Exclusive interview: Salma Okonkwo

CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER | BLUE POWER ENERGY

Salma Okonkwo is a senior business executive with over twenty years of experience in Africa’s energy sector. Having worked extensively across oil and gas in West Africa, Salma founded UBI Petroleum in 2007, an energy trading business specialising in procurement, storage, marketing and distribution of petroleum products in West Africa, with a primary focus on Ghana. Her focus is now on the development of green energy businesses in West Africa.

WHO HAS INSPIRED YOU THE MOST IN LIFE?

My parents. My father instilled the values of giving back to others and always maintaining integrity. I learned my compassion from him. My mother was firm with me and my siblings growing up. She taught us that we must work hard to earn things and take nothing for granted. I learned my tenacity and fearlessness from her. My parents shaped me into who I am today and continue to inspire me to be kind, push further, and always appreciate what I have.

WHAT’S THE BEST BOOK YOU’VE READ THIS YEAR AND WHAT WAS YOUR KEY TAKEAWAY?

Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. It is an inspiring book that I would encourage others to read. It strikes a personal chord with me as it deals with gender inequality. The book encourages us to create our own success stories and support each other to remedy the problem for ourselves and the rest of the women in the workplace.

WHEN MEETING OTHER LEADERS WHAT DO YOU ASK THEM?

I ask them how they have achieved an efficient and effective company culture. Creating a sustainable and efficient culture has been one of the most challenging leadership tasks from what I have heard and from my own experience. It is vital to communicate clearly about what the goals are and create a conducive and healthy environment for working on attaining those business goals: encouraging buy-in to achieve greater success.

WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST LEADERSHIP EXPERIENCE AND WHAT LESSON LEARNED DO YOU CONTINUE TO PRACTISE TODAY?

I learned a lot about leadership when building my first company, UBI Group. One of the most important lessons I learned was about balancing being a leader with being a friendly peer. When UBI Group first started, we were a small team and within three years we grew from less than $20,000 annual revenue to $40 million. We had to put structures in place and recruit middle, senior managers and C-level managers to build a robust organisation. From the start, it was challenging for me to find the right balance between being an executive and a friendly peer. Through teamwork and consistent communication, I believe I have successfully developed this skill.

IS A LEADER BORN OR MADE?

From my experience, leaders are made. I attribute a lot of my leadership skills to my father who told me and my siblings from a young age that we needed to be the best at what we do. He raised us to be leaders and not followers. These lessons molded my thinking about taking the initiative and have continued to drive me today.

WHAT DO YOU THINK MAKES A SUCCESSFUL LEADER?

A successful leader is one who inspires and encourages the team to grow and achieve their goals. Whatever the organisational goals are, or whatever team you’re leading, being able to inspire, secure people’s buy-in and encourage them to achieve the end goal is a key attribute of a successful leader. I inspire my team by remaining goal oriented and showing them, through my own actions, that we can find success by staying organised and committed to the goals we set for ourselves.

WHAT INDUSTRIES OUTSIDE OF THE POWER AND ENERGY SECTOR ARE YOU LOOKING AT FOR INSPIRATION?

I am continuously inspired by the technology and IT sectors because they have a strong grasp and understanding of what it means to innovate. Change is what drives those industries forward. For example, the recent breakthrough made by Google’s DeepMind AI in the medical sector. They solved a problem that had stumped scientists for 50 years, using new technology. I try to bring that same mentality of innovation and persistence into my business.

WHAT’S THE BIGGEST RISK YOU’VE EVER TAKEN?

I believe that investing in renewable energy generation in West Africa without robust and concrete offtake agreements with the government is a huge risk. With this said, we have embarked on a number of renewable energy projects because we believe that renewables are the next frontier and are essential to achieve a sustainable power generation mix. Energy is a key driver in development. The Ghanaian government and most of West Africa have created policies that require an energy mix that includes solar but implementing it has had a slow uptake. We believe that in the next two years there will be a move to formalizing implementation and we want to have taken the first step and so gain the advantage.

IF YOU COULD WISH AWAY A CHALLENGE TO YOUR BUSINESS OR THE INDUSTRY, WHAT WOULD IT BE?

Policy uncertainty. If Africa, particularly the West African region, could decide on a policy framework for the renewable energy sector and stay true to it, the market conditions for developers like me would be optimal. Solar technology works. Our business model works and has been tried and tested. Investors like solar projects. The missing ingredient is a favourable policy and regulatory environment.

WHAT TOOLS AND TECHNIQUES DO YOU USE FOR KEEPING A TEAM MOTIVATED?

It’s important to have a strong and stable foundation, which includes respecting everyone enough to include them in mapping out the business goals and communicating effectively so they understand the holistic picture. When external distractions or obstacles come about that lead to possible demotivation, we always go back to our foundation, our purpose. Lastly, ensuring the team takes ownership and continuously communicating with them is what we do to keep our team motivated.

HOW DO YOU MEASURE YOUR AND YOUR TEAM’S PERFORMANCE?

I have found that being goal and target-oriented keeps the team on track. As a team, we decide what our targets and deadlines are before we execute. It is not sustainable to look to blame others when targets are not met. We approach target setting and performance reviews with the same collaborative mindset.

HOW DO YOU DEAL WITH UNCERTAINTY AS A LEADER IN A TIME WHEN LEADERSHIP IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN EVER?

As a leader, I must project certainty to my team, especially when the environment is anything but certain. I believe that the mentality of a team is set from the top, from the leader of the company, and therefore it is imperative that the leader is steadfast in their vision. I constantly spoke with my team throughout the pandemic and always set and reevaluated our goals so that we were always moving forward. This demonstrated to my team that we were not directionless despite the global situation.

When we experience market changes, it takes time to identify the positive and negative consequences that could impact our growth. Understanding that this is a possible blind spot, we perform constant research and development (R&D) tasks to promote improvement and mitigate blind spots. That is how we stay on top of a constantly changing environment.

WHAT ROLE DO YOU SEE YOU AND YOUR TEAM PLAYING IN THE ECONOMIC RECOVERY OF THE 2020 GLOBAL PANDEMIC?

The imposed lockdown caused business to slow down, leaving people unable to generate income or revenue. Our team was able to identify ways to support small local businesses by putting a focus on developing solar power solutions in our region, creating short to medium-term energy solutions that would enable these small businesses to continue working and generate income 24-hours a day. In doing so, they will recoup the shortfall that the pandemic caused. We look forward to continuing to provide renewable energy solutions to small and medium-sized enterprises in the Ghanaian market.

HOW IMPORTANT IS SCENARIO PLANNING WHEN IMPLEMENTING ANNUAL STRATEGIES?

Scenario planning is critically important for our work. We are building a long-term project are asking investors to make longterm commitments. For these reasons, we must analyse, predict, and plan for different scenarios that are bound to arise during our project. My team is regularly engaged in R&D to continually improve our plans and mitigate any potential blind spots.

WHEN WE TALK ABOUT DIGITALISATION, THE COMPLEXITIES AND INTRICACIES, WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS AND FEELINGS AROUND THIS AND HOW IT WILL CHANGE THE SHAPE OF THE POWER AND ENERGY SECTOR AFRICA?

The digitisation of the African power sector is critical for its continued development. When I hear digitisation, I think one thing: efficiency. Energy efficiency on the supply and demand side is important as projects scale to serve larger areas. Our organisation is always seeking out the latest digital technologies that are relevant to our business and which can improve the overall efficiencies of our projects.

WHAT DO YOU WANT YOUR LEGACY TO BE?

I want to have made a sustainable impact that changes the narrative of the African continent. The sustainability of the work I do is very important to me. I want the future of the next generations of my family and all Africans to be bright and to be in Africa. Putting the continent in a better place than it was when I was born is a mission of mine. I do not want to see young Africans fleeing to Europe or elsewhere to find opportunities. I want to create lasting opportunities in Africa.

Access the full digital publication

Request a copy of the print publication