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My Real CCG Experience: The true heroes behind my story – Michelle Akute

I was an engineer working in the planning department at Kenya Power. It was a prestigious job to be sure, but I was feeling like I needed to advance my career. I did not know exactly what I wanted to do but I knew I wanted more.

We were introduced to the CCG project as the Ministry of Energy in Kenya was looking for support to develop its Integrated National Energy Plan and did not yet have the capacity to move into the new task. The power sector, through the Least Cost Power Development Plan (LCPDP) technical team, were looking to move to new planning tools and this was an opportunity to receive support and see whether the same could be replicated for the energy sector. This all sounds very high-powered, right? The reality was that we in the power sector were simply chosen as test pieces. However, this worked perfectly for me in the end so I’m not complaining.

A photo of Michelle Akute smiling

The training started and, in the beginning, nothing really made sense. I remember during the first online training there was a fire alarm that went off in our office building. Now, you know the drill, everyone is made to leave everything and walk outside through the fire exits, then stand in the parking lot and wait for an address from the CEO. I remember trying to follow the remainder of the training on my phone but just ended up doing what everyone else was doing, catching up on the hottest stories while saying hallo to all the people you didn’t normally get time to speak to in the office.

Weeks turned into months, and I started to develop more interest in the new tools CCG was introducing to the team. One day we got an email addressed to the LCPDP technical team from Jackson of GIZ (the German Agency for International Cooperation) telling us of a programme that we could participate in to help build our skills with the new tools. In this case, these ‘tools’ were OSeMOSYS and FlexTool. I was in Nakuru at the time and had to work fast to get a letter from our bosses in the office and finish the application before in the early hours of the morning.  I sent it in the nick of time and was pleasantly surprised when I got accepted.

The ‘Summer School’, as I discovered it was called, started and it was intense. I had to spend hours after work in the office trying to ensure I was not being left behind in the classes. I remember I was still a breastfeeding mom at the time so was forced sometimes to express milk in the office as I worked. I managed the course, tough as it was, and then my appetite for more grew; I was driven.

As I said earlier, I did not know what I wanted exactly but knew what I did not want. CCG held their annual workshop in Kenya the next year and I met Beth Tennyson, a very pleasant lady. She decided to do this video on my experience in the summer school and had very kind words to say.  But selfish as it might seem, it wasn’t enough for me. Forgetting my phone charger, I dashed to the bus as it was leaving, to catch up with Beth and express, well, something. I said a prayer and had a conversation with Beth in the parking lot outside the bus. ‘I want you guys to think of me’, I remember saying to Beth and boy did she think of me!

We had our first LCPDP physical training and got to meet the dream team – Abhi (Abhishek Shivakumar), Daniel Welsby, Ariane Millot and Pooya Hoseinpoori. They all seemed quite approachable, but I didn’t know who exactly to approach or when I was going to do it. In the end, I singled out Abhi at lunch time, mentioning again that I was ‘looking for more’. This spurred a conversation that went back and forth that week as we tried to see where or what in CCG could suit me. ‘Let me join the next summer school as a trainer’ was what we agreed to do. My friend asked: ‘will they pay you?’ I replied, ‘it doesn’t matter, all I need is the experience of learning.’ My friend was concerned that I should place some worth on myself. I was determined, however, just to grow and so jumped in with everything I had.

Because Abhi was involved in the CLEWS track (Climate, Land-use, Energy and Water Systems), he thought I could join as a participant as well as a trainer. This of course meant more work, so I took our two-year-old son, went to my mother’s house in the village and locked myself away as I dug deep into the work. My mom was very supportive and, as she played with our boy in the compound, I concentrated on trying to develop a CLEWS model at the same time as I supported participants. (As a side note, it was during this time that I lost a huge amount of work by accidentally installing the interface again!). Eventually Carla, my guru trainer, found me and convinced me to shift to the OSeMOSYS and Flextool track.  But I could not drop CLEWS, not after Abhi had given me the opportunity in the first place – no way!

So, I did the impossible – I ran back and forth through Gather.Town (a remote team platform) trying to make it to both tracks. Meanwhile since I was trying to be good, I was always available to the participants, so they were more than happy. And you cannot blame me for what happened next; all the issues from participants on the OSeMOSYS track were discussed behind closed doors with Abhi and, of course, I could take all the credit for it!

I think with all the success that I had, with Abhi’s support, Carla took note and decided to invite me as a trainer for the Energy Modelling Platform for Latin America and the Caribbean (EMP-LAC) school. Thankfully, I wasn’t just taking credit but had also genuinely learned how to provide support to participants myself, without Abhi. I was super proud.

Coming back to the other side of this coin, I still needed more. One time a colleague who knew about this desire sent me a job application as a research assistant that was advertised on the CCG website. It quoted Steve Pye as the contact person, and I decided to take a shot and email Steve. He responded immediately and said that if I couldn’t relocate we could consider the Southern Partners Fund. The three magic words that changed my life. I think Steve gained a few grey hairs as he tried to justify to the Fund that they should consider me. But at this point I was relaxed as I knew that, if God would allow it, it would happen.

“AMEN!”, was my response when Steve gave me the news that the response was positive. I think, too, that he was happier to begin sending emails on work we needed to do instead of emails on when he could expect a decision.

In conclusion, my life has taken a serious turnaround, from a conversation in a parking lot to attending an annual CCG meeting in Cambridge in the UK. It may look like I worked hard, even for free, but people worked harder for me, and they worked for free. It may look like I gave of my time, but someone stopped to listen to what I had to say in a parking lot. It may look like I gave being a trainer a chance, but someone took me in to train me in something that I knew nothing about and they took that chance on me. It may look like I was good at research, even attempted to publish a paper, but someone agreed to co-author a paper with me and encouraged me to put it out there. It may look like I took the risk and sought out a job that required a relocation, but someone took on a risk for me and defended my position to get a Fund to support me.

I really thank God for bringing such blessings of these people in my life who have turned things around. I told someone that God was sending them my way and she said, “God has lowered His standards”. I said, “no, He has not. He has me exactly where He wants me to be; where I ought to be; with the right and perfect people”.

Special thanks to Jackson Mutonga, GIZ, Beth Tennyson, Centre for Global Equality, Steve Pye, UCL, Carla Cannone, Loughborough University, and a special addition, Sara Wilson-Gallaher for being super concerned that I was most comfortable at my first CCG Annual meeting in Cambridge. These are the names of the true superheroes, just in case you thought they were fictional names of stars in a movie. They are the real heroes in this glorious story.

From the bottom of my heart, thank you and God bless you all.