Interview: Chabbouha Baiba, BD Manager at Winch Energy
Before we get into the nitty-gritty, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?
I come from a very small community in Southern Morocco. Because of my Saharan roots, if I am honest, as a woman within the community there were certain expectations for me - it was a very difficult decision to commit to completing my studies and even more so to pursue the career I have. Despite this, I was always fascinated by how things work and wanted to understand the operations behind complex processes, so after high school I moved to the capital of Morocco, Rabat, to study a postgraduate degree in Engineering.
I guess this was my way of proving to everyone back home that every woman can be successful no matter where they come from - a woman can be a leader. I am not going to play it down, moving to a new city, particularly from such a small community, was a challenge, but ultimately it helped me move out of my comfort zone and build a strong, independent personality.
I am very impressed by your CV, can you tell the readers about your career?
For the past three years, I have worked in the energy industry as a Business Development Engineer for UPC Renewables - a Global leader in renewable energy (www.upcrenewables.com).
I am also Business Development Manager for West Africa for Winch Energy (www.winchenergy.com), an off-grid renewable energy company. This job opportunity was key for me and exposed me to the off-grid energy market - developing my understanding, management skills and capabilities.
Render: Winch Energy's 30kW Remote Power Unit
Did you ever sit down and 'map out' your career?
Not exactly - I knew renewable energy was the field I wanted to be in but I did not plan it all per se. I got to where I am through persistence, research and talking to people. It is absolutely essential that you understand the market, particularly in the off-grid space - as it is changing almost daily. My postgraduate degree and languages, (Chabbouha speaks Arabic, French and English), also helped a lot along the way - the innovative nature of the field means having a technical background definitely puts you in a good position.
It is incredible how quickly the off-grid market is growing, I also find the mix of start-ups and big players very interesting.
Yes - I agree. The customer base is so large, with 1.2 billion people without access to electricity, there is space for all kinds of players - in the past 18 months especially we have seen more of an appearance from the bigger international companies. For example just last month Engie acquired Fenix to roll out solar home systems throughout Africa.
What do you enjoy the most about working in the off-grid space?
Winch Energy provides renewable electricity, internet, a DSTV and electric water pumping to off-grid communities in remote areas. They give people the basic commodities they deserve and create prosperity within deprived areas.
So, one of the best things about my job is most definitely the social impact we see after installing an off-grid unit – it is phenomenal seeing people achieve their aspirations and personal goals. We have installed two 30kW solar-powered mini-grid systems, with battery backup in Nimjat, a rural village in the desert of Mauritania. I have visited Nimjat multiple times and each time the noticeable change is unbelievable.
Video: Winch Energy's first 30kW installation in Nimjat, Mauritania
As a woman, do you find any particular challenges within the industry?
The sector of renewable energy is not an easy field for women to work in, especially because an important part of my job as a Business Developer is to travel around the continent (Africa) to represent my company and its main projects in progress. I do believe it is gradually changing but particularly in the areas I work there are still many obstacles that need to be broken down and addressed.
I also think it is essential to get rid of the stereotype that engineering and other mathematical and scientific disciplines are masculine, 'for boys'. This is an issue that needs to be addressed by schools all over the world.
Over the next 50 years – what other changes do you believe we should expect to see in the renewable energy market?
The first question I always ask myself is - “what did we do for the next generation?” - it is not only about us anymore, it is bigger than us. That is the main reason why we need to focus more on developing this sector and raising consciousness about climate change and how we can leave a better planet for our next generation.
Thanks to new technologies, we now have the green solutions to tackle this problem. One of the most notable things I have experienced first-hand in sub-Saharan Africa is that a large proportion of the population are using kerosene or diesel generators for energy – people are currently paying inflated rates for noisy, dirty and unreliable electricity, when they could get silent, clean renewable energy for the same price.
Renewable mini-grids are the new mobile phone and things are now going to change at an exponential rate.
Photograph: Winch Energy's Remote Power Unit in Nimjat, Mauritania with DSTV on side
How would you advise women wanting to start a career in the energy sector?
My main advice for every woman wanting to start a career in the energy sector is to be confident about your capabilities and to have enthusiasm for the sector. You need to know what is going on, the industry is moving so quickly and is exciting, you need to keep up to date. Networking is key - go to events, there are plenty of them in London and a lot are free - there is really no excuse not to if you are interested in the field. Also, don't be scared to move abroad, there are more opportunities outside the UK.