Q&A with ENVenture's Acting Executive Director: Penny Mbabazi Atuhaire
Updated: Mar 2
Taking on a clean energy challenge
It's a busy year at ENVenture! We are steadfast with our growth strategy on the ENVenture Growth Accelerator, onboarding new Community Based Organisations into our program, scaling ENVision mobile and much more. We are now a few months into the year and we thought it would be a perfect opportunity to share with you what we are up to and who is helping in steering all this. Since March 2019, ENVenture hired its new Director, Penny Mbabazi Atuhaire and we are excited to take you through her career. Penny has been in her position for two months now and what better time to ask her how she's doing and her thoughts on ENVenture.
Congratulations on the new role! Tell us a bit more about yourself?
I was born and raised in Mbarara – now Isingiro district in western Uganda in a family of nine children (5 girls and 4 boys). When I was fourteen, I moved to Kampala to live with my paternal aunt who I stayed with until I joined Makerere University to pursue a Bachelor of Arts in Social Sciences and much later, a Masters of Laws in International Human Rights Law from Brunel University, London UK. While in my third year at Makerere University in 2003, I met my then boyfriend and now husband, Eng. Rodney Atuhaire and we've been married for the last 12 years, blessed with two boys Riaan Atuhaire (8) and Jeremy Kwesiga Atuhaire (5). I’m a social worker, human rights activist and now a social entrepreneur with a deep passion for socio-economic empowerment and leadership, especially for people in the last mile. This is because I often believe that more often than not, these people are usually misrepresented and often misunderstood on what they are able to do for themselves to change their own lives and those of their communities. Over the years, I have come to believe that each person as an individual human being has very unique and natural gifts that if well explored and nurtured, can be used to transform their communities and the world around us in a way we never imagined before.
You’ve been on the job for more than two months now, what is your impression of ENVenture so far?
ENVenture is an inspirational social enterprise! It’s a company you would want to work with as a partner and one you would want to join as an employee. When I look back, I notice that one of the biggest challenges many companies and organisations face is on how to build functional institutional systems where teams are able to operate with minimal supervision yet deliver impact. When I joined ENVenture, I didn’t know what to fully expect. ENVenture has a small team with its Executive Director, Aneri based in the USA, from where she leads the Ugandan team remotely. Initially I had my doubts on the ‘seriousness’ and ‘effectiveness’ of a company that operates that way, since most of the organisations and companies I know have their boss around for work to get done. ENVenture operates differently! The team takes its work very seriously and they are able to work with minimal or with no supervision. Whether the boss is around or not, work gets done and on time. And for this and a lot more, I consider myself lucky to have joined an organisation that has set its leadership bar so high within just five years of existence.
What is your intuition of the Team members you have met so far?
ENVenture’s team is a small and neat family that is impact driven. The first time interacted with the team members was in January when they interviewed me for the job. At first it was ‘strange’ for me because nowhere in my professional life have I seen all staff members getting involved in taking an active role in choosing their top leadership. What I observed while they interviewed me was a great sense of empowerment the team exhibited. Usually, this is a rare thing to find in many organisations. Now that I have had an opportunity to spend some time with each team member individually and also as team, my intuition tells that the team spirit I see now has the potential to make ENVenture a leading social enterprise organisation in the energy sector on the continent and beyond.
What was your journey like to get where you are
Getting to where I am has been a journey full of new discoveries at different stages of my life, just as anybody could imagine. When I finished university, I was one of the lucky few who found a well-paying job with World Children’s Relief, a US charity based organisation as its country representative in Uganda. Two years later, due to family reasons, I had to move to London-UK to join my husband who worked there then. While in London, I pursued a masters of laws in international human rights law. Choosing to study human rights was a huge career shift for me because I had never been to a law school and yet I choose to do a masters in law. It was tough at the beginning! However from the very beginning of my career, my dream was to work with the UN so that I could live an international life while serving humanity. So even when studying human rights law seemed tough, I just had to do it because I knew it would get me where I needed to be. Keeping my hopes alive believing that one day I would work with the UN. In 2011 I made a decision to leave London and came to Uganda and joined the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (FHRI) to pursue my dream. Little did I know that God had different plans for me. After six years at FHRI, in October 2016, I made one of the toughest decisions in my career when I decided to leave an organisation that was preparing me for a career with the UN, and decided to take a break and find my true purpose in life. At the beginning of 2017, I embarked on a journey of finding who I truly was and the things that give meaning to life through my lenses. Here I knew it had to be something that I would truly connect with at a much deeper level. Through personal research while reading all sorts of books and watching You Tube video of people whose work I admired, I came across the amazing work of Ashoka Foundation on social entrepreneurship and how the work of Bill Drayton (founder) was shaping new narratives on the kind of people that going to change the world – The Change Makers! Immediately I knew this was my space! Months later, I got to read more about social entrepreneurship and the future of social businesses through the work of Prof. Mohammad Yunus across the world. From then, all the dots started connecting naturally. This became the end of my search for myself and the beginning of doing things that truly gives meaning to life the way I understood it. And that’s how I ended up with ENVenture!
In your team leading central role now, how do you want to get from Point A to Point Z in your strategy?
ENVenture has already built strong partnership with key stakeholders in the energy sector. Strengthening these existing partnerships and building new ones to create a holistic conducive environment for our enterprise to thrive and grow, is one of my growth strategies for ENVenture. We are currently working on a robust growth and marketing strategy with our new partners on board such as Signify (formerly Philips) to strengthen our distribution model. Our goal is to create more awareness about the benefits of using clean energy solutions in the last mile, create and sustain demand to increase sales and ultimately, enable these enterprises to comfortably pay back their loans while growing and scaling businesses. I believe this strategy will take us from point A to Z.
What is your idea for a sustainable social business?
Social businesses generally targets to work with a specific section of people in society that are usually marginalized and excluded with no means to transform their social or economic prospects without help. And I’m glad that ENVenture model already captures this very well. So my idea of a sustainable social business is one that is able to keep reducing its costs as its number of beneficiary’s rises, while enabling such an enterprise to reduce its dependence on philanthropic or government support to grow. This is one of our targets for ENVenture.
Given the stringent terms that come with funding, what are the key risk factors associated with energy lending in the last mile.
Any kind of lending in the last mile is a challenging business for any company and energy lending is not any different. The risk of imagining that a person may not be able to pay back the loan they borrowed is one the highest. And usually this happens at the beginning. The most ideal solution for last mile lending would be building trust through mutual partnerships that are able to create a win-win situation for all involved through shared values. This approach is by no means an easiest route but it is worth exploring.
In a 2014 Monitor article you wrote, you mentioned how civil society empowerment can shape the final product of any policy which subsequently trickles down to relevancy for grassroots communities. In what ways can the current energy policy be steered for the benefit and harnessing of last mile energy entrepreneurship?
The key point I was making in that article was that, by nature of their composition and position in communities, civil society organisations understand the needs, challenges and aspirations of the communities they represent. Therefore their empowerment is important for the success of any government programs. Because of this unique positioning, the current energy policy will need to embrace the key role they stand to play and use it to ensure that last mile energy entrepreneurs receive the support they need create clean energy access in the last mile. One of the ways this can happen is to entrust them with the role of identifying and promoting available opportunities that the energy value chain management can use to stimulate local economies and incomes; encourage women to start up clean energy businesses and employing others as sales agents while leveraging on relationships between energy companies and local institutions to ensure energy access for all.
How do you approach male dominated environments?
Over the years, I have seen myself changing and adapting to various work environment just to make sure that I control my success. One of the things I have done and still continue to do today is to stop comparing myself with others, particularly men. I try as much as possible to focus on myself, my teams, my work as I figure out how this plays into a bigger pictures of the goals I have set for myself to achieve as an individual and also as a team. When I’m doing this, I try as much as possible to avoid not to be easily offended or being a ‘yes women’. I always try to play to my strength even when I know there are stereotypes.
What do you like to do, outside of work?
When I’m not working, I enjoy spending time with family. Nothing beats the feeling of spending time with your own blood. Besides family, I enjoy exercising while dancing. These days we are lucky in Kampala that we have many health fitness clubs that use dancing as a form of exercise, so I try as much as possible to take advantage of this innovation. When I’m not doing all the above, then, you will find me reading a book. I love books. Books help me connect to the whole new world of experiences I never knew existed. I cannot put a price-tag to reading.
The ENVenture team has witnessed your love for reading. What book are you currently reading?
I’m currently reading “The Seat of the Soul” by Gary Zukav.
Thank you for your time, Penny. Best wishes for continued success at ENVenture!
If you have more questions for Penny or would like to reach her directly, you can do so at firstname.lastname@example.org
By Marvin Tumusiime
On May 7th 2019
ENVenture is a social enterprise that is building out the ecosystem in the last mile for clean energy access through financing, capacity building and technology.