21 August 2018

Ghana: Energy Maverick Salma Okonkwo Is Set to Build Ghana's Largest Solar Farm

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Salma Okonkwo, the head of the UBI Group, a multi-million-dollar oil and gas company.

Salma Okonkwo, the head of the UBI Group, a multi-million-dollar oil and gas company, is building Ghana's largest solar farm. It is due to open in March 2019, supplying 100 megawatts of energy.

As an emerging market, Africa needs adequate electricity to support industrialisation and development. The 48-year-old entrepreneur Salma Okonkwo is one of the few women heading an oil and gas company. Her UBI Group is the first indigenous, fully integrated downstream petroleum company in Ghana and the West African sub-region. She is now expanding her reach across Ghana's energy industry by building what could be one of Africa's largest solar power farms, calling it Blue Power Energy.

According to the company's website, Blue Power Energy is an energy service company specialising in renewable energy. It is geared to Ghana and sub-Saharan Africa's economic growth through providing electricity by developing a large-scale solar photovoltaic farm to power more than 60% of Ghana's land area.

Okonkwo told Forbes, "I don't stop when the door is being shut. I find a way to make it work. That is what propelled my success."

"Most of the multinational companies that come to Ghana do not put in infrastructure. They operate a system where they invest very little and take it away. They sell their products and leave," Okonkwo says. "I'm hoping to provide employment and add to Ghana's economy."

Africa has year-round sunshine in most countries but solar power is surprisingly not a prominent energy source on the continent. The concentration of solar farms are in Kenya and South Africa, with Morocco following suit by launching one of the world's largest solar energy projects costing an estimated US$9 billion to create 2 000 megawatts of solar generation capacity by the year 2020.

Arne Jacobson, who has been studying renewable energy with a focus on Africa since 1998 and is now the director of Humboldt State University's Schatz Energy Research Center, told Forbes, "I don't know of another large-scale project like this in Africa that is led by a woman. Power is fairly expensive in countries like Ghana. If they can keep costs low, this will be a profitable venture."

After graduating from an all-girls boarding school with little running water, Okonkwo moved to Los Angeles for college at Loyola Marymount University. Her first job in the oil and gas industry was in 2003 with the Sahara Energy Group. She stayed until the effects of seeing her proposals being continuously turned down forced her to quit and forge her own path.

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She went on to focus on bringing liquified petroleum gas to remote areas in northern Ghana, where most families still rely on burning firewood for energy. However, due to the financial scale of the project, she had to pivot into the wholesale trade of diesel and petroleum. This became the UBI Group, which caught the attention of global energy companies like Puma Energy. Puma Energy acquired a 49% stake in two of UBI Group's subsidiaries, retail gas stations and wholesale fuel distribution, in 2013 for about US$150 million. After this partial acquisition, Okonkwo started developing Blue Power Energy.

The company's website goes on to elaborate that the ultimate goal of Blue Power Energy is to feed the national grid (electricity transmission network) with electricity from 100% renewable energy, thus making cities more sustainable, eradicating poverty and hunger, combating climate change and improving health and education while protecting the world's oceans and forests.

Outside of energy, Okonkwo plans to open a day-care centre in Accra for children born to Kayayo women to encourage education. These women are known as "living shopping baskets" for the work they do in markets, where they carry goods for customers. For these women, who often live in slums and have to regularly endure harassment, theft and sexual assault, Okonkwo wants to provide child services that will help educate their children and "break the cycle".

"I want to bring support to my people in the north," she told Forbes. "Then there will be more Salma's all over the place."

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