Women in Energy: Agnes Obara
The Women in Energy series is a joint project between USEA and USAID that was developed out of USEA’s Engendering Utilities Partnership, a program funded by USAID to improve gender policies and gender outcomes at their respective organizations.
Every month we feature a woman who has shown exemplary leadership. We want to showcase her story. These women come from diverse backgrounds and roles, and they bring with them a unique perspective to gender equality within the energy sector.
Agnes Obara is an economist with Kenya Power and Lighting Company, an energy utility in Kenya, where she works as the Chief Planning Officer in charge of Regional Planning. Agnes holds an Economics Degree and an MBA in Strategic Management. She has also completed the Certified Public Secretary Examinations (CPS,K Finalist) and in the process of registration towards being a CPS (K).
Her 18 years of experience in the Energy sector spans across customer service, electricity demand forecasting and generation planning, retail tariff planning, financial modeling, renewable energy, strategic planning, and implementation as well as monitoring and evaluation. She has also attained skills in project finance, public-private partnerships, and electricity markets.
Additionally, Agnes is the current Chair of the Kenya Power’s Gender Committee, the team that developed the Organization’s Gender, Equal Opportunities, and Sexual Harassment and Discrimination Policies. Agnes is passionate about increasing electricity access, gender parity, numbers and journals in her spare time.
*Neither USEA nor USAID alters the substance of the responses from the women featured. The answers are their own.
Women In Energy Interview Questions
How have your education and career path led you to where you are now?
Having graduated from university with a Bachelor of Arts in Economics, I joined Kenya Power and started off my career in energy as a Customer Service Management Trainee at the front office of our Banking Hall. Within 2 years, I was appointed to be the Assistant Commercial Office Supervisor and shortly thereafter, a Commercial Office Supervisor managing the customer service personnel and supervising the operations in the Banking Hall. After about four years in customer service, I changed roles to the Planning Division where I have been involved in Power Sector Planning (power generation planning, strategic planning, reporting and various stakeholder forums. In the meantime, I obtained a Master of Business Administration (Strategic Management) and finalized a professional course, Certified Public Secretaries, which provided me with key management and corporate governance skills, as well as other short courses in electricity demand planning, project finance and public-private partnerships.
In addition to my duties in power and business planning, I have had a chance to participate in task forces/committees within the company and in the sector. Such participation accords one a chance to understand what happens in other departments and divisions (internal) and in the sector; and as such, make better decisions from an informed perspective. The forums and committees have spanned from ISO Standards Audit, Internal Communication, Risk Management, Retail Electricity Tariff Reviews, Gender Mainstreaming, Job Evaluations and lately, the use of renewable energy mini grid and standalone solutions to increase access of electricity in Kenya.
It is the sum total of all the training received, work experience, mentorship from various supervisors and team members I’ve had overtime, that has aided my career growth in planning and business strategy. In management, I learned the value of delegating and developing a team to support you. The staff below you should be able to satisfactorily perform your tasks and that allows one to supervise adequately as well as be proactive to venture into other emerging issues. Planning encompasses a lot of these emerging issues and it is important to be ahead of the game. My current task in regional planning is broad and we’ve had to be intentional in assimilating the regions (operational zones) as key strategic partners in organizational strategy planning and implementation.
Over the course of your career, have you witnessed changes in the sector that have launched more women into leadership positions?
The sector has changed over the years and like all government bodies and those in which the government has majority shares in (like Kenya Power), there has been a requirement for the organizations to comply with the government directive that ensures 30 percent of employees are women. This is because women have been under-represented in the workforce previously, especially in technical areas. That notwithstanding, there have been deliberate efforts to include women in decision-making within the sector and within Kenya Power, and this has changed the landscape we operate in.
Due to a wide range of activities in our education system aimed at encouraging girls to take on science and engineering courses, and we’ve had more women taking on engineering and other technical courses thereby providing candidates that Kenya Power and other energy sector participants can recruit from. The fruits of these great efforts are evident in that for the first time in 2015, Kenya Power was able absorb, thirty women trainee engineers out of the total 100 trainee engineers (that is 30 women and 70 men trainee engineers absorbed).
Technology is transforming the traditional utility business model into a more modern interactive grid. Some utilities see the transformation as an opportunity to morph their teams as well because of a correlation between an increase in diversity and an increase in quality, and innovation. What, if anything, is your organization doing to attract, retain, and promote more women into senior management positions to respond to the dramatic industry transformation?
Technology has continually revolutionized business operations and Kenya Power has increasingly automated its infrastructure towards smart grid operations. This requires increased investment in staff to ensure skills and technology congruency. All training opportunities are increasingly gender disaggregated to ensure that equal opportunities are accorded to both male and female employees. Recruitment too is increasingly competitive and equal opportunities are accorded to all. Affirmative action (towards increasing women in the workforce) is applied during the recruitment process and ensures that the company remains compliant to government directives while taking into account the required education and skill levels to perform the job.
Kenya Power has continually ensured their staff maintains a good work-life balance. Technology had aided the development of a virtual private network (VPN) that allows employees (especially senior management) to work out of office just like they would if they were in office. This is one feature that allows women in top management keep abreast with the work environment when gender roles validly limit their physical presence in the office.
Are talented women within your organization making it to top leadership positions? Why/why not?
Interesting question: the answer is Yes and No. We have seen great leadership and talents, including great talent in women. The Kenya Demographic and Health Survey, 2014 indicate that 32.2 % of all households are headed by women. Further, a very important and fast-growing sector of the national economy in Kenya is the Micro, Small and Medium Establishments (MSMEs) who, in 2015, contributed 33.3% of the national output. The MSME Survey (KNBS, September 2016) indicated that 32% of the licensed MSMEs are owned by women compared to 47.9% being owned by men. The leadership skills in women and their individual contribution to the national economy are quite clear and definite.
In the sector, some few outstanding characteristics are identifiable among those women who have been able to make it to top leadership positions. They are able to make bold decisions when called upon (but within safe and approved operations margins), they handle the critic and the one who cheers them with grace and humility and they are versatile and knowledgeable in their skill sets. Two other attributes are that they create and maintain beneficial relationships along their career path including a mentor and/or a coach as well as continuous leadership skills and career growth.
These are key skills that Kenya Power is investing in, by training women in the program “Female Future.” This is a one-year program offered locally by the Federation of Kenya Employers in conjunction with Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise. It aims at strengthening gender equality and improving representation of women in management by assisting the attendees to develop skills that will enable them make higher goals and once they get to those high leadership positions, they will be able to make great contribution with lasting impact. Other programs within the organization include the Harvard Leadership Program offered online for nine months as well as other leadership workshops, classroom learning and seminars on key management and operational aspects.
Companies that embrace diversity outperform their competitors. What type of diversity programs does your organization have in place to mentor future women leaders? How does your organization measure and report gender diversity? Is the data publicly available?
“No company will remain competitive for long if it ignores half of its available labor pool,” was an output of the Study by CEC, Community for Economic Development in their study: ‘’Fulfilling the Promise: How More Women on Corporate Boards Would Make America and American Companies More Competitive, 2012’. Kenya’s population comprises of 49 percent male and 51 percent female and with the finding by the Community for Economic Development, it is imperative that organizations continually work towards integrating more women into their workforce and to leadership positions.
Kenya Power’s main reporting measure for gender diversity is the number of male and female staff members. This number is reported publicly in our Annual Report and Financial Statements Report (Statistical Records) which is available online at www.kplc.co.ke. Internally, we keep records on the staff statistics by gender in various divisions and in technical/ non- technical areas. Additionally, all surveys, internally and externally are gender disaggregated to evaluate the impact of our company operations to our stakeholders (internal and external). This includes the customer satisfaction survey, employee satisfaction surveys, employee engagement surveys and reputation surveys.
To develop and mentor women, Kenya Power Training and Development Department offers a range of management programs namely the aforementioned Female Future Harvard Leadership Program (Online), Corporate Governance, mentorship and coaching programs as well as other key leadership programs both internally and externally, local and overseas.
What actions should the energy and electricity sector be focused on to accelerate change, increase diversity, and foster a better gender balance in the boardroom?
Kenya Power scores big in that regard. Our Board has met the 30 percent threshold on female representation in the Board. This has been as a result of Board Room Governance Advocacy and the government’s efforts to ensure that boards are duly constituted and gender diverse among other diversity measures including skills, ethnic bias, experience and even disability. To maintain and increase the gender balance in the boardroom, there is great need to develop women leaders able to contribute effectively to the corporate governance required at that level. The culmination to the board room is as an end result to the investments on our women along their career path. This is the area to focus on to ensure that we have a high caliber of women leadership development in all fields of our sector: from the primary education, secondary and tertiary institutions to new recruits and continuing employees- development and skills acquisition will be pivotal towards increased female participation in leadership.
The Kenya Power engendering activities were greatly enhanced by our inclusion in the USAID USEA Partnership, Engendering Utilities (from November 2015 to 2017). While we already had a Gender Policy, Equal Opportunities and Sexual Harassment Policies in place, the exchange did provide a wide array of interventions to keep the gender debate vibrant. The maiden “Bring your Daughter to Work Day” was one of those fresh ideas, and it was held in August 2016. It was attended by 43 girls aged between 10 to 17 years of age. It aimed at incentivizing the girls to take a science and engineering path of career development. The response-guided the decision to conduct similar events in our regions and even expand the initiatives to include boys to ensure that the girls and the boys move together and that both the women and men give full support towards inclusion of the women at all levels. Other activities being implemented include a Women Only Distribution Substation Construction Project to showcase the talent and skills of women in the organization as well as increase confidence in the women employees and other stakeholders.