What you need to know:
While these Kenyan women are making strides in the industry, we need to encourage more girls to join the profession as the world transitions to clean and secure energy
In May this year, I attended the Berlin Energy Transition Dialogue Conference in Germany, when I was startled by the few women who were participating.
I expected more women from the energy sector at the conference considering that the event is one of the world’s most important forums on the global energy transition. In this event, key decision-makers of the energy transition engage in discussions in pursuit of an environmentally sound and affordable global energy transition. Yet, even as the world transitions to clean and secure energy to combat climate change a half was underrepresented.
Despite bearing the biggest brunt when it comes to lack of access to energy or clean cooking fuels, women only account for 16 per cent of the traditional energy sector, and for management levels, the numbers are even lower.
In the green energy sector, the number of women is even fewer. One of the side events at the conference was broaching this very subject. “Why are there so few women in the sector? How can the gender gap be closed?”
To me even more concerning was that the number of African women in attendance was negligible.
“Is the gender gap this bad in Africa?” I wondered. “Or was it another case of Visa restrictions that affect many experts from the Global South?” I mused.
“We are very few in the sector,” explains Sarah Kwach when I asked why African women were missing. Sarah is a research scientist and QMS auditor at Kenya Industrial Research and Development Institute (KIRDI) in Energy Resources and Energy Efficiency Research Center (EREE-RC).
“As of October 2022, Kenya had only 22 female licensed solar technicians out of 375. This represents a meagre 5 percent. Right now only between 10 to 15 percent of women are taking up technical roles in this area,” notes the founding members of Women in Sustainable Energy and Entrepreneurship (WISEe), an organisation which trains and empowers women in solar energy.
So where could the problem be stemming from? “The current system seems to favour men over women. This is because for one to specialise in the field, one must have studied engineering. As you know women are underrepresented in STEM straight from high school, which means they will be even lesser in energy and negligible in renewable energy,” explains Eng. Paul Simiyu Mabonga, the Managing Director, Sentimental Energy Company (Sentec).
“As recently as 2018, the ratio of women to men studying engineering courses in Kenyan major universities was 1 :10, with the traditional disciplines of electrical, electronic, and mechanical engineering which then trained energy engineers as a specialization recording even fewer numbers,” he notes.
This, he says, has led to a male-dominated field with most decision-makers in both private and public energy spaces being males by over 95 per cent.
But all is not lost, according to Eng. Mabonga. “The solution would be to provide incentives to the girl child, especially from high school in the form of career advice scholarships, and exchange programmes to encourage more to study science and science-related disciplines,” he offers. This is in addition to making energy engineering a full-time course. But importantly, he adds, the success stories of the few female pioneers should be retold in the mainstream media, as motivation platforms for the girl child.
We spoke to three women in renewable energy about their profession and their solutions to close the gender gap.
At just 25, she has carved a niche in an industry that for years has shut doors on women. She is one of only three women technicians in her company
Faith Nafula, 25, Solar Power Projects designer, Plexus Energy Company Limited
“I have always been good at solving problems and adverse changes in climate, green energy was the most convenient route for me. Over the years, I have become passionate about it. I studied Renewable Energy and Environmental Physics at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT).
Back in my university days, the ratio of male to female students in my class was 60:40. As we progressed towards graduation, the gap widened even further.
The underrepresentation of women is even more glaring in the workplace. In my company, for instance, there are only three women who are technicians: Two solar engineers and one technician. This is out of a team of 20.
I think this is because women have been told at young ages to train for "softer " jobs, thus leaving the opportunities to men. This has adversely tampered with the gender balance in the energy sector. To close the gap, we need to invest in clean energy businesses that are owned by women.
Also, as women, we have a battle within ourselves. I am a woman first before my career, and so yes, sometimes there is pressure to balance the gender roles expected of me, and my work, which again is inclined towards men.
Mechanical work can take a toll on a woman's body, but I always try to have some casual workers help with the mechanical work. Also, men underestimate women even subconsciously, but I stop this by being the best at what I do. This means I’m constantly learning to leave no leeway for underestimation.
As a woman, there is also the burden of proving that my feminine side of me is intact, despite being in a “man’s line of work”. My nails may be short but manicured. I put on makeup sometimes, always having lip gloss and sunscreen on, and I'm not apologetic about it. To be honest, sometimes it is not easy to strike a balance.
Then, there is the war that could come from as far as some of my female peers. I'm referred to as -mtu wa mjengo -, and it takes time for them to actually believe I am into green energy.
In terms of dating, I haven’t done it in three years because engineering is very time-consuming, especially in the beginning when you are learning. Also, I unintentionally intimidate most men because I don't hide my intelligence. I will date soon.
In the future, I am planning to pursue further studies in renewable energy and climate change adaptation to advance my scope in the energy sector. Towards retirement, I will probably lecture at various Universities.”
She overcame getting overlooked and today she is respected in a field that some would say is only reserved for men
Grace Wanjiru, 39, is an expert in design and installation of solar systems.
“My background is in Electrical Engineering. I have experience in the distribution of energy as well as in operations and maintenance. I have now transitioned into incorporating solar into the energy mix for small commercial and domestic clients.
The desire to become an engineer began when I was a young girl. At university, the ratio of female to male students in our class was 1:14. We were just 10 women against 140 men.
In the first two years, the male students underestimated us, but by the third year, they knew we could hold our own after many of them dropped off after failing. By graduation day, we were seven women, against 70 men.
The challenges extended even into the workplace. I was doubted when providing valid input and solutions to problems, and my juniors felt the need to challenge my instructions and try to go over my head to get the male opinion.
But time works wonders and you end up proving yourself worthy of the position you hold. It is true what they say as a woman you have to work 200 percent more to earn 50 percent of the recognition.
Women in engineering are breaking out from the mould of having to look rough to thrive in this career. More and more are finding ways to bring their femininity into the workplace. As for me, I find a balance of both as the situation warrants.
It is not just in Africa that societal expectations on women concerning marriage and child-rearing curtails the progress of women in climbing the career ladder.
The number of women seeking postdoctoral studies in engineering dwindles further. Women engineers also don’t seem to grow within the engineering profession. Men tend to be promoted within engineering roles while women have to shift to softer departments to achieve the same career trajectory.”
Ruth Nzioka, 43, an expert in Solar PV instructor and installation, and an electrical transmission technician
Ruth faced a challenge accessing energy during childhood which grew her interest in the space.
“I do solar systems installations with a ladies-only cooperative, where we work together to grow in the male-dominated sector.
My fascination with solar energy started during my childhood. As a child, I grew up in a village which was not connected to the grid, and at one point my parents purchased a solar lighting system. This was interesting to me because from there, my parents were not spending money on paraffin for the lighting, and there was no choking smell. This triggered my curiosity and desire to know more.
When I first joined college, I was shocked to find that we were only two girls in a class of 18. At the degree level, we were only six women out of about 30 students studying electrical engineering. I studied for my diploma in electrical engineering at the Machakos Technical Training Institute (currently, Machakos University), then later on pursued a bachelor’s degree in technology at the Technical University of Kenya.
At first, my parents were not sure where it would take me, but they supported me all through my education. But they were the happiest when I installed a bigger solar system for them which could run a TV, in addition to the lights, just after college.
Back in school, some felt we were not cut out for the course and didn't understand why we never took a "feminine" course. This belittlement often follows us even to our careers, and this is one of the many reasons that drive us to work as a unit.
Other than this, it is also challenging to balance work and family.
Women tend to prioritise other people which is a good thing but it works against us. We choose to support spouses, partners, siblings or even our children, and in the process neglect our own growth. It is a challenge everywhere but for us African women, it is worse because we are trained to cheer for men.
My husband whom I met while I was working, has been my greatest cheerleader, and sometimes he even joins in to help in some of my projects.
I am lucky that I have met and made most of my friends in the industry. For the few who are not in the industry, they feel this is a hard place to be.
As a woman, I enjoy being “ladylike”. The only thing that I don't like much is having my hair done, and it has nothing to do with my career choice.”
In a career spanning almost two decades, she has proven to be a woman made of steel
Sarah Kwach, 44, research scientist and QMS auditor at Kenya Industrial Research and Development Institute (KIRDI) in Energy Resources and Energy Efficiency Research Center (EREE-RC)
“I am a mother of four. Despite doing my job, I’m an advocate for women and girls’ empowerment and I frequently participate in community work in my home village as I encourage girls to take up STEM courses. Remote Energy, an organisation in the US has mentored me in their solar PV programmes and has certified me to be a solar educator to train women in Africa. Also, I am a Certified Energy Manager (CEM®) by the Association of Energy Engineers (Atlanta, USA).
I have over 17 years of research experience in Renewable Energy technologies. Currently, I am pursuing my Master of Science in Renewable energy.
I am also one of the founding members of Women in Sustainable Energy and Entrepreneurship (WISEe), an organisation which trains and empower women in solar and a member of the Energy Management technical committee at the Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS). I have also participated in high-profile publications as an author, contributor and reviewer.
I would say I started drifting towards this space in my childhood. In high school at Ahero Girls, my performance especially in science subjects was always outstanding, and I got recognised for it. I would later get enrolled at Kenyatta University for my Bachelor of Science in Appropriate Technology. We were just two women in a class of 14 and only four in the entire university.
But studying such a course at the university during my time years ago, as a woman, was not easy. Males considered themselves superior in this area. Some of my friends who were pursuing arts subjects would laugh at me whenever they met me in the corridors carrying the engineering drawing board and tools. Some would encourage me to drop the course as it was very demanding.
After I secured my first job in the solar industry, I had a conviction that renewable and green energy was my future. I was inspired by Tameezan Wa Gathui who happened to be my lecturer and WISEe’s former chairperson.
While more women are registering for STEM courses today, challenges remain. Securing a job is not easy due to gender biases and cultural beliefs. As an installer, some people say it is against their culture for women to climb their roofs. Also, there is a lack of finance in carrying out research and development in energy.
For African women, due to gender norms and stereotypes, we are often excluded from the discussions about energy plans and policies, resulting in gender-blind planning of energy policies, finances, and execution.
Then there is a lack of networking opportunities for women to get into the space.
Some of the solutions would include targeted programmes to increase awareness of women at grass root levels on available renewable energy technologies, and financing options. More girls should be empowered to join the sector. This includes access to STEM and soft skill education, training, and resources to enable.
Other than that, it is crucial to involve men as champions to speak out about gender equality, challenge stereotypes and harmful gender norms, and make the case for diversity.”
THE GENDER GAP AT A GLANCE
139 million jobs: The number of jobs in the energy sector worldwide by 2030. Of those jobs, 38.2 million will be in renewable energy and 74.2 million in other energy transition-related sectors.
IRENA’s World Energy Transitions Outlook 2022 report
22%: Percentage of jobs women hold in energy production and distribution. Women make up 48 percent of the global workforce. The number is even lower among senior managers at 14 percent.
According to the International Energy Agency
25 seats: Number of seats women hold on the boards of the world’s 200 largest utilities, representing 16 percent of board members.
63%: Percentage of energy sector startups surveyed who were led by all-male teams.
2020 report from the Global Accelerator Learning Initiative
71%: Percentage of women who perceive a gender wage gap in the renewable industry globally.
The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) Survey