Finding African energy solutions

  • August 21, 2014
Finding African energy solutions

Lorna Omondi was inspired from an early age to find homegrown solutions to the energy problems facing Africa.

Lorna Omondi knows first hand about the energy issues facing her country, Kenya. As a child, she loved to read, but much of her studying had to be done by candlelight or using a special pressure lamp with a cloth wick dipped in kerosene. This was due to the power cuts that were a frequent event, particularly in rural areas after 1998 due to the droughts which affected the hydro-electric supply.

The experience gave her an early desire to improve energy issues affecting developing countries. This autumn, after doing undergraduate studies in engineering and working as an energy consultant for two years, she begins an MPhil in management science and operations. She hopes this will help her to better understand the management side of the energy business and how to formulate policy that works in the context of a developing country.

Global problems

Lorna [2014] was born in Nairobi, but her family moved around the country because her father was in the military. Her mother is an editor and communications specialist, but found it hard to get work when the family were living in rural areas. Lorna, who has a younger brother, loved to read and says it was her “comfort zone”. At school she was particularly interested in science and engineering, but when it came to choosing her undergraduate studies she figured science was too theoretical. She wanted to do work that would have a more immediate impact.

She had been accepted to do engineering and law in Kenya, but was encouraged to apply to do electrical engineering at MIT by friends and family. . She was drawn to MIT’s emphasis on tackling global problems and finally submitted an application right on the deadline. “I thought it was for brilliant people and that that wasn’t me,” she says. She was accepted and once in, she became interested in studying energy through the lens of civil and mechanical engineering.

She arrived at MIT in 2008 on a generous student aid package and almost immediately took up the opportunities offered by the institute to get involved in research. Her first project was working on freshwater availability in the south western region of the USA. “It was an area with a high population growth forecast and we had to investigate how to ensure sustainable freshwater supplies,” she says. In her second year she took part in an international research programme where she was placed for 10 weeks in Israel, working with the Technion Israeli Institute of Technology on groundwater pollution by fertilisers and seeking to understand how solids travel in groundwater.

Her third-year project was in Hawaii where she investigated the effects of sedimentation and erosion on the islands’ coral reef and how they could be stemmed.

In the summer of her fourth and final year, Lorna worked on two projects – one on electric vehicles in the US with the systems engineering department and another on the cost of climate change mitigation with a professor of economics. For the latter she had to create a simulation model through which she could calculate costs. The latter research has generated three research papers.

“Working on all these brilliant projects really opened my eyes to the scope of what I could do in terms of my interest in energy and finding sustainable solutions,” she says.

On graduating, Lorna worked for two years as an energy industry consultant and engineering economist in Boston, specialising in systems engineering. Most of her work involved management consultancy for energy investors, but she also advised on regulation and policy issues and worked with NGOs and private clients and on litigation cases linked to the energy industry.

Energy in Africa

Her heart was always in Kenya, though. “That is where I want to work to help solve our energy problems,” she says, “but I felt it was important to first gain experience in markets which had already tackled some of the issues, which have existed for much longer and where there is greater awareness of the weaknesses and strengths of different solutions. Although they are not solutions that can be directly applied in Africa, working on them will help give me the skillset I need to develop homegrown solutions which will work in Kenya.”

While she was at MIT Lorna learned about the Gates Cambridge Scholarship programme. She felt MIT and Cambridge had a similar culture and focus on global solutions.  She liked the vision behind the Gates Cambridge Scholarship programme and its focus on leadership.  At MIT she was involved in leadership positions in several clubs and helped organised a careers fair in the civil engineering department.  She also volunteered as a teaching assistant and was vice president of the civil and environmental engineering students’ organisation, advising on undergraduate programming and school policy.

Lorna, who has just got married, hopes her MPhil will help her to better understand the management side of the energy business and how to formulate policy that works. In the long term, she doesn’t rule out political ambitions, but in the short term she wants to develop a good understanding of how the energy industry works in developing markets and how to make it grow. “I want to be a global expert on the energy industry in Africa,” she says, “and how to develop homegrown solutions that are relevant to the developing world.”

Photo credit: www.freedigitalphotos.net and phanlop88.

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