Salma Okonkwo: Lighting Up Ghana with Solar Energy

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Salma Okonkwo Lighting Up Ghana with Solar Energy

Ghana, the West African country of over 28 million people, which has the potential to produce over 240,000MW of Solar power, currently has an estimated 120 MW of solar power installed across the country.

In the next few weeks, all things being equal, that figure will almost double with the installation of another 100MW of solar power by Blue Power Energy at the estimated cost of over $100 million.

This, according to Salma Okonkwo who is the CEO of the indigenous energy company, will evolve to make the project one of the biggest in Africa when completed in the first quarter of 2019,

The 48-year old chief executive, not as widely-known as her multimillion-dollar oil and gas outfit called UBI Group, has worked quietly behind the scene to become one of Ghana’s biggest players in the Oil and Gas industry and she sure has come a long way from her days as a newly arrived America-returnee armed with a degree and experience of having briefly worked for a food brokerage company in California.

Setting out…

Salma secured employment with Sahara Energy Group and, as a result of her background, immediately saw where and why the company should be headed if it were going to make a lasting change in the lives of her people.

While she would have loved to see the company grow by opening up retail gas stations to make the product readily available for the greater majority of her people particularly in the north, wary company Executives scared of the political exposure and huge capital investment in infrastructure rebuffed her idea each time she tabled the proposal.

By 2006, Salma finally decided to do the needful herself by setting up a company to supply petroleum gas products. Thus, UBI Group came into being through the sheer doggedness of a woman who refused to take no for an answer.

On her motivation to break the mould, Okonkwo told Forbes in July 2018:

“Most of the multinational companies that come to Ghana don’t put in infrastructure. They operate a system where they invest very little and they take it away. They sell their products and leave. I’m hoping to provide employment and add to Ghana’s economy.”

Challenges…

Although Salma was convinced her idea was lucrative and an “opportunity too good to pass up”, she was soon to run into her first roadblock. A lack of storage facilities meant that she could not store large quantities of her product and it was economically imprudent to move the liquefied gas on demand.

To get around the problem, she had to build the storage herself. For someone already struggling to secure funding to run the business, it looked like one obstacle that would be insurmountable.

Salma Okonkwo Lighting Up Ghana with Solar Energy

Breakthrough…

When it looked as if the walls would cave on her dreams, Salma decided on a temporary detour and started trading diesel and petroleum wholesale. This operation she financed by mortgaging some family inheritance.

Soon her luck turned. First she secured a contract to supply fuel to Dallas-based Kosmos Energy in 2007 and, a year later, another one with Hess was in the bag. Respite had come for Salma and, by the end of the year, the first retail gas station was soon up and running.

From one station, the number grew to eight and the company was soon managing another 20 through partnerships with investors.

As they say, success attracts many suitors. UBI’s success with the retail stations soon caught the attention of Puma Energy, a Singapore-based multinational firm with operations in 49 countries and sales of $15 billion in 2017.

Puma stumped up about $150 million to acquire a 49% stake in two of UBI Group’s subsidiaries (retail gas stations and wholesale fuel distribution) in 2013 and, suddenly Salma had the funds to pursue her pet project.

The Solar Project and More

Though an astute business person, Salma has personal reasons for picking the location for the solar project. Half of the 45-acre solar farm is sited in her father’s village and this, she said, is deliberate to help ameliorate the raging poverty in the North of Ghana which is adjudged the poorest region in the country by UNICEF.

The organization says the area has seen the smallest progress in terms of poverty reduction since the 1990s.

Okonkwo is aiming to provide a better alternative for some of Ghana’s most deprived women who live in slums and are victims of harassment, theft and even rape.

The project, upon completion, will also help to reduce the massive migration to Accra with more than 650 jobs projected to be created.

Moreover, the solar farms will seek to make energy cheaper and give incentives to companies to create jobs and help develop the region.

Okonkwo is also opening a day-care center in Accra for children of poor working women can get educated and “hopefully break the [poverty] cycle. She says,

I want to bring support to my people in the north. Then there will be more Salma’s all over the place.”

Going forward…

After the completion of her $100 million—financed by roughly $30 million in loans—solar power project to create 100 megawatts, the Blue Power Energy company will not rest on its oars. Plans are already advanced to add another to add another 100 megawatts by the end of 2020.

Salma’s Background…

Though from the northern part of Ghana, Salma was born in the capital city Accra on July 8, 1970 and attended Mfanstiman Girls Secondary School before proceeding to the United States of America where she bagged a degree in Business Administration from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California.

She is married to Joachin Okonkwo, founder/chairman of Nahid Properties, a bespoke real estate firm where the wife is listed as being in charge of procurements and operations. The couple is blessed with three children.

Salma Okonkwo is a rare woman blessed with a never-say-die attitude. She said:

I don’t stop when the door is being shut. I find a way to make it work. That’s what propelled my success.”

You better believe her. To be the head an energy company in Africa requires guts. To be a woman head of an energy company in Africa requires a double dose of guts and chutzpah. This Amazon has both in large quantities.

Lessons Learnt…

• See opportunities long before it becomes obvious to others
• Have the strength of your convictions and never take no for an answer, especially when you know you are right.
• Don’t be afraid to go it alone if others doubt your dream

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