In the second episode of She Powers Africa, IFC chats with Olaedo Osoka, CEO of Daystar Power in West Africa, which helps businesses in Africa bridge the power gap with solar hybrid systems and innovative financing solutions. Osoka shares her experience as one of the youngest female CEOs in Africa’s renewable energy space, the importance of building a pipeline of future women leaders and how the continent’s renewable energy future will be led by the women coming up today.

Transcript

Hello, and welcome to She Powers Africa. A podcast dedicated to conversations with Africa's leading women in the renewable energy space. This podcast is powered by IFC’s Energy2Equal program and the Women in Renewable Energy in Africa Network, which aims to enhance women's participation in the renewable energy sector. I'm your host, Terryanne Chebet.

Renewable energy has the power to transform Africa's power sector. Through this podcast, we speak with women who are contributing to Africa's renewable energy sector growth. My guest in this episode is Olaedo Osoka or Ola, as she mostly goes by, who is the chief executive officer for West Africa at Daystar Power, a renewable energy company which helps businesses in Africa bridge the power gap with solar hybrid systems and innovative financing solutions. She has led the company's expansion in West Africa into Ghana, Togo, and Senegal. At the age of 29, Ola is one of Africa's youngest CEOs in the renewable energy sector. Ola, welcome to the She Powers Africa podcast.

Olaedo Osoka: Hi and thank you so much for having me. The pleasure is all mine.

Terryanne Chebet: I'm so excited to have you today. Now, Ola, you graduated with a first class degree in law and later studied banking law and financial regulation. How did the transition from law to energy happen?

Olaedo Osoka: Life is so interesting. After I studied law in the UK, I started my career working in a law firm for a few years in Nigeria. And when I joined Daystar's renewable energy business, I was still working in law for the first year, but I would never mind my business. I would always ask, why are you doing this like this? How about we try this instead? And I also actually mentioned an interest in the business aspect of things. So, I slowly found myself going from a purely legal role to then working in business development and having the opportunity to build out that business development team in Nigeria and win our first clients. But if you ask me in one sentence, how did it happen? I just would never mind my business. And I was always curious, and that's how I sort of found my myself delving into things outside of law.

Terryanne Chebet: Now you became CEO of the age of 26 in the renewable energy space. That’s the age where I believe most people are just settling into their first or second jobs. But here you are stepping into a CEO role.

Olaedo Osoka: Honestly, it was scary, and it was very tough. And I think it's because I was acutely aware of all the things that I didn't know. And I basically had huge imposter syndrome. I would say, oh my goodness, when are they going to realize that I'm not the real deal? I would walk into rooms with people much older than me, senior executives and 99.99 percent of the time it was always men. So it was difficult, but I think I worked really, really hard and I still work really hard. I think it's difficult to outwork me. I felt I needed to work even harder because I couldn't afford to fail. I also ultimately had to learn confidence, you know, and change my perspective and say look, Ola, you're here for a reason. You're going to give it your best and your best will be good enough. And so I slowly got comfortable and grew into the role.

Terryanne Chebet: Ola, you've used some words that are really interesting and statements like "difficult to outwork me" and you also use the word curiosity, which speaks a lot about you as an individual and as a personality. Tell me a little bit about the leadership skills that you believe it took to become the CEO of daystar power, not just starting off in one country, but you actually quickly expanded into other parts of West Africa as a young woman. What was that like?

Olaedo Osoka: I think first of all, for anyone listening, I want to do a public announcement. Leadership is a paradox. You think it's glamorous, it seems glamorous from the outside, but actually it really is service. And there is glory in that, but perhaps it's just not glory in the way that the average person defines glory. So what you see on the outside, is perhaps very different from what's really going on, on the inside where sleeves are rolled up, heels are off, makeup is off and you are in the trenches. So if you ask me about skills from that context, I think the first thing is hard work, right? I know we talked about this a bit earlier. But the truth is that work life balance was a luxury for me. Like that's not something that at the beginning I had. If you want to achieve great things, there's a price to be paid.

Olaedo Osoka: Each person has to weigh if that price is worth it. But for me, it was and is worth it and I'm happy to pay the price. So the first thing was really hard work. Going over and beyond expectations. And I think the second skill would be around humility and introspection. So I am not what I've achieved in the past, right? I'm not the first class degree. I'm not a successful business. I am only a human being. And even though I may have done the work, I've had to be very aware of, look, I'm not perfect. These are my gaps, and be very vulnerable and transparent in communication with my team and encouraging them, but actually also with my stakeholders. Like, look, these are the challenges that we face, and this is the very clear roadmap towards bridging those challenges.

Olaedo Osoka: The other skill I would mention is around critical thinking and proactiveness. One of my mantras is, stay ready. Stay ready so you never have to get ready. One of my colleagues called me, our chief proactive officer. So, I think to be a leader, you can't wait for life to happen to you. You always have to be 10 steps ahead, anticipating, mapping out, planning out contingencies. And the last thing I think is worth mentioning is around grit and resilience. You're going to get things wrong. I've gotten many things wrong. I will still get things wrong today, but I have to realize that look, failing isn't being a failure and that it isn't over until I decide that I'm not picking myself up again. Ultimately that grit and resilience, it's critical to leadership, but actually also just building something for yourself. Life is tough, but we are tough and we're made to survive. I think those are sort of the guiding skills that I have learned along the way.

Terryanne Chebet: Ola, there's clearly a lot of internal work involved, as you say, investing in yourself. You say somebody used the word chief proactive officer, and I'm just curious about the kind of support that you have received to propel you, to become the person that you are today and the CEO of a renewable energy company.

Olaedo Osoka: First of all, I'm super fortunate to have a very strong community. First, family and friends. I still have some of those days where I feel like I can't do it. I know that I'm one call away and one look away from the people that love me telling me, girl, are you joking? Remember who you are, remember where you are coming from. Of course you can do it, right. So, its my family and friends. But, my founders, I also have such supportive founders. When they first offered me the role to be chief executive officer, first of Ghana, I told them, no, I can't do it. And I made a list of the reasons why I couldn't do it. And before I even believed in myself, they laughed at me and they said, Ola if there's anybody that can do it, it's you. And so I think having people who see your potential, who help you harness your potential and who are willing to stand by you, no matter what, has been super important in my journey.

Terryanne Chebet: Let's talk a little bit more about mentorship. I know you have alluded to it and I'm just looking at, are there people in your life who have held your hand through the sector? Are there people you look up to and what role has mentorship played in helping you to become the top CEOs on the African continent?

Olaedo Osoka: When I was starting off, I was in Nigeria. It was a super niche industry, just starting to come up. There was nobody that had done it before. At least I didn't know anybody that had done it before. I was being mentored and mentoring, so feeding and being fed by the people around me. Sometimes we think that mentorship is a relationship that's perhaps vertical but considering the stage where I was starting off in this industry, it was actually quite horizontal -- sharing challenges, getting inspiration from other people that perhaps were in the trenches beside me. It's only the last one to two years that I've broadly speaking started to meet women who are more senior in their field and in other fields. I make that point just to say, look, mentorship is great, but actually look around you for mentors. Very often, people are looking ahead, but you can get inspiration and support from around you and from perhaps people that are even in earlier stages of their journey.

Terryanne Chebet: You're listening to She Powers Africa, a podcast dedicated to conversations with Africa's leading women in the renewable energy space. And my guest is Ola Osoka. Ola is the CEO for West Africa at Daystar Power, a renewable energy company.

[Music Interlude]

Terryanne Chebet: Welcome back. Ola, tell us about the opportunities that you're seeing within the sector for entrepreneurs, as well as for women and girls who are thinking of getting into the sector. Where do the opportunities lie?

Olaedo Osoka: Thank you so much for that question. I think we're still in day one, of the growth of the sector. And so, there are vast opportunities from a technical perspective, but also even if you don't have a stem background, there are still other opportunities. On the technical side, there are opportunities to work in or provide a service for building solar plants or for instance, providing tech or monitoring services that allow companies to predict weather, to review performance and to even prompt maintenance. So that's on the tech side. But if you don't have a tech background or a STEM background, you don't need to fret. I think there are still opportunities, in actually selling the solar plants. But also if you have a legal background, you can offer legal services. There's a finance aspect to it. There's a place for working in HR and providing HR services as well. And from an operations perspective as well, right? How do you put together logistics, procurements, timely delivery and deployment of the solution? Every aspect of the value chain, there are opportunities for entrepreneurs, but also for women looking to start a career. And I think this a new industry, we are looking for talent, just actually reach out and ask, reach out on LinkedIn and ask and connect.

Terryanne Chebet: Ola, you've talked about STEM and when we talk about renewable energy and access for women to get into renewable energy, one of the biggest challenges is that there isn't enough girls and young African women who have been in STEM, but you made an incredible transition from law, into the renewable energy space. From your experience and, working with young African women, do we have enough young women in the pipeline and what would it take to get more women in that space?

Olaedo Osoka: We for sure don't have enough women in the pipeline and we have a responsibility to build a pipeline so, what does that take? It takes a couple of things. The first is actually going further ahead into that pipeline to show women who they could be and what the opportunities are. So, if we're realizing that women aren't applying, we need to go further into university perhaps, but actually even up to the secondary school levels and say, look, this is what you could be, this is how much you could be earning, these are other people that have done it. Because historically, the image that has been cemented in people's minds is of men on roofs, is of men holding instruments and doing these technical roles. So we need to work really hard to change that imagery. And I think the other thing beyond changing the imagery and showing positive pictures, is actually creating the opportunities.

Olaedo Osoka: So we have to invest in women. So if we find that, okay, women perhaps don't have the necessary experience and perhaps I need three years’ experience for a role, as a business, we need to be creating training schemes to make sure that we're equipping women. Otherwise there will never be women with three years’ experience. On one hand it's imagery, on the other hand, it's creating opportunities and training and equipping, which is something we're doing at Daystar. And it's just giving women the platform. So, if you look at me, for instance, I didn't have the experience in renewables. I knew nothing about anything. And I've demonstrated that you can do it; you just need the platform. And so I think ultimately we need to see more companies giving women the stage to shine.

Terryanne Chebet: If you could give one piece of advice to young girls and African women who want to power the continent's renewable energy sector in the future, what would it be?

Olaedo Osoka: If I could pick one thing to say, I think it would be, reach for the sky and know that you will need to fly if you reach for the sky. What I mean by that is, don't limit yourself to the value you can bring and to what you can achieve. And in doing so, you need to do the work. When you do the work, when you invest the time to learn the craft to form your skill, you will become confident, but you will need to work hard and not run away from pressure.

Terryanne Chebet: Ola, you have achieved so much at such a young age. Tell me what does the next five years or so look like for you? If you were to draw, let's say a personal strategic plan, what would it look like?

Olaedo Osoka: Hmm. Gosh, I'm so comfortable to say that I cannot paint a clear picture on what the next five years will look like. And I actually don't feel the need to. If you asked me five years ago today, I couldn't possibly have imagined it. So I think the things I can say for sure is that I want to remain a dreamer and the things I do dream about transcend time. And so the next five years, who will I be? What would I be doing? I will continuously be learning. That's who I am. I'm curious. I wanna learn more. I will be climbing new mountains. There's so much more territory to take. They're more problems to tackle in sustainability. I will be helping other women climb in their careers, but actually also in their finances. So as you're evolving in your career, how do you make sure you are building something for yourself that transcends time? I'm super passionate about that. And the last thing I think that you can expect to see is I wanna take Africa to the world. Historically, the global north has come south, but I actually wanna see more products and services supplied by Africa to the rest of the world. But beyond this, I say, stay tuned and watch and see what happens.

Terryanne Chebet: How about the future of the sector, Ola? Before I let you go, as a leader in the renewable energy space in Africa, what does the future of that space look like?

Olaedo Osoka: I mean, it's helpful to start by giving context. There are around 1.1 billion people in sub-Saharan Africa. And millions of people still don't have access to electricity. And if we zoom in a bit on the population, 60 percent of our population is under the age of 25. We are the world's youngest continent. Ultimately, our young demographic is a super power that we need to be tapping into. If we zoom into that further, 50 percent of our population are women. So if I think about what the future of energy looks like on the continent, I think about the brilliant women that are gonna be leading the energy future. And that future is actually here starting right now.

We need to get people clean, reliable, and affordable power today. And that means perhaps more collaboration with the private and public sector, with utilities and just coming together to say, look, we can't build industries on expensive and polluting power. How can we build cleaner and more sustainably? And I think that's really what the future of energy and renewables looks like on the continent.

Terryanne Chebet: Thank you so much, Ola. It's been an absolute pleasure to chat with you today. You have been listening to She Powers Africa, a podcast dedicated to conversations with Africa's leading women in the renewable energy space. This podcast is powered by IFC’s Women in Renewable Energy and African Network (W-REA) and my guest today has been Ola Osoka, the chief executive officer for West Africa, at Daystar Power. I'm your host, Terryanne Chebet and until next time, Kwaheri.