“We can find our way around any barriers”: The women driving change in Myanmar’s energy sector
YANGON | LYNDAL PEARCE
If there was ever a mountain to climb, Myanmar’s energy transition represents the Hkakabo Razi of all challenges. With just 50% of the country able to access reliable power, mostly in urban areas, aggressive and ambitious solutions are needed at scale.
And if ever there were talented and energetic mountaineers to scale this challenge, some of the most courageous and successful include an emerging cadre of private mini-grid developers. And, in what might be a surprising twist for the traditionally male-dominated engineering world, Myanmar is leading the way with women energy leaders that are boldly pioneering rural electrification solutions that will, if they prove to be sustainable, transform Myanmar into one of the most successful decentralised energy countries in the developing world.
Smart Power Myanmar spoke to a number of Myanmar’s women leaders who are doing just that — leading businesses and initiatives working to deliver off-grid electricity to more people in Myanmar than ever before. We discussed their experiences working as women leaders in the sector and their views about the challenges and opportunities that exist to continue expanding people’s access to electricity in Myanmar.
“When I started in 2000 there were very few women working in this sector. Now there are more because women are accessing good training overseas. There are many women working as engineers, but women do struggle to find space at all levels,” says Dr Soe Soe Ohn, Director at the Department of Rural Development (DRD) and Project Manager at the National Electrification Project (NEP). DRD, with financing from the World Bank, hopes to deploy more than 400 solar-hybrid mini-grids over the next few years in addition to the thousands of other mini-grids being developed with private financing.
“There are still challenges for women — things we cannot change like cultural constraints, the nature of [the] work. I encourage women to strengthen their capabilities and strive for positions in the energy sector so we can overcome barriers women face and become more involved in decision making,” Dr Soe Soe Ohn said.
Barani, Wit Yi Toe (Roslyn) and Shwe Zin Ma all studied engineering and worked in Singapore before returning to Myanmar. Today, they are all leaders within companies that are taking full advantage of the new opportunities to scale up off-grid energy solutions in the country.
Roslyn studied for her master’s degree in electrical engineering at the National University of Singapore. After returning to Myanmar around 10 years ago she began working with Ms Hnin K Tha Yar, founder and Managing Director of Talent & Technology (T&T) and a fellow ASEAN engineer who also saw the opportunity to contribute towards Myanmar’s accelerating energy sector. Today, T&T engages in a broad range of activities including consultancy and project development across the solar and electrical sectors.
“Our overseas training teaches us to find solutions. There are not so many women working in the mini-grid sector in Myanmar, but I see no problem to be a woman in the sector. Women are good at planning and at making strong connections and listening to householders and village leaders,” Roslyn said.
Shwe Zin Ma graduated from Yangon Technological University with a degree in electronics engineering before studying for her master’s in science at the National University of Singapore. She worked in Singapore for more than ten years researching solar cells and flexible technology applications.
Talking about her aspirations, Shwe Zin Ma said: “When I was in Singapore I always kept in touch with Myanmar, looking for opportunities to come back and contribute to my country. I always wanted to combine my engineering and management skills with my personal ambition to contribute to the industry here and impact on sustainable development.
“As a woman, I believe we must lead by example. We just have to prove that we are good and strong. It is good for me that the company I work for is owned by a woman and she has two daughters also working in the business. The majority of the company directors are women.”
“We can find our way around any barriers.”
Barani, Managing Director of Techno-Hill, started developing mini-grids in Myanmar in 2006 as just one of the company’s business lines. Now, 70 per cent of Techno-Hill’s business is focused on mini-grid development in rural areas. The company has now developed 18 solar/hybrid mini-grids in Tanintharyi Region and is now preparing to install mini-grids at seven new sites, applying learnings gained over 14 years’ involvement with mini-grid development.
“Engineering work is tough work. I am also a mother and it is difficult to balance my time between my family and work. Work is very demanding, and my daughter is demanding too!
“My mum encourages me. She says that, nowadays, every woman is out there trying to achieve their dreams and visions. So when I feel worried or discouraged she tells me to keep going. My mother sees that I have more opportunities than she had, so I cannot stop.
“My daughter also sees my work. She has visited villages with me and seen me working there. She is good at drawing, and now she is drawing mini-grids, solar plans and the powerhouses,” Barani said.
All four women agreed that it can be hard to feel safe while travelling in remote areas, and that cultural constraints can pose a challenge. However, this has not stopped any of them visiting villages needing reliable access to energy — from northern Shan State in the east, to the Naga Self-Administered Zone in the north-west and Tanintharyi in the south of Myanmar. Flexibility and planning are key to facing these challenges, they said.
“We do face problems as women sometimes. For instance, on consultancy jobs, we need to climb up to rooftops, but our religious rules do not permit this for women.
“So, I use technology — I stay on the ground and receive images, viewing the rooftop from my mobile phone. We can find our way around any barriers,” Roslyn said.
They articulated the steps developers need to take for a mini-grid project to succeed. Villages should only be selected after thoroughly investigating villages’ households and productive demand for energy; communications with Village Electrification Committees and villagers must be transparent; and developers must consult extensively with villagers, remaining flexible to the needs of the village. Developers also need to educate households about the mini-grid, meters, tariffs, and appliances they can use with reliable electricity.
“Women are good at planning and at making strong connections and listening to householders and village leaders.”
A key challenge is achieving the strong demand from productive enterprises necessary for a mini-grid to be viable. Shwe Zin Ma said insufficient productive utilisation of mini-grids was one of the greatest risks for a developer.
“People ask us a lot of questions — most have not had the chance to consider expanding their businesses before. They have not had electricity before, only diesel. They are interested in the opportunities [to expand their businesses with electricity] but need assistance to pay for conversions. They also need education and support.
“We are working on how to do this more effectively. As a developer we need to take responsibility for this, but I think there are non-government organisations who can do a better job of advising villagers on expanding their agri-businesses,” she continued.
Roslyn agreed that villagers need more external support regarding markets and value chains to be able to realistically grow their businesses.
“Technology and financing assistance are not all that is needed. The supply chains is where help is also needed. People need assistance on value chains to grow their businesses and linkages to markets.”
Barani said she felt very positive about the future of mini-grids in Myanmar. “The whole country needs and wants electricity. We need to grow fast. Although there are many challenges and difficulties in the energy sector we must keep growing as fast as we can.”
Shwe Zin Ma had some advice for young women considering working in the sector in Myanmar.
“I welcome young women to be involved in the energy sector. Women have a lot to contribute and do even better work. Studies of organisations led by women show links between that leadership and a better work culture, work satisfaction and profitability. I don’t worry about gender differences. I would say that you need to perform, but as long as you are performing there are opportunities for you in the energy sector in all positions.”
This year, Shwe Zin Ma, Barani and Roslyn have come together with ten other promising mini-grid developers for Myanmar’s first ever Mini-Grid Accelerator Program, organised by Smart Power Myanmar in partnership with the Silicon Valley-based Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship and supported by Chevron. Building on Smart Power Myanmar’s core grant financing from The Rockefeller Foundation, the 12-module program has paired developers with 23 executive-level mentors from a wide range of companies in Silicon Valley and Southeast Asia. Program participants have engaged in regular online workshops focused on key areas of interest for up-and-coming developers, including financial models and value chain optimisation, and have benefitted from listening to guest speakers from some of the region’s most successful mini-grid developers. Over the length of the program, developers have worked in close collaboration with their mentors to use the content of the workshops to develop robust business plans capable of enhancing their investability and propelling them into a strong position to electrify rural communities throughout Myanmar.
Smart Power Myanmar also spoke to Kate Lazarus, who co-led the Powered by Women Initiative of the International Finance Corporation (IFC) in Myanmar. The Powered by Women Initiative involved six renewable energy companies in Myanmar who made commitments to enhancing the engagement of women as stakeholders in their organisations, enhancing opportunities for women in leadership, promoting respective and supportive workplaces, and promoting opportunities for women in non-traditional jobs. Kate reflected on the progress that the renewable energy companies made during the two-year initiative.
“I see the immense opportunities for women to engage in non-traditional sectors such as engineers, plant managers, and in field-based sales roles. Why? Because with sustained effort over a two-year period to provide skills development and capacity building; access to CEOs and other leaders in the power sector; and with the drive for a collective goal, these focal points made huge change within [their organisations].
“In some cases they achieved that cultural shift to advance a more respectful workplace. In other instances they reduced the gender divide among employees or improved the design of gender-smart stakeholder engagements. They now have both the individual and shared foundation to continue to step forward and make strides to break down unnecessary barriers. As we believed in them, they now believe in themselves.”
Smart Power Myanmar spoke to Dr Soe Soe Ohn, Director at Myanmar’s Department of Rural Development and Project Manager at the National Electrification Project; Barani Aung, Managing Director at Techno-Hill Engineering; Wit Yi Toe (Roslyn), Sales and Technical Director at Talent & Technology (T&T); Shwe Zin Ma, Head of Business Development at Earth Renewable Energy; and Kate Lazarus, Asia Environmental, Social and Governance Advisory Regional Lead for the International Finance Corporation (IFC).