Norah Magero: An Engineer and Entrepreneur Who Redefined Energy Access
Norah Magero is an engineer who runs Drop Access Limited, a non-profit that has redefined energy access in rural Kenya by championing the productive use of energy through innovation and financing. Magero currently serves as a council member for the UN Council of Engineers for the Energy Transition (CEET) that reports to the UN Secretary General as well as the Youth Task Force by the RES4Africa Foundation.
The Clean Cooking Alliance (CCA) talked to Magero about her exemplary professional achievements, the role of youth in shaping the future of the clean cooking sector, and more.
This story is part of a series featuring youth leaders from across the clean cooking sector.
Clean Cooking Alliance (CCA): What motivates you to work in clean cooking?
Norah Magero (Magero): As a mother who runs a household, even in my position as a CEO and an entrepreneur, I am still responsible for most of the cooking in my household just like millions of other women in Africa. I need cooking to be safe, accessible, and affordable for myself and my family.
Unfortunately, as of today, over 900 million Africans do not have access to clean cooking solutions and rely on wood fuel, waste, and charcoal often burned over three‐stone fires. Cooking this way can cause indoor air pollution, leading to illnesses and fatalities. These resources are also becoming increasingly scarce with growing populations, and with that more costly. Even with brilliantly engineered clean cooking technologies, access to clean cooking is staggering in Africa and globally.
CCA: What is your role at Drop Access Limited, and how are you working towards expanding clean cooking access in Kenya?
Magero: I am the Co-founder and CEO of Drop Access Limited, a commercial company that spinned-off from the NGO. It is positioning itself to be a leading manufacturer and distributor of affordable and reliable solar cold chains to tackle cooling in healthcare, food, and small and medium enterprises in Africa, with a focus on Kenya. Our mission is to ensure energy access and climate action in the rural and off-grid communities of Kenya by innovating and distributing clean energy solutions and climate-smart technologies.
CCA: Tell us about one of your proudest recognitions.
Magero: I was recommended by the former President of Kenya for my efforts to bring energy access in rural communities in Kenya. In 2022 through my innovation VacciBox, I became the first Kenyan and the second woman to win the Africa Prize by the Royal Academy of Engineers. My company Drop Access Limited is the 2022 CISCO Global Innovation grand challenge winner. This year, through a referral by the Royal Academy of Engineering, I was featured on the London Tube Map on UK’s National Engineering Day, where the aim of the day was to make engineering more visible and celebrate how engineers improve everyday lives.
CCA: What was a pivotal lesson you learned that shaped your path to expand access to clean cooking?
Magero: At some point I was unable to close a sales deal for a solar pump with a women savings group in Eastern Kenya. This deal failed to go through because the women’s husbands and other men did not approve the sale, and they are most often the custodians of money for a household. This made me learn more about how the gender power structures play out in most African societies. This incident changed my perspective of how to approach gender equality when providing energy access. It must be a collaborative approach of all genders in order to realize impact. I have applied this principle when deploying clean cooking solutions in various communities in Kenya.
CCA: What barriers, in your opinion, are preventing youth to act and meaningfully engage in clean energy? What can be done to address these obstacles?
Magero: 1. Lack of access to information.
Most youth in Africa still live in rural communities, which are also most affected by clean energy and clean cooking inaccessibility. These youth do not have direct access to updated information on energy accessibility, technologies, and services. Low literacy levels in these communities play a role in promoting this barrier as well as poverty that ensures that access to information is not a priority. To improve access to information, we need government and private sector-led campaigns and widespread info-sessions targeted for these communities.
2. Disconnect between the education system and available career opportunities.
Kenya is still yet to fully integrate the studies that specifically include clean cooking and clean energy in primary or secondary curriculums. At the tertiary level, these subjects are often considered non-optional or alternative courses and therefore only offered in specific faculties. This lack of exposure has led to lower involvement of youth in clean cooking. Even for those with interest to engage, insufficient reskilling opportunities is a barrier to them. We need to mainstream clean cooking studies into school curriculums, especially for primary and secondary schools, and provide more reskilling opportunities for interested young people.
3. Insufficient incubation and funding for youth-led initiatives tackling clean cooking.
Not so many clean cooking ventures are surviving to maturity since they do not get sufficient acceleration, and those that do, are not sufficiently funded to grow. We need to have access to more patient and catalytic funds for youth-led ventures.
CCA: How have the various clean cooking programs you have been a part of benefited you professionally? How can we design programs that meet different needs, challenges, and aspirations of young people in clean cooking?
Magero: I have participated in accelerators and incubators that have helped me advance my work in clean energy. I have taken part in women-focused incubators that gave me confidence and assurance that my work is meaningful and impactful. Most of these programs have been intentionally inclusive, catering for youth and women’s representation. I have participated as a speaker on various platforms and events, advocating for equitable energy access and clean cooking solutions for women. These platforms have allowed me and other young women to share our experiences as women, mothers, household managers, and first-line energy consumers.
Programs targeting to build young people involved in the clean energy and clean cooking sectors should be human and youth centered. These programs must be designed according to what youth need and this can be implemented by directly interviewing them and involving them in the design process. Young people must be given the opportunity to express themselves through engagement forums and platforms that allow them to openly vocalize their challenges and celebrate successes. Incubation programs should be open-ended and flexible to allow youth to build actual solutions drawing from their aspirations, without confining them to always adhere to societal and industry expectations.
CCA: What advice would you give to young individuals, especially young women, aiming to initiate change in the clean cooking sector and beyond?
Magero: Make sure your delivery models are in compliance with specific community needs. Empathically engage communities and be aware of their dynamic needs. Achieving universal clean cooking access will require systemic change. Sharing stories tends to instill the reasons why communities should switch their accustomed cooking energy to a cleaner source. Therefore, young people should embrace sharing their journey and experiences that explain why they have chosen to initiate the change.
Finally, the sector is wide and diverse. The focus should be beyond technology deployment. Young people should engage in policy development, compliance and standardization, advocacy, research and development, networking and partnerships, and all other myriad of ways we need to act to address clean cooking.
CCA: How do you envision the role of youth in shaping the clean cooking sector in the next decade?
Magero: Youth are crucial for shaping the clean cooking sector for several reasons.
1. Innovation and technology: Youth are often at the forefront of technological advancements. They will drive innovation in clean cooking technologies – like the development of technologies, services, and financial models – making them more efficient, affordable, and accessible.
2. Entrepreneurship: By starting their own ventures or contributing to existing ones, youth will create jobs, stimulate economic growth, and promote sustainable business practices within the sector.
3. Education, training, and advocacy: By promoting education and training programs, young people will empower communities to adopt clean cooking practices while raising awareness about the environmental and health impacts of traditional cooking methods.
4. Community engagement: Youth will engage with communities to understand their specific needs and challenges related to cooking practices. By involving local communities in the design and implementation of clean cooking solutions, young people will ensure that these solutions are culturally relevant and sustainable.
5. Research and development: The clean cooking sector will benefit from research conducted by young scientists and researchers. Whether it’s improving existing technologies or exploring new approaches, youth-led research will contribute valuable insights to the sector.
6. Policy: Young advocates will work towards influencing policies at local, national, and international levels to support the clean cooking sector. This includes advocating for incentives, subsidies, and regulations that promote the adoption of clean cooking technologies.
7. Global collaboration, networking, and partnerships: Given the global nature of environmental challenges, youth from different parts of the world will collaborate to share ideas, experiences, and solutions. This global perspective will lead to more comprehensive and effective approaches to clean cooking. Building networks and partnerships – public and private – will facilitate knowledge sharing, resource mobilization, and the development of comprehensive strategies for clean cooking.