Ghana-based UBI Group is a multi-million dollar oil and gas company started by Salma Okonkwo over a decade ago. Okonkwo’s story is unique because an energy company headed by a woman in Africa is rare. Most women in Okonkwo’s ancestral clan, the Akan, sell products such as fish and sandwiches. This entrepreneurial spirit inspired Okonkwo who said, “The women didn’t know how to read and write, but they knew how to make a margin.”
Okonkwo began her career in the oil industry with Sahara Energy Group, a company she eventually left to pursue an opportunity she saw in opening retail gas stations. She said the opportunity was “just too good to pass up,” knowing that many families in n the Northern region of Ghana still use firewood for energy.
In the early years of UBI Group, the company began storing and selling diesel and petroleum wholesale. After securing contracts to supply fuel to Dallas-based Kosmos Energy and Hess, UBI Group was able to open its first retail gas station. The company quickly open 7 other locations and managed 20 more through partnerships with other companies.
In 2013, Singapore-based Puma Energy acquired part of UBI Group, presenting Okonkwo with the opportunity to begin focusing on solar power, which is one of her current main focuses. Okonkwo is currently building Ghana’s largest solar farm, called Blue Power Energy, which is expected to open in March 2019. The goal is to create 100 megawatts of solar power at the opening of the farm and then an additional 100 megawatts by the end of 2020.
Half of the solar farm is being built in the village where Okonkwo’s father grew up while the rest will be spread out throughout Northern Ghana. According to Unicef, the area has seen one of the smallest rates of poverty reduction in the world since the 1990s. Okonkwo hopes to help change this by creating jobs with Blue Power Energy.
“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,” Okonkwo says. “I’m hoping to provide employment and add to Ghana’s economy.”
Okonkwo’s hopes that bringing cheap energy to northern Ghana through the solar farm will serve as an incentive for companies to create more opportunities there. She also has plans to open a day-care center in Accra for children born to kayayo women to encourage education.
Through an entrepreneurial spirit inspired by her community, Salma Okonkwo has found a way to affect major change within that community. If Blue Power Energy is the success Okonkwo hopes it will be, the impact on Northern Ghana may go far beyond just energy.