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Women in Climate Change 3 – Sarah Odera

Sarah Odera is a Research Fellow at Strathmore University Energy Research Centre in Nairobi, Kenya.  Inspired by her father early on, she studied mechanical engineering and then moved into sustainable energy engineering later. Here she talks about the messages she’s hearing from consulting with community groups and the people who have been instrumental in her career so far.

Tell us about your role at Strathmore University, please.

I work at the Energy Research Centre at Strathmore, and it is a strong partner of CCG. I think we’ve been working together since the establishment of CCG. I am currently a Research Fellow at Strathmore University. I stepped into this position in 2022 because it is structured to allow people within the University to pursue their PhDs. Before that I was the Director of the Centre. At this time, my main focus beyond the day-to-day administrative work was building a strong research portfolio that was centred on addressing energy challenges on the continent. We did this through building a strong team internally and establishing partnerships with government and the private sector, as well as other universities and research institutions regionally and internationally that had similar objectives.  

How long have you been at Strathmore?

I have been at Strathmore now for seven years; I joined in 2016.

And tell me about your journey to get to that point.

I joined Strathmore immediately after completing my master’s degree in sustainable energy engineering. I was in South Africa, at the University of Cape Town, and I chose this degree programme because I was looking for something that would allow me to make a societal impact. I thought supporting green energy would be useful.

In some ways I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into, but I was really fascinated by the course, and I loved the approach that UCT took to it. It was very practical but also very philosophical as well.  It explored the linkages between energy and society as well as the more technical parts in terms of efficiency, renewable energy technologies and so on. Coming from an engineering background, those linkages just really fascinated me. At the end of my master’s, I really wanted to do a job that would allow me to practice what I’d learnt.

How did you get on in those early days?

It was quite a journey, but it was interesting as well because I was starting to do practical research.  It also required a lot of growth because I hadn’t done anything like this before, outside of my master’s.  The work that I did, it was hard, but it was interesting; every day we were dealing with something different.

Some research projects last three months and others take a year. Sometimes, you’re meeting government officials from the Ministry of Energy or Utility, and sometimes dealing with the private sector.  More recently with the energy planning work, I’ve had a chance to meet with communities as well.

Can I just take you back a little bit further? What first got you interested in engineering because that’s not perhaps a typical choice for women.

My first degree is in mechanical engineering, and I studied at the University of Nairobi.  I think I had always wanted to be an engineer. I picked it up from my father who is also a mechanical engineer, so I got lots of exposure from him and lots of encouragement from him and my entire family. That enabled me to think that it was possible; difficult but possible.

Were there other women on the course with you at the same time?

Yes, we were a significant minority – I think only 10% of my classmates were girls, seven out of 70.

How was the experience?

I would say that at first it was a bit daunting because coming from an all-girls school to a place where you’re the minority, was quite overwhelming.  But I think my classmates and lecturers were pretty supportive and with time I settled in quite well.

Tell us a little more about the focus of your work at Strathmore.

My focus is to do with energy planning. We’ve been working to support counties in Kenya to develop their energy plans.  We’ve worked with Narok and finished their plan in April 2023.  Right now, we are also working towards the finalisation of Makueni’s County energy plan, and I actually just got it back from the editor today. We’re looking forward to launching that in March.

One of the things that has really stood out for me, is the difficulty in terms of translating the social needs of community members into this very techno-economic process of energy planning.  And that has motivated me to do my PhD on this subject.  Usually, modelling is a highly quantitative process, but we need to find a technical way to including qualitative data too.  It’s not just in energy planning that people struggle to incorporate social needs so it’s quite exciting to think about how we could get a more rounded picture. I’m hoping that this is a skill that I can build, and maybe teach one day.

What is your connection to energy modelling as that’s where this type of data gets used in analysis and the creation of possible energy scenarios?  

I first encountered energy modelling when I was doing my master’s; I was focused on developing an electricity plan for Kenya. Then we looked at capacity expansion, and that had a learning curve, but it was manageable because the tools didn’t require you to know programming languages.

Since then, I have developed an interest in GIS based electrification modelling as that is more relevant for sub-national energy planning. I have been working towards learning OnSSET and OnSTOVE as I pursue my PhD programme. I actually took a course on OnSSET that was offered in partnership with CCG through the ICTP summer school programme in 2022. Most recently, I went to Stockholm and spent two months in KTH learning how to use OnSTOVE which is a modelling tool for clean cooking.

Have you always had access to data for  energy modelling or have you had to collect it, because this can be quite an issue can’t it?

Yes, obtaining data is a painful one, though now it’s got better. When I was doing my master’s, I didn’t have access to the data, but I was fortunate enough to meet the right people who were able to connect me to it. I remember I had this big dream, but the reality was quite different. Because the existing data was not in the form that I wanted, I had to lower my expectations of what I could achieve.

And then I when I started working at the Energy Research Centre, I discovered that this data issue wasn’t just mine, everyone was facing it and it was a topic of discussion in every energy planning workshop. Fortunately, through the process of county energy planning, we’ve been able to collect a lot of data and some of it is gender disaggregated which has been amazing. It’s still not perfect, especially at the level of granularity that we would like, but at least it’s a start and through collaborations with various entities such as the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics we will slowly get there.

If we can go back to the communities you mentioned earlier, what kind of interests have been represented in the ones you’ve met so far for your projects?

In our work with Narok and Makueni we tried to get representation across all the social categories. So, we were able to speak with women, men, people living with disabilities, the elderly, just to understand their needs.

What is your connection to energy modelling as that’s where this type of data gets used in analysis and the creation of possible energy scenarios?  

I first encountered energy modelling when I was doing my master’s; I was focused on developing an electricity plan for Kenya. Then we looked at capacity expansion, and that had a learning curve, but it was manageable because the tools didn’t require you to know programming languages.

Since then, I have developed an interest in GIS based electrification modelling as that is more relevant for sub-national energy planning. I have been working towards learning OnSSET and OnSTOVE as I pursue my PhD programme. I actually took a course on OnSSET that was offered in partnership with CCG through the ICTP summer school programme in 2022. Most recently, I went to Stockholm and spent two months in KTH learning how to use OnSTOVE which is a modelling tool for clean cooking.

Have you always had access to data for  energy modelling or have you had to collect it, because this can be quite an issue can’t it?

Yes, obtaining data is a painful one, though now it’s got better. When I was doing my master’s, I didn’t have access to the data, but I was fortunate enough to meet the right people who were able to connect me to it. I remember I had this big dream, but the reality was quite different. Because the existing data was not in the form that I wanted, I had to lower my expectations of what I could achieve.

And then I when I started working at the Energy Research Centre, I discovered that this data issue wasn’t just mine, everyone was facing it and it was a topic of discussion in every energy planning workshop. Fortunately, through the process of county energy planning, we’ve been able to collect a lot of data and some of it is gender disaggregated which has been amazing. It’s still not perfect, especially at the level of granularity that we would like, but at least it’s a start and through collaborations with various entities such as the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics we will slowly get there.

If we can go back to the communities you mentioned earlier, what kind of interests have been represented in the ones you’ve met so far for your projects?

In our work with Narok and Makueni we tried to get representation across all the social categories. So, we were able to speak with women, men, people living with disabilities, the elderly, just to understand their needs.

What were the most significant things that came out of those consultations?
What really stood out for me were some of the issues that people in the communities faced.  For example, from Narok it was clear that women are often cash poor because they are not part of the pastoral (agricultural) economy.  It’s the men who own the animals, so women must do other things to earn money. One of the most common initiatives that I’ve seen is bead working – women are selling lots of bead work.

This is related to them trying to get into the formal economy because there’s no other avenue, especially for the ones with a limited education. This is significant because when you are thinking about the energy transition, particularly in the cooking sector where women are the end-users, their ability to purchase fuels and technologies is hinged upon them being in the cash economy.

I think the other thing that struck me was perhaps the indignity of collecting firewood, particularly for people who are not from wealthy backgrounds. If you’re from a wealthy background, maybe you have a piece of land which you can grow trees from.  But for those people who are not from wealthy backgrounds, who live in areas where land has been fenced off, they have to purchase firewood from their neighbours who may often not want to sell it. Those who are able to collect it also struggle particularly during the rainy season.  In this case, the firewood that is freely accessible is wet and cannot be used, so in many cases end users have to purchase it from those who have enough wood to store.

It is critical to understand some of these nuances that vary from community to community when developing energy plans and working towards energy transition.

Did anything come out of the communities of people with disabilities? Was there anything that you were surprised by?

Mobility, I would say.  That was something that I hadn’t thought about.  If you want to sell technologies and you put the technologies in urban areas, then the people who are living with disability and mobility issues can’t easily get there or have to spend a lot more on transport to do so.  So there is a need to bring these technologies closer to the people.

One more thing when you’re speaking about indoor air pollution, people with disabilities spend a lot of time in the house because of mobility issues. If they’re burning charcoal, the health issues are worse for them.

Let’s talk about being a woman in the Climate sector. How would you describe your interaction with other people in the sector?

I had this one experience which really struck me. I went to the Narok county government office to meet the county secretary, and when I saw her, I thought “Oh my gosh, the person behind the big desk is a woman”, because all along it had always been a man and that had almost been normalized in my mind.

Just by having that example, I felt somewhat encouraged, I guess, to press on.

At most of these meetings that I go to, or workshops that I attend there are fewer women. And I guess there’s a sort of pressure that comes with that.  But having more women in the room is liberating and encouraging.  It breaks down the mental barriers or the internal barriers, which sometimes you’re not even aware of until they are exposed.

Yes, you feel more comfortable and less nervous because there are people like you in the same room, who might support you?

Yes, or help to mentor you and not even by direct conversations, but just by being there and watching them undertake their assignments.

You mentioned that your father was very encouraging and your family.  Professionally, are there people who made a big difference in your life to help you get to where you are today, women or men?

Yes, Rebekah Shirley is one.  She’s now Deputy Director, World Resources Institute, Africa. When I first met her, she was a visiting research fellow at Strathmore. She was already working in this area of energy planning, so I had lots of conversations with her which helped me to grow in research, leadership and most recently enrol as a PhD student. She read numerous drafts of my proposal before I finally got into a school.  That that was very helpful and encouraging.

Then there is Professor Da Silva, who is my boss.  He is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Research and Innovation. Prof Da Silva is a visionary leader, and this helped push me into spaces which I was sometimes afraid of entering. He also is always ready to support ideas and to brainstorm to help those ideas become practical and actionable.  He also really helped in terms of looking for funding when I was ready to go back to school and he is always ready to brainstorm with me about my schoolwork. On a personal level, my family has been very supportive, my husband and my parents have been great sources of encouragement and moral support in everyday life which has helped to build me up.

I am also in an accountability group with some of my friends who are highly ambitious. We set life goals and tied to those annual goals around all aspects of our life (work, family, community and so on). This has really helped me to grow in a rounded way and also provided a platform for peer mentorship within the group for all of us.

The journey for anyone, really, takes community, I think, to build up someone. I have learnt from many people along the way. What has been helpful is identifying people who have something I want to learn and working closely with them in that area.   

And it’s a mix of men and women, that support you like that in your in your current place of work?

Yes, I would say it’s a mix of men and women because I think what you really need is someone to believe in you and their gender doesn’t necessarily matter.  Everyone can offer something different in terms of support. However, the support that people offer is unique to them and their experience and perhaps even in their gender and having go to people for different things is useful.

Sarah was speaking to CCG’s Peter Allen

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