MEET THE WOMAN WHO IS BUILDING THE LARGEST SOLAR FARM IN GHANA
Salma Okonkwo, one of the brightest business people in Ghana, is brimming with an entrepreneurial flair that sees her having plans to create the biggest solar farm in Ghana. She has carved her excellent reputation in the energy sector well, heading a multimillion-dollar oil and gas outfit called UBI Group.
If her project comes to fruition, Ghana’s energy sector will be changed in ways that have positive far-reaching effects. Set to be one of Africa’s largest solar farms, Salma Okonkwo is building a solar farm called Blue Power Energy. It will open in March 2019 with 100 megawatts of energy. It will be the biggest move in her career.
Speaking to Forbes, Okonkwo said, “don’t stop when the door is being shut. I find a way to make it work, that’s what propelled my success.” She added, “Most of the multinational companies that come to Ghana don’t put in infrastructure. They operate a system where they invest very little and they take it away. They sell their products and leave. I’m hoping to provide employment and add to Ghana’s economy.”
Okonkwo was raised in an average home as one of 14 children born to a real estate agent and developer mother and a cattle dealer father. Her parents made the effort to send her to the United States to further pursue her education, gaining admission into college at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. After her graduation in 1994, she worked briefly in California, but returned to Ghana in 2003 after being recruited by oil and gas company Sahara Energy Group.
It was at Sahara Energy Group that she pitched the concept of opening up gas retail stations, but the company was not keen on this idea. Her idea was turned down several times. Executives would shun her idea by saying that they wouldn’t change their business plan because it would be too political and would require too much of an investment in infrastructure.
She quit the group in order to pursue her brilliant idea where no one would shoot her down. She started her own petroleum gas company, focusing on bringing liquified petroleum gas to the hard-to-reach region of northern Ghana, where many families still rely on burning firewood for energy.
Her journey on this path was not rosy. She encountered a difficulty: The North had few storage facilities for the liquified gas. To get it to the remote region, she’d have to build the storage herself, and she was already struggling to secure funding. In order to circumvent this predicament, she started trading diesel and petroleum wholesale.
By 2007, she had a contract to supply fuel to Dallas-based Kosmos Energy, which was followed by another contract with Hess in 2008. A year later (in 2008) UBI opened its first retail gas station, which expanded to eight stations outright, with 20 others being managed through partnerships. In 2013, Okonkwo started her solar company. According to Forbes, she estimates that the company will spend about $100 million—financed by roughly $30 million in loans—to create 100 megawatts of solar power by early next year. Construction started earlier this summer. The plan is to add another 100 megawatts by the end of 2020.
With how energy access is a big problem in Africa, Salma Okonkwo’s ambitious project will go a long way in easing these problems. It will also create opportunities and employment for women in Ghana. Northern Ghana, which Unicef says is Ghana’s poorest region will be improved for the better. Cheap energy to northern Ghana will ease life.
Okonkwo said, “I want to bring support to my people in the north. Then there will be more Salma’s all over the place.”