S1E1: Jennifer Boca: Stepping Forward into Africa’s Renewable Energy Sector

March 14, 2022
In She Powers Africa, IFC chats with Jennifer Boca, Head of ESG at Lekela Power, on stepping forward into Africa’s renewable energy sector.

In the premier episode of She Powers Africa, IFC chats with Jennifer Boca, Head of Environmental, Social and Governance at Lekela Power, a pan-African renewable energy platform developing utility scale wind and solar projects. Boca shares her experience as a woman leading in the renewable energy sector, the importance of mentorship in her career progression, and provides encouragement to other women in the early and middle stages of their careers to “step forward, take the risk and enjoy the journey.


Hello and welcome to She Powers Africa, an IFC podcast dedicated to telling stories about Africa’s Leading Women in renewable energy. I’m your host Terryanne Chebet.

This podcast is powered by Energy2Equal and Stop-Winlock’s Women in Renewable Energy in Africa Network (W-REA), which aims to enhance women’s participation in the renewable energy sector.

According to the Africa Energy Outlook 2019 from the International Energy Agency, renewable energy could account for more than 60 percent of new power generation in Sub-Saharan Africa, excluding South Africa, by 2040.

Now over the next few episodes, I will be speaking with the women who are powering Africa’s Renewable Energy sector to talk about what it takes to empower more women not only to be part of this dynamic industry, but to lead in the Renewable Energy sector.

Our first guest on this podcast is Jennifer Boca. She has over 15 years of experience and is currently the Head of Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) for Lekela Power, a pan-African renewable energy platform developing utility scale wind and solar projects.

Terryanne: Jennifer before we get into it, we’d like to get to know you a little bit more. What was your childhood like and how has that shaped the woman you have become today?

Jennifer: I come from Kiambu. I grew up in a small village surrounded by extended family, so grandparents down the road, loads and loads of cousins everywhere.

I am the eldest of four. Born and bred in Kenya really. I didn’t leave Kenya until I came over to the UK to do my Masters, so pretty much Kenyan through and through.

And I think for me having grown up in Kenya, and in a small village as well, I learned a lot around community responsibility and I think that continues to pretty much shape who I am today, wherever I live, wherever I go, I think that sense of community and of being responsible for the wider peace has stayed with me being learned from childhood.

Terryanne: You have always worked in sustainability, but six years ago you decided to focus on renewables. Now the pandemic has forced many people, particularly women, to change their career paths. How did you navigate renewables as a newbie?

Jennifer: I would say I'm still navigating the sector.

It's a really, really exciting space. There's always something to learn each time. There are new technologies, new innovations, new ideas coming through all the time. I would say that I navigate just through curiosity really and staying open to learning new things.

And having a purpose. I think it's really important to being fulfilled to understand why do you want to be in a certain space? Why do you want to be in a certain sector? For me, really wanting to make a difference in Africa and being involved in a sector that actually can be transformational, has helped me to navigate because I'm quite curious to understand, how does it work? What difference can it make?

Terryanne: I love the words you chose to use, curiosity, purpose, transformational. You were able to break the proverbial glass ceiling that is associated with the male dominated renewable sector. How did you do it?

Jennifer: I don't know if I can say that I've broken the ceiling. But when I look back, I think what's helped me in my journey is really understanding what I bring to the table and being able to articulate that.

I call it factors of advantage. You know, I think it's really important to understand what factors give me an advantage, and how do I articulate that first to myself, and then of course, to the employer, or whoever it is that you're trying to place yourself in front of. I mean this from both an educational background, your own career experience, your personal background and the values you hold, and just understanding how all of that intersects and overlaps to give you an advantage.

So, just to break it down for myself as a black female working mom, with a background in sustainability, having studied environmental science, that is what I bring to the table, right? So, I try and find an employer where those factors give me an advantage. Because then that way, you can come in an authentic way. You don't necessarily have to do too much to prove that you can do whatever it is because that is you, that is your background. That is what you've studied. That's what your career experience is, those are your personal values. So, you use them to articulate whatever advantage you bring to the table.

Terryanne: You are listening to SHE POWERS AFRICA, an IFC podcast dedicated to telling stories about Africa’s leading women in renewable energy and our guest is Jennifer Boca.

Terryanne: Jennifer lets fast forward to you now, your work at Lekela Energy. Could you tell us a little bit more about Lekela and what your current role is?

Jennifer: Lekela is an exciting company. We were set up six years ago now and essentially, we are a pan-African renewable energy developer. We are based in London, but we develop only in Africa and only renewables. And we only do large scale projects, these are utility scale projects that are grid connected.

So, my role at Lekela, I'm the head of ESG. I look after sustainability across the group. And what that involves is during project development, I'm heavily involved in project due diligence to make sure that these projects are not presenting us with a risk on environmental and social dynamics. It's then ensuring that we can construct them and operate them to the highest standards. And I’ve also got a role looking after communities where we operate and that piece is around creating value for those communities, making sure we're doing community investment programs in communities. So that's pretty much what I do in a nutshell.

We invest in South Africa, in Senegal, where we've just finished building the first utility scale wind farm in West Africa, which is really exciting. We're also in Egypt, where we have the largest wind farm in the Lekela portfolio, which is 250 megawatts, and we're also developing a project in Ghana and always looking for new projects across Africa.

Terryanne: That does sound like quite a full plate. How do you get to balance work, life and everything else in between?

Jennifer: I would say I am very much still learning to balance and I'm sure like many working moms would understand with two kids and everything else in between it is quite difficult. But what I've learnt in my own journey is just to be kind to myself and just realize I can't be everywhere all the time and I can't be able to do everything.

I've learned to delegate and ask for help, especially around childcare and at home, which then allows me to be able to focus and work and the other way around as well. If I need help at work, then I'll ask for it so that I can respond at home as well. I think having help is absolutely critical.

And it's also okay not to feel too guilty. And I'm sure a lot of working moms probably go through that where you're always feeling like you're not doing enough for everyone else. I'm learning to accept that it's okay for me not to be there sometimes, but then it's also choosing when do I need to be there and when do I need to let someone else help.

Terryanne: Let’s talk about other women in the sector. The IFC Women in Renewable Energy in Africa Network (W-REA) aims to empower women. What do you think can be done to help the energy sector to attract, retain as well as promote women?

Jennifer: I think that's a really important question and when I look back, I think one of the most important things for myself has been role modelling. Seeing others in the sector who have achieved great things because I think it's important to see what you want to become reflected because it's very hard sometimes to aspire and imagine what it looks like until you see it. So, I think role modelling is hugely important, you know for young girls to see, you know women doing well in renewables.

The other piece that I think is really important, especially in a sector like ours, that's very male dominated, is allyship. We need men around the table to help women get to these places that we want women to get to because, you know right now, if you think about it men hold the power, men are the ones sitting around this table with very few women actually represented in the power sector, generally speaking, and so we can be having all these conversations as women on the side, but it's actually the men that need to join this conversation and become allies to help women so that we can actually create this.

You know it's taking very long I think, for a change to happen. We all need to be talking. You know men too need to come on board and understand our factors of advantage that we bring to this table.

In my own space, what we find challenging is having a pipeline of talent and so it is very clear we need to intervene early on. We need to intervene when girls are still in school to make sure they are studying the relevant subjects, including science, technology, engineering, mathematics so when it comes to it, we have a pipeline of candidates that can get into all these technical roles we talk about. We have women within the sort of mid-career phase of their lives being mentored. There is a pipeline for hiring so when there's openings for CEOs, board positions, there's a pipeline of women that can that step forward.

Terryanne: Jennifer you've talked about role modelling and I'm curious about who your role model is. Who is it that inspires you? And additionally, which women in the renewable energy sector could you say are lighting the way for others? Who are some of the names that we should be keeping our eyes on?

Jennifer: I'm actually really excited to talk about my role model because I think she's amazing. Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, she is the current Director General of the World Trade Organization. She is also the first African and first woman to hold this position. She's an ex-managing director at the World Bank. And what I really love about her is that she's a massive champion of investing in women. She says that investing in women is smart economics, but investing in girls is even smarter economics, and I really couldn't agree more.

What excites me also about her is the fact that she's not just inspiring a young generation, especially of black women, but she is also an inspiration to older women I would say and especially black women of an older generation. I'm thinking here about women like my own my mom, women in their 60’s and late 50’s who now see themselves represented at those levels of global power by this black woman holding this position, so I find that she’s playing a hugely inspirational role and yeah truly, truly inspirational.

Back to the renewable space in Africa, one of my role models is a lady I work with a lot. She works for a company called Actis, a private equity fund. They actually own Lekela. So, this lady’s name is Lisa Pinsley, she's the Head of Energy and Infrastructure based in South Africa. Again, amazing, amazing woman leading again in a very male dominated sector, and she's been able to carve her way within the space.

Again, within Actis I also really look up to Lucy Heintz. Lucy is a Partner at Actis, she’s been Head of Energy for some time now, she’s massively committed to helping women climb the ladder in this space again very, very supportive and setting the way for the rest of us to follow.

And finally, I would also like to give a shout out to my team in South Africa that really has got a lot of young women leaders coming through, doing amazing work and showing that they can contribute in this space.

It is really encouraging and I have seen there's quite a lot of networks now in this space for women to connect in the renewable space and even just having this podcast now, it's really great because it will help us to come together and hopefully we can then light the way for others.

Terryanne: Jennifer, you have had an extensive career in the energy sector spanning close to 15 years now, as a role model to young ladies and leaders everywhere. Tell us more about the opportunities you took. You know, are there choices that you made that led you to this leadership position today that you can share with us?

Jennifer: I studied environmental planning and management and then I spent a lot of time doing technical work, so advising on projects doing project environmental and social impact assessments, due diligence reports. I come from a technical background and then transitioned into an executive role. Having that experience on the ground, working on projects, for my particular role is really important because then you're able to translate all of that knowledge you've learnt in the field into management in terms of looking after, for example, the Lekela portfolio. I understand the technicalities that go into the studies that are being undertaken by others for us, I can assess them and understand them. I think it's important to gain that first-hand experience on the ground on projects.

The other thing I would say is, if you're looking to get into leadership positions, it's obviously very helpful to get into some sort of mentoring program if it's possible. I have found that, that really helps and especially if you're transitioning from a technical role into more of a senior executive role. Asking for help and getting some hand holding along the way always helps. And again, just to go back to what I said at the beginning, just staying curious and being open to learning, I find has helped me navigate. My background is very broad, because I come from environmental and social, which means you kind of do a lot of general stuff across the board in environmental and social management, but you're not necessarily a specialist in each of those areas, and so you need to be able to step out of that, and be able to understand in enough breadth, but not in too much detail that you get lost in it.

It is also understanding where you fit in that spectrum. Are you a specialist, would you, for example, want to go deep dive into one area? Or do you want to be a generalist and so potentially get into management and you do need to understand that early on in your career so then you can carve it in the trajectory that it takes you sort of being controlling and all that.

Terryanne: This is SHE POWERS AFRICA, a conversation with women who are powering Africa’s renewable energy sector. Here we seek to know what it takes to empower more women, not only to be part of this dynamic industry, but to lead in the renewable energy sector. I am in conversation with Jennifer Boca.

Terryanne: Jennifer let us look at the future. Now, you have accomplished so much in your career in such a short amount of time, but they say the best is yet to come. What impact can we expect from Ms. Jennifer Boca in the future?

Jennifer: I'm all about impact the more I look at what is going on in the world and what role businesses can play. We are right now in the middle of a pandemic, and I think it's very clear to see that we all need to do a lot if we're going to meet Sustainable Development Goals globally. I am a massive believer in the role that businesses can play in creating both profit and social value and so I really do hope to continue working in the responsible business space; helping businesses really embed purpose into practice. What that means is to really help businesses understand that is possible to have a profit and have a positive social outcome, for the wider benefit of communities.

That is what I'm looking forward to doing. I'm back in school as part of that, because I do want to understand the world in a much more relevant way because we live in such unprecedented times in terms of, first of all the pandemic, and there's also all sorts of other social issues going on, that feel to me that we almost need to pause and start articulating actually how are we going to lead and especially from a business perspective, how are we going to lead in this new world and what tools do we need.

Terryanne: Tell us what does the future for women in renewable energy in Sub-Saharan Africa specifically look like?

Jennifer: I think the future is exciting in renewables in Sub-Saharan Africa. We have an abundance of renewable resources, wind, solar, across the board. We are already seeing a lot of big projects coming up. As I said, in Senegal, we have just finished doing the big Taiba wind farm, in Kenya we have Lake Turkana, in South Africa a lot of activity happening in that space.

Personally, I'm very excited for the space in terms of opportunities and I guess the question is, how do we make sure that women benefit from this transition that is already underway. It goes back to those points I made earlier about us coming together to role model, to present allyship opportunities where hopefully men come on board as well and help us create these opportunities and also intervene early on to make sure that girls are studying the relevant subjects. So, when these projects are actually happening they can then be able to partake in terms of jobs.

Terryanne: Jennifer, as a parting shot, what is the best advice you would give to this listeners today who want to bring change to the renewable energy industry in Africa, and of course, the rest of the world?

Jennifer: I have two daughters and sometimes I do wonder if I was to talk to them about my own journey and where I thought I made mistakes and what I thought could have maybe worked better is just being risk averse. I was very, very risk averse when I was younger. And what I'd encourage young girls to do is just to go for it. I read somewhere that men are generally not scared to go for it even when they don't fulfil the whole criteria for a role for example, they will go for it. They might have seven out of the 10 but they will just go. Girls on the other hand, we want to have the full 10 and we will agonize about the three that we don't have; but just go for it. As long as you're curious and open to learning, I think it's all good. So, step forward, take the risk and enjoy the journey.

Terryanne: Thank you so much Jennifer, it has been such a pleasure to speak with you today.

You have been listening to She Powers Africa, an IFC Women in Renewable Energy Network (W-REA) podcast dedicated to telling stories about Africa’s Leading Women in renewable energy.

I’ve been in conversation with Jennifer Boca, Head of Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) for Lekela Power and my name is Terryanne Chebet until next time, goodbye!