Water/Power Woman of the Year 2016

Wangechi Kiongo

“It’s not about me. It’s about them.”

As she utters these words, you can’t help but admire Phyllis Engefu Ombonyo’s humility and the zeal in her eyes; it’s clear she wants to serve her community in every way she can.

Phyllis is the Director of Business Development at the National Environment Trust Fund (NETFUND) in Kenya, where she spearheads resource mobilization, partnerships and capacity building. NETFUND, a state corporation under Kenya’s Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, empowers Kenyans to sustainably manage the environment by promoting and supporting green growth. They do this, in part, through the annual Green Innovations Awards Programme (Green Innovations Awards), which Phyllis executes each year together with her colleagues. The awards support innovative grassroots initiatives that boost economic growth and generate employment and income while simultaneously promoting green growth and environmental conservation.

R-L: Narissa-International Rivers, Phyllis-NETFUND, Wangechi-International Rivers
R-L: Narissa-International Rivers, Phyllis-NETFUND, Wangechi-International Rivers
Photo by International Rivers

Earlier this year, Phyllis won an award herself: She was named 2016 Power/Water Woman of the Year Award for her work. Phyllis credits her win not to herself, but to the myriad Kenyan grassroots environpreneurs, identified through the NETFUND GIA vehicle, who have come up with green innovations that promote sustainability.

One of her favorite innovative projects is by John Magiro, a young man who hails from a small village in Murang’a County called Mihuti. Magiro, who only managed a D+ in physics, was able to assemble recycled bicycle parts and simple motors into a mini-hydro system that offers 78 households power at a price 1 US dollar per month which results in 96% savings on energy. Phyllis, referring to this and other similar cases, states that there is no solid relationship between level of education and innovation.

John Magiro at work with his mini-hydro plant.
John Magiro at work with his mini-hydro plant.
Photo by NETFUND

“You don’t need to have done your master’s or PhD to come up with a mini-grid or a cooking stove that is multi-functional,” says Phyllis. “You have lived in the village all your life. You know the challenges the communities face and the opportunities available to solve them.”

And Magiro has solved a major challenge. He generates and supplies electricity from the nearby river, and this has been a blessing to the community, as it’s brought both lighting and employment. He has a network of employees who ensure that the Magiro Power is adequately and efficiently supplied. Through the NETFUND incubation programme, Magiro plans to increase his capacity to reach 2,000 homes in his village.

According to Phyllis, there are many innovative people out there like Magiro, but such tremendous initiatives are rarely acknowledged or appreciated. Opportunities for innovation abound: Micro hydro potential in Kenya is huge, given the country’s many untapped natural resources. Also, Africa’s vast solar potential could provide energy while avoiding expensive, large-scale, destructive grid-level infrastructure developments. Many African countries, especially the dry areas like the Sahara, receive on average a very high amount of days with bright sunlight. Studies indicates that a solar-generating facility covering just 0.3% of the area comprising North Africa could supply all of the energy required by the European Union.

To succeed in powering Africa, Phyllis says we must prioritize how we allocate our resources, and come up with an enabling environment and favorable policies that will lure people to develop innovative ways to tackle environmental and sustainability challenges. Countries should come up with enough programmes to promote and up-scale environpreneurs.

NETFUND faces challenges acquiring finances to support the many innovative entries they receive. Most countries hardly allocate any funds for such initiatives. This saddens Phyllis’ heart, since they are forced to deny funding to many brilliant projects.

“This year we got 13,000 applications. The semi-final list was nearly 1,000 who qualified for support, but we could only afford to fund 40. Then there’s competition for these minimal resources that are dwindling as countries become more stringent with their budgets.” She hopes that more people will support their programme or come up with new programmes to elevate these amazing innovations.

Phyllis remains motivated, however, by the fact that these bottom-of-the-pyramid communities are coming up with solutions on their own to tackle these challenges. This gives her hope as she lives her passion: empowering communities to find solutions for themselves, by themselves. She wants to ensure that nobody is left behind, too: She actively promotes gender mainstreaming, inclusivity of youth and a national outlook in the Green Awards Programme. She hopes that eventually, every person can equally access energy, education, clean water and good health.

Congratulations to Phyllis and to the environpreneurs! Your work is tremendous.

NOTE: This interview was conducted towards the end of Phyllis’ contract at NETFUND

Thursday, September 1, 2016