Having put paid to the doubts and rumblings from the naysayers who thought she was way out of her depth and punching above her weight, a best when she set out to carve a niche for herself in the oil and gas industry, Salma Okonkwo looks set to do the double.
For the better parts of a decade, the 48-year-old entrepreneur has been working the trenches ever-so-silently. In spite of the stumbling blocks, she’s put together a multi-million-dollar oil and gas outfit in UBI Group.
Even though she’s already proved her mettle by pulling off what is clearly not a cake walk, the Ghanaian has another thing coming.
Salma Okonkwo’s journey might be a textbook case of every finish line marking the starting point of a new race – at least, for those who like to move on to the next and not just rest on their laurels. Having already explored one facet of Ghana’s energy sector, she’s taking on what might be her biggest challenge yet.
If all goes according to plan, March this year could see her unveil Blue Power Energy; a 100-megawatt solar farm which would be considered the biggest in Ghana and one of the largest on the continent. And for what it’s worth, the path she trod into the energy sector wasn’t exactly carved out from the beginning.
Salma Okonkwo was born into a family of 14 children. Her father made a living off rearing and selling cattle while her mother had ties to real estate. Frequent visits to her grandma’s marked her childhood and while on such visits, she would assist her granny in making sandwiches and smoking fish for sale.
She also assisted in the sales and saw first hand how many of the local women were making ends meet through petty trading in spite of the economic and social challenges. That experience may have left her with a knack for business.
Salma completed her secondary education in Ghana and eventually found her way to the United States after gaining admission into Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles. She graduated in 1994, and a stint at a food brokerage company in California was to follow soon after.
After putting in some years on the job abroad, she returned to her home country in 2003. Salma had just landed a job back home with an oil and gas company known as Sahara Energy Group, and that truncated her stay in the United States.
While on the job with the oil and gas firm, Salma identified a growth opportunity for the company which involved opening up retail gas stations. She brought the idea forward to the executives, but her pitch didn’t sway them.
She held strong beliefs in the idea and wasn’t going let an initial nay vote deter her. Several times she pitched the idea to the board with enthusiasm, only to have it thrown out in as many occasions – the board’s reasoning being that a move of that nature was too political and too demanding of investments in infrastructure.
As there is only so much ‘nos’ one person can take, Salma was to eventually sever ties with the company in 2006 and try to make it happen on her own. Her foray into the oil and gas sector was founded on the idea of bringing LPG to Ghana’s northern region which is particularly notorious for being difficult to reach.
The Ghanaian entrepreneur’s decision to explore northern Ghana didn’t stem from a hunch, whim, or some gut feeling. Her father hails from that part, and she knew the region was hampered by an ‘energy gap’ which forced many families into seeking out traditional sources for their energy needs. Taking LPG to those places was going to change lives, and it was too great an opportunity to take a pass on.
But a spanner was thrown into the works when it became clear that the shortage of storage facilities for the product in the very region she was looking to explore was going to be a major bummer. This implied that she had to build the storage facilities herself and as she couldn’t lay hands on sufficient funds, that was always going to be quite a reach.
The problem left Salma with a mountain to climb, but who needs to do all that climbing when one can go around it? And so she switched tactics and began wholesale of petroleum and diesel. Before long, things started to fall into place.
After securing a lucrative contract to supply fuel to U.S.-based Kosmos Energy in 2007, she followed up with something similar the following year when she landed another agreement with Hess. During those early days, her operations were financed by mortgaging some properties owned by her family and husband.
And all the endeavour was to pay off in 2008 when UBI Group’s first retail gas station kicked off operations. What soon followed was the outright ownership of eight gas stations across Ghana, and the management of a further twenty via partnerships.
UBI Group was holding its own quite well in the market and it wasn’t long before it began to draw interest from several international firms – one of which was Singapore-based multinational firm, Puma Energy, which doled out around USD 150 Mn in 2013 for the acquisition of a significant stake in two subsidiaries of UBI Group.
Salma is looking to give some of these women a better life with the solar project which is known to have already created hundreds of jobs in northern Ghana and is projected to create a few more hundreds upon completion
Salma got started on her next big idea – the solar farm – after the partial acquisition. As she told Forbes, about USD 100 Mn will be channelled into the project to create up to 100 megawatts of solar power by the end of the first quarter of this year.
The project kicked off early last year, and by the evidence on show, it seems well on course to meet up with the timeline. There may be plans to even add another 100 megawatts by the end of next year.
For the Ghanaian businesswoman, the solar farm project is as personal as it is developmental. Her father’s village in northern Ghana will host half the solar farm while the rest of it will be spread across other areas in the same region – one that is touted by UNICEF as having witnessed the slowest progress in poverty reduction since the 1990s.
Few opportunities are available in northern Ghana from where a considerable number of women migrate to Accra to toil – carrying goods for customers in markets and doing other odd jobs for meagre income.
Many of them live in slums where they are subjected to all manners of abuse and harassment. With a view to putting an end to all of that, Salma is looking to give some of these women a better life with the solar project which is known to have already created hundreds of jobs in northern Ghana and is projected to generate a few more hundreds upon completion.
Part of the broader goal which Salma hopes to achieve with the project is to attract companies with the allure of cheap energy into setting up bases in the area and creating lasting jobs for the locals which will see them entirely break the cycle of poverty. And how nice it’d be to see it all come to a head.
Featured image courtesy: salmaokonkwo.com
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