Sheila Oparaocha’s speech at the 2021 Carnot Prize Award Ceremony

On April 30, 2021, the Kleinman Center awarded its sixth Carnot Prize for distinguished contributions in energy policy to Sheila Oparaocha, International Coordinator and Program Manager at ENERGIA. During her over two decades at ENERGIA, Sheila has tirelessly advocated for a more gender-equal energy sector and for women to play a central role in the clean energy transition. Her work has supported women entrepreneurs to grow and run their own businesses in the energy sector and assisted electricity utilities and energy agencies to mainstream gender approaches in their institutions and operations. Here’s the full transcript of Sheila Oparaocha’s speech.



I am honoured and humbled to receive the Carnot Prize and would like to start by thanking those that nominated me and the Kleinman Centre for Energy Policy for picking me out of what I believe were many equally deserving persons

When I first received news of the award, I thought it was either a spam message or a joke. When I recognised that it was true, my second immediate realisation was that it was not really about me, but a reflection on the broader ENERGIA family, and the partners that have supported and worked with us all these years.

At ENERGIA we believe and are passionate that gender equality and women’s empowerment are critical to development, to achieving each and every Sustainable Development Goal and that energy access is intricately linked to the wellbeing and empowerment of women, men, their families and communities.

ENERGIA is an International Network that is hosted by Hivos – the Humanist Institute for Development Cooperation, an international nongovernmental organisation based in the Netherlands. Our focus has been on delivering results and impacts at the user and program levels and on scaling up through building capacities of our partners and through policy advocacy.

When ENERGIA was established in 1996 by a group of energy experts, we started with the basics of highlighting the burden that women face in providing for the energy needs of their households, their communities, and their businesses. At the time, this was absent in energy policies and absent at international conferences and in political commitments on development. Since then, we have grown into a globally acknowledged network that has over the years invested over 30 million Euros to support the activities of over 50 organization, in 32 countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Pacific. As a direct result of our engagement and capacity building, over 40 medium to large-scale projects, energy ministries, electricity utilities, rural electrification agencies have endorsed gender action plans. Eight government agencies have endorsed gender responsive national energy policies and sustainable energy for all action agendas. ENERGIA has also trained over 1500 practitioners, half of whom were women. These practitioners, continue to be influential such as Faith Odongo and Paul Mbuthi from Kenya’s Ministry of Energy, and Louise Seck, Ex-Ministers of Renewable Energy from Senegal.

One of our high level achievements has been our successful efforts to ensure gender in the SDG 7 intergovernmental outcomes. But we have also reached communities and households. We have strengthened the growth and resilience of 6500 women-led micro and small enterprises, who in turn have sold over 700,000 units of energy products, employ 10,000 people and have extended improved energy access to 3.5 million households. As part of our knowledge creation and thought leadership, we have over 21 publications in peer reviewed journals and contributed to a professorship specially dedicated to gender and energy at the University of Twente, in the Netherlands.

ENERGIA has not been alone on this journey. Others that have made noteworthy contributions that I would wish to acknowledge and congratulate here.

Ministry of Energy in Kenya who have the only stand-alone Gender Policy of an energy ministry. Government of Nepal who have put Gender and Social inclusion as strong cross cutting in all their energy policy interventions. The ECOWAS Centre for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency (ECREEE), who facilitated the regional policy on gender mainstreaming in the energy sector and a legal framework to back. IRENA for shining a spotlight on women’s employment in the RE sector. Global Women’s Network on the Energy Transition GWNET, who have focused on mentoring and supporting women. Value for Women, who have supported gender mainstreaming in private sector companies, taking a gender lens to energy investment. USAID for their engendering utilities programme. ICRW for research, creating tools for getting the evidence we need. Clean Cooking Alliance for their putting women empowerment at the centre of the clean cooking agenda. UN DESA, UNDP, SDG7 TAG and Dr Kandeh Kumkella who have put gender at the top of the SDG 7 agenda in the UN. The World Bank, the Asia Development Bank and Energising Development program, who have made gender targets and results part of reporting requirements, supporting gender in infrastructure and in employment. Women led social enterprises and companies, and ENERGIA NGO partners Centre for Rural Technology Nepal, Energy for Impact, Practical Action, TANGSEN and Solar Sister that are transforming last-mile renewable energy distribution chains. All these have done so much more than I am able to highlight here. Thank you for your dedication.

In spite of these successes and in spite of 25 years of advocating for change and showing how it can be done, challenges remain and new ones emerge. Today, somewhere in Zambia or India a girl is still carrying more weight in firewood than she should be. Somewhere in Burkina Faso or Myanmar, a woman with a bright idea, who knows her customer base well will be struggling to convince a bank to give her a loan to build her solar business. The bank will tell her that her business proposal is not quite right or that she has no assets to be collateral for the loan. Somewhere in Tanzania or Bangladesh a girl will want to get on a roof and install solar panels in her hometown or be the utility manager. But she will see no role models around her and get no mentoring or support. These are just some of the costs of lack of gender equality in the energy sector.

But it is not only the women that lose out. We all do. We are unlikely to meet SDG7 unless women are part of the transition from access to being part of supply chains, and being part of decision making. The sector fails to benefit from a diverse range of skills needed to solve the challenges of universal access to sustainable energy. And almost 2.9 billion people also lose out, and are deprived of quality of life. Women bear the brunt of this deprivation and cannot continue to be excluded.

Having said this however, we at ENERGIA however do not and have never seen women as victims. Despite many structure barriers women have been transformative agents in pushing progress towards SDG7.

We need to meet this tireless work with political commitment, clear gender targets and plans, mandatory requirements and enforcement, and dedicated funding for women’s empowerment and gender equality across the energy sector. The threats that the COVID-19 poses make this even more urgent today than in 1996 when ENERGIA started. The pandemic has highlighted the importance of energy in upholding basic human rights; the ability to access clean water, quality education, meaningful health care, even the child’s right to play. And so ENERGIA’s mission to increase women and men’s equal and equitable access to and control over sustainable energy services as an essential right to development, remains important until we reach parity.

Ladies and Gentlemen,
Let me end by thanking the many people on whose shoulders I have stood on to be here. They supported me, guided me: Elizabeth Cecelski, Joy Clancy and Margret Skutch, the founders of ENERGIA. My colleagues and friends Soma Dutta, Lydia Muchiri, Magi Matinga and Indira Shakya, leading gender and energy experts. All my past and present team members of the ENERGIA International Secretariat. My mentor Dr Govind Kelkar who introduced me to gender and development. Frank van der Vleuten, Hans Olavs, Harish Hande and Minoru Takada who challenged me to make my arguments concrete and clear.

I also want to recognise my birth country of Zambia. My father arrived in Zambia as a Biafran refugee. Yet at no point was he or were we made to feel like refugees. We were simply citizens. And that was due to the vision of Dr Kenneth Kaunda, whose political leadership was based on ensuring that the so-called underdogs are elevated and given the opportunities everyone deserves. It is the sort of leadership that saw me – a daughter of a refugee – attend and graduate at a public university and so here I stand. And it is this sort of leadership that prioritises equality that is needed in the energy sector.

I would also like to acknowledge the leadership of the The Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), the Netherlands MoF, the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD) and the Asia Development Bank  (ADB) that have been critical donors for ENERGIA. They believed from start, in ENERGIA’s vision and have championed feminist politics and solution to energy poverty.

I am happy to share that my mother has joined me here today. The love and support of my family in Zambia, Kenya and the Netherlands, my husband Henk, my daughter Wanjiku, my sisters, nieces, nephews and in laws has been invaluable.

Finally, I want to say that my hope is that in a few years, ENERGIA will not be needed. That it will be a history that we will look back on with pride. That together we did it!


The recording of the event is now available here and here.
Highlights from Carnot 2021: here.
Read more here: Sheila Oparaocha awarded this year’s Carnot Prize.
Sheila Oparaocha’s profile on Kleinman website: here.