UN Special Representative Damilola Ogunbiyi & Her Lifelong Fight For Sustainable Energy For All

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Interview by Laura McDermott, originally published on The Beam

As well as being the Special Representative for Sustainable Energy for All and Co-Chair of United Nations-Energy, Ms. Damilola Ogunbiyi is also the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of world renowned international organization Sustainable Energy for All (SEforALL). Damilola is a globally respected leader with a broad and diverse international background and interviewing her for BEAM #11 was such an honor.

Damilola Ogunbiyi
Damilola Ogunbiyi

The Beam: Damilola, it is such an honor to have this opportunity to interview you. Thank you for taking this time to speak with us. 

First, we want to understand where it comes from, your determination and passion to provide all with sustainable energy. Can you tell us a little about yourself and your journey to becoming CEO and Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Sustainable Energy for All and Co-Chair of UN-Energy? 

Damilola: Throughout my career, I’ve witnessed the transformative effect that bringing energy to people can have. Working in the Nigerian government, I’ve seen how energy access can give children the chance for much better education, and for their parents to build prosperous, fulfilling lives.

One of my first major roles in my energy and development journey was serving as General Manager for the Lagos State Electricity Board, which is responsible for public lighting, independent power projects, and energy development across Lagos State, serving a population of 21 million inhabitants. This was a great experience at understanding projects on a regional level before I moved to the federal government as Senior Special Advisor to the President on Power, and then to the Nigerian Rural Electrification Agency (REA), where I was appointed the first ever female Managing Director. At REA, I focused on a national approach, helping connect Nigerians across the country to electricity.

From this regional, national, and now international experience in my new role at Sustainable Energy for All (SEforALL) and the United Nations (UN), I’m focused on implementation of SDG7 at the country level and on developing a renewed global “energy compact” to recommit countries and companies to the actions necessary to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 7 (SDG7) by 2030.

The Beam: What would you say are the main obstacles when it comes to universal sustainable energy? Tell us about the work that you are doing to overcome these challenges on a global scale and help close energy access gaps.

Damilola: Meeting SDG7 targets on time will require new commitments, resources, and activities focused on broad partnerships and scalable programs – especially as we plan to recover from how COVID-19 has devastated the world. Even before the pandemic hit, we were not on track to achieving SDG7 by 2030, nor are we currently succeeding in keeping the global temperature rise to less than 1.5° Celsius. While efforts are being made to provide energy access and mitigate climate impacts, these efforts have proven to be insufficient and fragmented, and they lack accountability thus far.

We believe the communities and countries most impacted by climate change and a lack of energy access must be partners in developing approaches tailored to their contexts and in implementing solutions that are affordable. As we target closing energy access gaps, we must do so in a way that delivers more than just a minimum level of access, but energy for productive use and economic growth. A key part of our work this year will include country-level, universal integrated energy plans around electrification, renewables, efficiency, and clean cooking. This renewed focus will see us work closely in collaboration with governments and in-country partners to devise and execute strategies that close energy access gaps while ensuring solutions are both clean and efficient.

Damilola Ogunbiyi
Ogunibiyi is a strong advocate on the power of mentorship, and works with young Nigerians to increase the number of young people in the renewable energy sector.

The Beam: As an organization, you have stated that your partnerships are essential to the work that you are doing. Can you explain to us why these partnerships are so crucial and how these relationships influence the work that SEforALL is doing?

Damilola: We believe partnerships are critical to close energy access gaps. It is vital to bring the right leaders, businesses, organizations, and communities together to understand what solutions are needed on the ground to ensure no one is left behind in the energy transition. Our approach means building productive partnerships with governments and supporting them with their financial, technical, and policy needs. At the same time, we are forging new, innovative partnerships that harness the insights and resources of other stakeholders in the sustainable energy movement to support the countries we work with.

Business and private sector partnerships are also key. For example, decentralized energy solutions are a huge opportunity and a vastly untapped market, yet for it to truly realize its potential, we need greater private sector engagement and finance. With less than a decade to go, the private sector is crucial to meet our 2030 goal, and we need to work with businesses at local, regional, and global levels to deliver progress at the speed and scale we need.

The Beam: It is crucial to us to utilize the lens of intersectionality when discussing climate injustice — an approach I know is also taken by yourselves as SEforALL. Tell us about the work that you are doing to unlock finance from private and public sources for gender-smart and socially inclusive approaches to the energy sector?

Damilola: Closing current energy access gaps in just ten years requires significant amounts of capital for electricity — for both centralized and distributed solutions — and clean cooking infrastructure. So far, this capital is not flowing at the speed or scale it needs to be. We also know that energy access is gendered, and SEforALL is committed to promoting the inclusion of women and the poorest people in society to help secure a just energy transition that leaves no one behind.

Our latest report, Energy Safety Nets: Using Social Assistance Mechanisms to Close Affordability Gaps for the Poor, is a good example of the intersection of energy policy and social assistance coming together to create more inclusive results and help protect poor, vulnerable, and marginalized people. To ensure we continue to make faster inclusive progress, we must focus on enhancing and extending the provision of sustainable modern energy to the most vulnerable in society who will not be reached by business-as-usual approaches, and we must incorporate gender equality at the heart of the energy transition by enhancing women’s full participation in sustainable energy solutions at every level.

Look out for our flagship Energizing Finance report that will come out later this year with the latest data on financial flows for sustainable energy access in key countries, as well as a new initiative — the Universal Energy Facility — that will be launched in the autumn and will focus on results-based financing for energy access projects across Africa.

The Beam: SEforALL is aiming to incorporate gender equality into the heart of the energy transition at every level. I have no doubt that there are many girls and young women who have been utterly inspired by your rich history of work and successes. What would your advice be to the next generation of female leaders fighting for climate and energy justice? What do you think that they should prioritize?

Damilola: As the world faces evolving challenges, this is a really important time for the energy sector and a moment when we need the commitment, talent, and enthusiasm of young female leaders to help move us forward.

One thing I truly value working in development is being able to see the change and impact that your work has helped to deliver. If you enjoy a challenge and want to make a genuine difference, you can play a pivotal role in delivering a clean, just transition for all. From working on projects that help electrify a remote, rural health clinic to rolling out projects with businesses and government partners, the energy industry is one of the few sectors where you can really help create change and be part of something that delivers impact – and you will never forget the difference that you’ve helped achieve.

The Beam: Our theme for this edition is ‘Power in People.’ What does this phrase mean to you?

Damilola: People are at the heart of everything we do. It is our job to keep them there and ensure that governments, businesses, and our other partners are also focused on the 840 million people without access to electricity and the 2.9 billion without access to clean cooking solutions. Making sure leaders connect their action to real life impact that people will feel on the ground is one of the most powerful tools you can use to motivate somebody to act – and as more and more people around the world take to the streets to stand up for a sustainable future for themselves and their children, we are seeing the true power in people to create change.

Damilola Ogunbiyi
Damilola Ogunbiyi with Yemi Osinbajo, Vice President of Nigeria.

The Beam: The discussion surrounding climate change often comes with a negative tone, and of course that is because we are speaking about the most serious threat our world faces. However, I would like to know if there is anything that brings you hope when you look to the future, and if so, what is it?

Damilola: We know that an affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all is possible. This goal can unleash new jobs and prosperous economies, as well as increase equality. Moreover, as we battle the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve also seen how energy access quite literally saves lives by powering critical healthcare that the most vulnerable communities across the world need.

That’s why, since taking office at the start of the year, I’ve been filled with both optimism and determination about meeting the SDG7 challenge on time. My optimism comes from the enthusiasm I’ve seen in meetings with the international community, business leaders, and ministers, and determination from understanding that we have to turn this enthusiasm and momentum into real action for change to happen on the ground.

The next two years will be vital to deliver the promise set out in global energy goals, and as the world recovers from COVID, we must use this moment to invest in clean, sustainable energy to build more resilient economies that can serve everyone.

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer our questions. The Beam is so grateful for all that you have done and continue to do. Is there anything that you would like to add?

Damilola: A lot of what I’ve discussed in this interview – the stories of success, innovative approaches, data and evidence – will all come together at the Sustainable Energy for All Forum next year in Kigali, Rwanda. As we continue our ‘Recover Better’ plan from Coronavirus, the Forum will be even more pivotal in bringing global leaders in the sustainable energy sector together to spur even greater progress on SDG7. Find out more about the Forum here and join us in Kigali from February 16 – 18, 2021 to be part of the change.

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