Energy for Growth Hub
Multimedia Jan 31, 2022

Episode #8 Damilola Ogunbiyi: Putting People at the Center of Energy Transitions

The CEO of Sustainable Energy for All (SEforALL) on whether the international community is failing on SDG7, what…

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The CEO of Sustainable Energy for All (SEforALL) on whether the international community is failing on SDG7, what she thinks net zero means for Africa & how she challenges the stereotype of what an African leader looks like.

Damilola Ogunbiyi is the CEO of Sustainable Energy for All (SEforALL), Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Sustainable Energy for All and Co-Chair of UN-Energy. Prior to SEforALL, Damilola was the first female Managing Director of the Nigerian Rural Electrification Agency, Senior Special Assistant to the President on Power, and Head of the Advisory Power Team in the Office of the Vice President of Nigeria. Before joining the Nigerian government, she was the first female to be appointed as the General Manager of the Lagos State Electricity Board and was a consultant for the UK Department for International Development (DfID) on public-private partnerships. Damilola serves as a Commissioner for the Global Commission to End Energy Poverty, Co-Chair of the COP26 Energy Transition Council, member of the Development Advisory Council of the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC), member of the clean cooking alliance advisory board, and a member of the Advisory Board of the University of Oxford – Future of Cooling Programme. Damilola serves as an ex-officio board member of the Energy for Growth Hub.

Show Notes

Amped Up:

Damilola Interview:






KATIE:  I’m Katie Auth in Washington.


ROSE:  And I’m Rose Mutiso in London, and this is the High Energy Planet, the podcast from the Energy for Growth Hub about new ideas to solve global energy poverty.


KATIE:  On today’s show we talk with Damilola Ogunbiyi, former head of the Nigerian Rural Electrification Agency and currently CEO of the U.N.’s Sustainable Energy for All Initiative.  She’s also a new board member of the Energy for Growth Hub.


ROSE:  We’ll ask Damilola about where the international community is falling short on fulfilling SDG 7, what COP26 was like behind the scenes, and what her views on Nigeria’s surprise net-zero commitment are.


KATIE:  But first Rose and I get amped up about climate finance.


ROSE:  All that coming up on this episode of High Energy Planet.




ROSE:  All right.  So it’s time for Amped Up, when we talk about what we can’t stop thinking about right now in the energy and development space.  And this week we’re obsessing about climate finance.  So this was one of the top priorities for African countries at COP26, which ended up being a massive disappointment for anyone who cares about climate justice, and just energy transitions in poor countries, which, by the way, should be everyone.  On the other hand though, we also saw private investors make some bold commitments at the COP.  For example, there was a launch of the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net-Zero, which is a coalition of over 450 finance firms jointly managing $130 trillion, who have pledged to align their financing activities with net-zero by 2050, whatever that means.  As always, these announcements generated lots of excitement, and seems to be part of a larger trend to elevate private-sector-led solutions in climate and development discourse.  So Katie, what do you make of all of this buzz around private climate finance?  Do we need to re-evaluate this strategy?


KATIE:  The need is actually much larger.  So that’s driven a lot of people to focus on using public dollars to de-risk private investment in clean energy particularly.  So this is effectively what institutions like the USDFC or the IFC are doing when they guarantee or invest directly in solar and wind farms.  And it’s long been a focus of U.S. policy.  It’s what power Africa was set up to do, for example.  But I think we need to be really careful about putting all of our eggs in the leveraging-private-capital basket.  It’s definitely a huge part of the solution, but as our friends at CGD pointed out recently, 83% of total infrastructure investment in developing countries is actually public, and that’s including 79% of energy investment.  So we need to make sure we’re giving ourselves the tools to do all of that as well.


ROSE:  Oh wow, Katie, those are some pretty sobering numbers.  I mean, it’s great that the private sector is stepping up, but they’re responsible for this tiny, you know, 20%-maybe-plus sliver.  And so public sector players are clearly not off the hook.  As always, there are no silver bullets, and finance, like every other aspect of this climate crisis, will need lots of creative thinking and diverse approaches.  And I don’t know, hopefully we’ll see the conversation move in a more balanced direction, and Katie, you and I will definitely be watching this space.  So if you have an energy or development obsession, good or bad, tweet it to us at @energyforgrowth and we’ll include it in an upcoming episode.  Coming up, we talk with Damilola Ogunbiyi from SE for All.




KATIE:  Damilola, welcome to High Energy Planet.  It is so great to have you here.


DAMILOLA:  Thank you for having me.


KATIE:  So we wanted to jump in with a question about your background.  Globally obviously you’re one of the most prominent women in energy, certainly in energy access.  But you’ve said before that this really wasn’t your original plan, and Rose and I are very curious what would’ve been the alternative?


DAMILOLA:  I don’t know actually.  One of the key things that I did straight out of university was work in the construction industry.


KATIE:  Really?


DAMILOLA:  So I was – yeah, so I was there building buildings on site in very cold weather after I left university for about three years, which was just fantastic.  And I think that has lent to what I’m doing now and why I need to see something built on ground, in action on ground.  I have a hard time kind of leaving things to policy and paperwork (as) success or an event, as, oh, we’ve done something really successful.  So it’s been tough going from this to more of an advocacy role.  And I feel at least this role allows both my worlds to merge.  We’ll have the advocacy but we have to show the connections on ground.


KATIE:  Interesting.


KATIE:  That’s really great.  Maybe next time one of your team members can get you on a solar build just [LAUGHTER]…


DAMILOLA:  I have been – I have been on the solar build and I’ve been on top of many, many IVPs as well with my hard hat…


ROSE:  Oh, that’s wonderful.


DAMILOLA:  …and my boots, or (inaudible) picture of her like that.


ROSE:  I do love a hard hat.  Okay, I’m glad [LAUGHTER] – I’m glad you’re getting that in.  Okay, so continuing on the theme of your background, so obviously you’ve been a real trailblazer as an African woman in the energy sector, both in Nigeria and – regionally, and now the global sphere.  So based on your experience on the frontlines of this issues, where are you seeing the most opportunities for women in energy, and where are they still being denied access?


DAMILOLA:  I think – I’m going to take that question in two parts.  I think women are seen as an instrumental force now in energy development, especially African women.  I’m hoping that people understand that they can’t just decide policies and frameworks in the global north and expect to implement it in the global south with no issues, and then blame the people on ground for not understanding the implementation.  So – and women have to be at the heart of that.  Unfortunately women are the ones who bear the brunt of the issues when it comes to energy.  But we’re getting some really great data now on having a woman either head an organization to do with clean energy or be part of an organization, actually does better than the male counterparts.  So the data speaks for itself.  On the other part, when I said I wanted two parts, is women understanding and being unapologetic for giving other women opportunities.  I think that is something that is now seen as okay.  Unfortunately in my younger life women didn’t want any other woman on top.  It was a very, very strange relationship, right?  They just wanted to be the only woman on top.  And I think if we’re going to be really honest about women we also have to be honest about our fellow women and how we have to create the space.  So in Nigeria I am so proud of all the young women that trained with me and taught me as well.  And, you know, I left behind probably, like, 600 of the smartest young Nigerian women who are really leading the charge.  So you can’t – you know, for me it’s, like, you can’t worry about what people are saying, you know, “Why did you employ another woman?” or “Why is this another woman in this role?”  You have to be very unapologetic that this is what I’m going to do, and be ready to take the heat for it.  Because it’s not very popular, not just amongst males, but even other women.


ROSE:  That’s a great.


KATIE:  I love that.


ROSE:  …great insight that the days of (viscosity) mentality are gone.  There’s enough to go around.  Do you ever find that you’re still in situations where you’re the only woman in the room all these years later?


DAMILOLA:  Of course, all the time.  Especially in this role, because–and I say this very openly–I feel that I sometimes don’t fit into people’s aesthetic as what an African woman will be looking like, just literally physically.  I think they think I’m – I seem much younger, I seem…  And that was one of the reasons why I wanted to come into this role and just share all the amazing dimensions of African women, and we look different.  And one day I can have a long weave down to my knees, and another day like today which you can’t see me, I have my big old afro.  And I’m cool with it.  And (inaudible) younger African leader–I’m not young but I’m slightly  younger–in the mix.  So there were lots of times – and you can get in Zoom when people kind of zoom in with their faces and think you’re the (inaudible) of yourself, which could be quite hilarious.  And it’s just not possible that you could be the youngest undersecretary of the U.N.; it has to be some type of mistake.  So it’s still a constant unfortunate.  But what is more disappointing is when you’re the only person of color; there’s absolutely no diversity in the room.


ROSE:  And then talking about Africa also [LAUGHTER]…


DAMILOLA:  Exactly.


ROSE:  …as the only African.


DAMILOLA:  So I’ve been in many conversations actually that I’ve said that I’m not comfortable in this room, or in this group, and until they get someone from the global south in the conversation I won’t continue this.  So that’s – and, you know, it’s not an easy thing to do when you’re dealing at the highest level, but you have to do that (unless) things don’t change.


KATIE:  Have you always felt comfortable coming forward and saying that, or was that something that you had to get comfortable with over time?


DAMILOLA:  I think I had to get comfortable with it over time.  But where I’ve come from I’m not the minority, you have to understand, you know?  You know, being black-African where I come from is my superpower, and I think that’s what it is here.  So I’ve never felt different in any kind of way, or felt undermined, until you really see you are physically different here, which I do think…  And I speak about it because I don’t want everyone to, you know, let’s go in deep into some racism argument.  But you have to understand the environment that you’re put into, right?  And you have to understand and equip yourself to (inaudible) yourself on changing that narrative for your own benefit and the benefit of the organization, but more importantly, to see past that and feel – just have the end goal.  And the end goal is people who are much less privileged than I am who can’t probably listen to this podcast right now because they have no electricity, and who are living day by day.  So sometimes it does frustrate you, you do get upset.  But you have to really look past that and say, if it’s helping somebody I can cope with it.  If it doesn’t help somebody then there’s a problem.


ROSE:  That’s great.  Just amen and amen to all of that.


KATIE:  Yeah.  I was going to say exactly that, Rose.  But we are unfortunately in a way going to turn to energy.  So as CEO of SE for All a big part of your job is rallying the international community to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 7, which aims to ensure universal access to modern energy by 2030.  We’ve definitely made progress, but as you’ve already alluded to we’re not there yet.  Are there particular ways in which you feel the international community is failing on SDG 7?


DAMILOLA:  Absolutely.  First, recognizing that it’s a crisis, recognizing that, you know, even issues like clean cooking alone kill four-million African women every single year, and that is unacceptable now.  Recognizing that energy is firmly part of the climate crisis, instead of just putting the two as different things.  And also understanding that for not – two countries will not be the same in their energy transition path.  People have to be at the center of energy transition.  It has to be just, it has to be equitable, and it has to take people out of poverty.  I feel like people in the global north do not understand that enough, and they don’t actually understand what is at stake when we truly leave no one behind.  I think hints of that we’ve seen with the pandemic response, right?  So when things affect the global north they find $17 trillion somehow; it just appears, right, (inaudible) less than 1% money.  But we’ve been talking about providing power to everybody, energy – clean cooking and electrification for many years and many decades, and we haven’t seen any amount of money.  It just, you know, filters in.  So finance is key.  Policy and regulation, yes, it’s important, but it has to be back to finance.  And I feel that a lot of developing countries are getting restless, and they just don’t feel like they’re part of this global conversation, which is sad, and which is one of the reasons why I believe I’m in my role to give people hope, but also challenge people when they’re not doing what they should be doing.


ROSE:  So you just joined the Hub board and we’re extremely excited obviously.


KATIE:  Yay.  And honored.


ROSE:  Yeah, best news of the year.  So how do you think the Hub’s approach to energy poverty uniquely adds to this global conversation, especially given the logjam that you’ve just described?


DAMILOLA:  Firstly I’m super, super excited to join the board.  But even before I joined the board what attracted me to the Hub is that the Hub just says the truth.  And I know that seems very sad to say, but a lot of people are not honest enough.  And it’s the truth based on data and evidence.  And you find a lot of data and evidence skewed to whatever people’s agendas are, or sovereign agenda, or company agenda.  It’s really nice to have an honest broker in the room that can work with you and say that, “Look, this is really what has to happen.  This is what a just and equitable energy transition really, really means, that it is unacceptable to still be living in 2021 and have 81 gigawatts of power for a billion people.”  In my country, Nigeria, that translates to barely 144 kilowatt hours annually per person.  I mean, it’s just ridiculous, you know?  Like, to power your fridge, I don’t even now what that comes to.  And energy poverty is a real thing.  It’s not a, how can I put it, inconvenience.  It’s a difference between life and death for millions of people.  And that’s what I think the Hub brings to the agenda in getting it into policymakers.  But it’s from the global north and the global south as the top of their agendas.




ROSE:  Coming up we ask Damilola to take us behind the scenes at COP26 and of course we play rant or rave.


ROSE:  So Damilola, you recently attended COP26 in Glasgow, and from what I saw on Twitter you participated in tons of plenaries, panels, and other events, which all sounds exhausting, as well as being featured in what looks like hundreds of photo ops.  And I’ll just say here as an aside, you are a style icon for me.  You’re almost unseating Michelle Obama, so…




ROSE:  …in my book, which is very high praise.  Give me the name of your tailor.  But anyway, so aside from all of this kind of the talking, the events, the photos, what we see in the public view, you know, take us behind the scenes.  You know, what’s something we should know about the event that we couldn’t tell from your Twitter, for, like, those of us observing from the outside?


DAMILOLA:  Okay, thank you.  And I wanted to bring some color into COP.  I felt everything was very black and brown [CROSSTALK].


ROSE:  You did – you did.




DAMILOLA:  Let me be colorful in Scotland while it’s raining.


ROSE:  You really represented, thank you [LAUGHTER].


DAMILOLA:  Thank you for that.  I think what was most important was, you know, 197 countries came together and kept the hope of 1.5 degrees alive.  I say the “hope” because obviously there’s still so much more that needs to be done, and there’s still so much urgency that has to be there.  A lot of ambition needs to be on financing, the decade of action, reaching net-zero by whichever year a country can reach net-zero, and most importantly understanding the needs of the developing world is different from the emerging economies, and it’s different from the developed world.  So I think that’s what came across the COP, there was a real feeling of we want to make a difference.  Did we make that difference?  I think we were on the right path, but there’s so much that needed to be done.  I thought that some of the countries, especially developing countries–and I’m going to be honest–were not as prepared as they should be.  And I also felt that the response to some of the developing world, especially the African countries, was kind of left behind, which sometimes happens in these places.  But one of the things that – a key message that I’m so glad we got across is a just and equitable energy transition.  And as painful as it was many, many hundreds of hours, we got the largest economy in Africa, and the large oil and gas country to say net-zero by 2060.  For me that was huge.  Because what that did, it allowed me now in terms of behind the scene, all the other countries running up to me, “How do we do this?  How do we do that?  How do we get to a point of energy transition?”  And that’s the buzz you want to create, right?  However, creating the buzz is one thing, following through and making sure that you actually support and advise them is what we now have to do, right?  So COP is great.  It’s two weeks, everybody getting together.  But post-COP is a lot more important than COP to me.  And it’s also because we’re having an African COP, or COP27 in Egypt, and I’m hoping that would allow us to have, you know, a better mix between the climate and development world when it comes to COP, and people recognizing that the – I guess the entry point for climate in a lot of African countries is actually energy.  So those are the things I’m working on, I’m looking forward to, I’m screaming at people to please fund us to help and hand-hold.  The other thing that was clear was that even the developed world hasn’t got it themselves together, do you know what I mean?


KATIE:  No, God no.


DAMILOLA:  That was great because it’s, like, well, if you haven’t figured out how you’re going to do it, you know, [LAUGHTER] now you’re insisting everybody else does.  How does that exactly work?  And I’m hoping co-chairing with the COP president, who was really great, and the energy transition council can allow us to have those uncomfortable conversations, you know, about carbon, about fuel sources, about transitionary fuels, moving forward to make sure this transition is actually just and equitable.  And I guess finally one of the things I want to pop on about is just the opportunity that energy brings.  There’s so much about, you know, it seems like just this vicious aid cycle.  But it actually brings a lot of opportunity to these developing countries that will allow them not to continuously need very limit aid that’s even providing.  And understanding what those opportunities are, and being able to implement (it in) country will be great.  And that’s what I’m hoping the next few years, at least from my organization, will be focused on.


KATIE:  Yeah, it’s interesting to think about, you know, you have your role within SE for All and the U.N. structure.  But you’re also from Nigeria, which is this gigantic African economy, heavily depending on fossil fuels, significant energy poverty, and also very vulnerable to climate impacts.  And we were curious, if you had to define “climate justice” in just a sentence or two how would you do that?


DAMILOLA:  I guess climate justice is – for me it’s very simple.  It has to be something that alleviates energy poverty for everybody.  And it has to be enough energy as well to allow businesses and economies to thrive.  A lot of people have heard me say this, and I’m sure I’m going off-script, but it’s not okay to say because someone doesn’t have any power at all, a solar lantern will suffice the rest of their life.  And I feel that that’s what we do.  We just say because people don’t have something the minimum level, which is not even electricity, which is light, is what they need.  So climate justice is giving people enough energy so they can improve their lives, and they can come on the economic growth ladder.  And we know how to do it; all the technologies are available today.  We just have to make sure they get to the right people, then it’s sustainably spread.  But we can’t spend, you know, years and months designing programs, and then implement it on ground, and spend another four years in procurement and think that we’re doing something that would actually help another human being.  Speed has to come into – when we talk about climate justice.  If we continue the way we are we will still have easily 600 million people without having access to electricity at all by 2030.


KATIE:  I love that.  And it makes me think of your history in the construction industry actually.  Because, you know, traditionally climate justice has largely been about providing funds for adaptation, which is obviously important, but it’s largely defensive, right?  And your position is much more about let’s also be building what we need for the future and for success and prosperity, and I like that.


ROSE:  Yeah.  And so I think continuing in that theme, and kind of how we tie climate to development and find the balance between the two…  So you had actually made a reference to this earlier, but so Nigeria made this surprise 2060 net-zero commitment at the COP.  Some people are cynical because they maybe felt like, you know, what is this?  Is it meaning less?  Is it an empty promise?  Where did this come from?  Others are really excited, think it’s very positive.  And others don’t even think that net-zero is a frame that makes any sense for African countries at all given their limited contributions to climate change.  Where do you stand on this?  Like, what does net-zero mean for Africa?


DAMILOLA:  I think net-zero is depending on what type of country it is and exactly what you said, how much carbon it actually brings.  We all know that, you know, if you take away South Africa, sub-Saharan Africa has below one percent of the whole carbon (fold).  But let’s be honest about it, climate change is not something that affects one country or two countries–we have to be all in it together, right?  And, you know, Nigeria’s energy transition plan isn’t only about Nigeria changing its energy mix, right?  But it’s also about how does it affect its oil and gas export market?  What is the new sector that it’s going to be?  Because we can see these things coming, just like you can see electric vehicles coming, right?  We all know that, and you have to decide as a country are you going to be the person who’s just going to take all the second-hand stuff that is thrown away from Europe, or are you going to make sure your economy can build and have its own EV market?  Because these things are coming.  And I think that’s all Nigeria’s doing.  There’s actually an energy transition plan, but, you know, it is going to cost above $400 billion of business-as-usual spending, $1.5 trillion in total for Nigeria to get anywhere near net-zero by 2060, and bridge its energy-access gap, and get to a state of industrialization.  So it’s important to understand the ands, you know?  And the reason why the commitment is important is because now you can say, okay I have a plan.  Global north, how are you going to support me to get to a point where I can actually get to transition in any sense?  If you continue and ask for support without a plan then what is the basis?  So I’m very big on plans, but I’m bigger on what happens next, the implementation.  And I think a stance by a country like Nigeria, who’s firmly a developing country and not an emerging economy like South Africa, and doesn’t have coal–because everyone’s excited about coal and nothing else–you know, how are you going to support that will really be the template for a lot of smaller countries who need the same thing.  And to be honest, are really the victims of climate change.  And they don’t even know if their countries will exist in 20, 30 years.  So it’s important to recognize that we all have to be in this together, and we have to hold each other responsible.  Right now it seems that the global  north is just holding the global south responsible.  Does that make sense?


ROSE:  Yeah.


DAMILOLA:  Or holding themselves.  And no one from the global south is actually holding the global north responsible, and that’s not fair.  It’s not a fair balance and it’s not equitable.


ROSE:  It’s actually quite refreshing talking to you about this because, you know, I think that your take on the symbolism and maybe a little bit of the theater of the COP and the pledges is actually more positive than perhaps a lot of us have thought and so it’s actually quite energizing to think that this is for something–it’s not for nothing to put a stake in the ground and then work from there.  Thanks for that perspective.


DAMILOLA:  No, absolutely.  It’s important to realize that you have to take any opportunity you can to explain to people just how bad things are and what has to happen.  And if it’s just one or two or three countries that actually act, for me that is a win.  You know, it might not be enough, but it’s a win along the same lines, instead of just avoiding something and getting nothing in return.  But that’s the type of person I am.


ROSE:  I love that.  We have no time for purity testing; we have to take what we can where we can.


DAMILOLA:  [LAUGHTER] We just need to go (inaudible) to go, you know?




ROSE:  Damilola, it’s now time to play Rant or Rave, which is a quickfire game in which wee give you a word or term and you choose to either rant–so you’re frustrated and you have some grievances to air–or you can rave–so if you’re excited about this you have something positive to say about it.  And if you rant or rave tell us why.  So this is supposed to be pretty quick.  We have one minute to get through as many of these as we can.  I’ll set my timer.  So we want, you know, a one-sentence response really, really quick.  So are you ready?




ROSE:  Okay.


DAMILOLA:  I think so.  Okay, go ahead.


ROSE:  Okay.  Time is started.  Okay, climate finance, rant or rave?


DAMILOLA:  Rant–there’s absolutely not enough of climate finance.


KATIE:  True.


DAMILOLA:  It does not recognize energy as part of the conversation, and a lot more climate financing has to go into clean cooking and energy.  Because that is key to helping this climate crisis we’re in.


ROSE:  All right, 38 seconds.


KATIE:  Mini-grids?


DAMILOLA:  Love mini-grids.  Love them, love them, love them.  But it’s not the answer for every single person, right?  So there’s a (pool) of people that this is the answer for, and also a big fan of interconnected mini-grids with the grid – whenever the grid comes.


ROSE:  All right.  Nollywood movies?


DAMILOLA:  Oh my gosh, this is really bad because I hardly watch them.  But yes, rave [CROSSTALK/LAUGHTER].  I have to rave.  I love (inaudible) I cannot (inaudible) protest by my fellow Nigerian people.  No, but honestly we’ve done so well and it’s just so amazing to see, like, a whole industry – I think it’s the largest movie industry right now, so we’re extremely proud to be Nigerian.


ROSE:  All right, our one minute is up.  I loved that (save) at the end, so [LAUGHTER] – all right.


KATIE:  We’re good – it’s maybe good we ran out of time, we were going to ask you about Scottish food, and that would’ve gotten you in trouble, too.


DAMILOLA:  I didn’t get a chance unfortunately.  This would’ve got me in trouble because everything was vegan.  And I’m, like, this is the way climate is going to go [LAUGHTER].  But the good thing is I think I lost, like, two kilos (inaudible), so it helped.


ROSE:  These are the sacrifices we’re all making for climate.


DAMILOLA:  You know, I’m just, like, okay, vegan food for two weeks.  But yeah, (inaudible).


ROSE:  Okay.


KATIE:  Damilola, thank you so much for being with us.  We’ve had so much fun and we admire you so much.  Thank you.


DAMILOLA:  Thank you for having me.  I’m probably going to come up to D.C. next year, so really great to meet up with you guys in person.


KATIE:  Yes, that would be fantastic.


DAMILOLA:  All right, take care.  Have a wonderful day.


ROSE:  All right.


KATIE:  You too.


ROSE:  Thank you, you too.


DAMILOLA:  Bye-bye.




ROSE:  So that’s it for today’s show.  High Energy Planet is a production of the Energy for Growth Hub, matching policymakers with evidence-based pathways to a high-energy future for everyone.  Find out more at and tweet your questions and thoughts to us at @energyforgrowth.


KATIE:  If you liked today’s episode be sure to rate and rank the podcast and tell a friend about us.  Bob Lalasz is our executive produce, (Gray) Johnson is our senior producer.  Join us next time for more High Energy Planet.