adoption right now is cost. How in your learned opinion can we in Africa mitigate this?
According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), the intergovernmental organisation mandated to facilitate cooperation, advance knowledge, and promote the adoption and sustainable use of renewable energy, indicate that with the right policies, regulations, governance, and access to financial markets, sub-Saharan Africa could meet up to 67 percent of its energy needs by 2030.
IRENA’s modelling reveals that when accompanied by an appropriate policy basket, a systematic shift of Africa away from fossil fuels towards an energy system based on renewable energy could lead to 6.4% higher GDP, 3.5% more economy-wide jobs, and a 25.4% higher welfare index throughout the outlook period of 2020 to 2050.
It is critical that we as a continent demonstrate a great sense of good leadership and accountability to attract funding from developed countries. Initiatives such as the Power Up campaign are playing a vital role in lobbying various stakeholders to be part of this energy transition and accessibility conversation. With the right support and attitude, we can potentially provide access to clean and renewable energy to all.
In some instances, there is a lack of education and understanding of renewable energy. In your opinion, how would you suggest we go about speaking to the lower socio-economic classes on the benefits of adopting renewable energy practices?
As I said in the beginning, we are a continent blessed with rich renewable energy sources, and many of them remain heavily under-utilised today. We need to realise that these resources are at our disposal and we need to make use of them to accelerate inclusive socio-economic development.
I believe we need to invest time in educating our people about the importance and benefits of renewable energy especially when it comes to education, healthcare, gender equality and job creation. This can also play a fundamental role in supporting MSMEs in terms of growth and marketing their products.
Do you see more of these campaigns coming up in the future to amplify African voices in pursuit of climate justice, including organizations powering up communities most affected by energy poverty?
Yes, Africa has a very important role to play in this conversation and I believe it’s time that as a continent start leading some of the conversations. We can’t afford to stay behind on this. It is paramount for us to work together with other parties to see this transition come live. It is not only important for climate change but also for the inclusive social-economic development of our region.