Move Back to Nigeria is a series on BellaNaija which aims to encourage young and not-so-young professionals in the diaspora who are trying to make the decision of whether to move back to Nigeria. In collaboration with the brilliant team at MoveBackToNigeria.com, we hope to bring you a weekly interview with individuals who have successfully made the leap, considering the leap, as well as those who have tried it and realized it is not for them.
Movebacktonigeria.com‘s mission is to showcase stories of Nigerians abroad who have moved back home and are taking giant strides, often against all odds and to serve as inspiration to others. This, however does not preclude us from sharing stories of the people who have moved back and are facing various challenges.
Our spotlight this week is on Dolapo Popoola, Energy Consultant, Financial Advisory expert and Multilinguist, who moved back home with the determination to find her own path and also contribute meaningfully to her society in the process. Read on for some insight into her world, experiences and stellar aspirations. We hope you enjoy our Christmas special.
Thanks for speaking with us. Can you tell us who you are and what you do? My name is Dolapo Popoola. I’m a fun loving and unique Nigerian who has moved back home to chart a course for herself as well as a career. I work as an energy consultant in Lagos state and I also recently set up a personal finance advisory firm primarily for young adults called ‘Discreetly Rich’, which educates them on financial literacy, money issues, setting financial goals and understanding the difference between disposable income and revenue.Surprisingly, it is something a lot of young Nigerians living in Nigeria don’t know about.
That’s interesting! You’ve described yourself as unique, in what way exactly? Well, I speak English, Yoruba, German and Polish. I also speak a little bit of Spanish, Shona, and I read French. I like things that are extraordinary and I don’t necessarily like to conform to the status quo. I also like to do what I enjoy, what makes me happy and what I am comfortable with.
So, how exactly did your international sojourn begin? I was born in Nigeria and left for my university degrees (Bachelors and Masters) after which I worked for a few years. My undergrad was at the Illinois Institute of Technology, where I studied Chemical Engineering. Upon graduation and after some industry experience, I knew I was not going to be happy working as a Chemical Engineer; and whilst an apparent solution was to go back to school, I had the problem of insufficient funds. So I worked for an international engineering conglomerate called IMI Plc. for about three years, quit the job and moved on to the Berlin Institute of Technology to study Renewable Energy Systems with a focus on solar energy.
Berlin is not a popular educational destination for many Nigerians. Did its status as a green city influence your decision? Yes… I chose to study in Berlin because Germany was and is still arguably, the leader in renewable energy policy and technology (especially solar). I figured if I was going to learn from anyone, why not learn from the best. Admittedly Germany is not really attractive to Nigerians, but my experience in Berlin was great. I met a lot of good and warm-hearted people and I was able to learn German, which was a big plus for me.
What then came next? Following a short internship in Prague for about 3 months, I moved back home and went through the NYSC program.
Why did you choose to return home? I hope I don’t sound too cliché but there really is no place like home. I always felt that when I left, I was going off to get trained so I could become a better Nigerian and contribute whatever training I acquired to the development of my own country.
Another reason was that, in my experience, working abroad made me a bit complacent, as things seem to go seamlessly. Whilst one might face challenges, all efforts go towards maintaining an existing system, as opposed to here in Nigeria where if you are passionate and willing to work hard, you can achieve great things that will leave a marked impact and make the lives of others better.
You mentioned undergoing the NYSC program, where did you serve and how would you describe the experience? During my time in NYSC, corpers were still allowed to serve with private companies. I served in Lagos with a private solar company where I quickly learned a valuable lesson – everyday life in Lagos is different from coming home for the holidays. For instance, I got to learn about how people drive in Lagos and how Yorubas tend to say everything except what they really mean; so you have to read between the lines. On a more professional note, working with the solar company got my feet wet in the local solar and inverter industry. In Nigeria, it’s easy to assume that not a lot is being done as regards to solar energy but that’s not entirely right. In the Northern part of the country, individuals have been using small-scale solar systems for decades!
That’s enlightening…And so, after NYSC, did you stay on with the firm? No, I did not. My service year was an eye opener for me and I discovered that because of the nature of solar in Nigeria and the lack of incentives, almost all projects are small scale. So, after my service year, I applied for a program with the Siemens Power Academy in Lagos which was advertised in the papers and sponsored by Senator Gbenga Ashafa and the Lagos State Government. For 6 months, I learned more about the traditional sources of power, the Nigerian distribution network, energy development, how to incorporate renewables into our existing Nigerian national grid and more responsible energy consumption. This expanded my scope of knowledge and the services I could offer as an individual.
This is very fascinating! Do you need to have a background in energy to enroll at the Siemens Power Academy or is it open to all? Courses at the academy are offered to anyone who is interested but you might have to work a bit harder than everyone else if you do not have a background in energy.
Did this motivate you to focus on solar energy full time? Well, after the program, I was invited by my current employers to be an energy consultant for the State. I am currently working on energy development and we are just coming off our energy conservation month – a first for Lagos. The message is that if we conserve energy, we can save money. Governor Fashola is involved in this project and very passionate about energy conservation. In fact, the theme of his first ever Google+ hangout was energy conservation. Furthermore, something I would like to share with everyone is that your experience here in Nigeria is greatly influenced by your circle of friends and people you associate with. So if the people you associate with constantly tell you that Nigeria is bad and everyone is bad, you will end up with a negative attitude that will get you nowhere but frustrated. But if you choose to have mentors, friends and people who are a bit more positive, you will be positive. Fortunately, I have been blessed to have people in the public sector who are exceptional and who mentor me.
Can you tell us what your job entails on a day to day basis? My role is really project-based, some of which typically include working on solar street lights for the state. There are already a few around the city in areas like mega plaza on Idowu Martins street VI, but what we are doing differently this time is to set standards and run trials on different types of solar lights along those streets. We judge the contractors based on feedback that we receive from the public as well as a standards document.
Another project of ours is the Energy Conservation Month, through which we are trying to increase awareness on energy conservation in Lagos. We want to increase the percentage of Lagosians using energy-saving bulbs and conserving energy because we understand that we get about 1,000 megawatts of power at peak from the national grid, whereas Lagos needs about 10,000 megawatts. We do need to generate more as a country, but we also have to conserve because no matter how much power we generate, if we continuously waste, our country will end up in a cost ineffective, never-ending chase for supply. That’s the message the governor gave during the hangout.
What has the public’s reaction to this message been? I ask because we know how ‘conservative’ we can be in embracing new concepts Regarding solar energy, I think everyone knows that solar technology works and the public perception of it has been great; the negative part about it for me is that whenever anything is done by the government, the general reaction from the public is usually negative. People complain and assume that things are only being done because an election year is fast approaching. This may be because they don’t think anything good ever comes from the government but I hope I can be an example that will help change this perception and I hope more young Nigerians will consider working in the public sector. If we want change, we cannot leave our affairs in the hands of those who do not necessarily have the capacity or the passion to drive such change.
You’re clearly passionate about it! Earlier on, you mentioned being involved in financial advisory for young Nigerians, can you please tell us some more about that? It started out rather innocuously during my NYSC year in 2011. My batch was the first to receive the doubled allowance and with the increased allowance and payment in arrears of about 3 months’ salary, everyone showed up the next week with a blackberry phone. Up until this point I thought everyone knew about budgeting, and that you don’t spend all you have at once, but save some for the rainy day. After speaking with a few people, I found out the blatant truth –money management is a HUGE gap in the education of the Nigerian youth. How to manage money is not a popular discussion in our environment, therefore our youth are left clueless and do not imbibe good money habits. I got a start giving handy tips to my friends and colleagues and after a while, I discovered it was a service that people actually needed, especially young people because of the time value of money. The business is still growing for now and I’m going through the process of registering it and getting incorporated properly.
There are certainly many young people who would value this service. On a somewhat different note, how have you adjusted to living in Nigeria since your move back? I have had my fair share of challenges moving back, with the biggest challenge, a very personal one. Prior to moving back home, I was very independent – living on my own and so on but now I am very much accountable to my ever-nurturing parents with whom I still live. However, I think some factors have made my stay comfortable and they include the people I associate with. I had to cut off the negative people in my life who only saw the faults and not the positive aspects of moving back. It is also very important to network; I can’t say how much this has helped me.
Finally, you’ve shared a few positive views during the course of this interview. Do you have anything else to say to people who have recently moved back or are planning to? A lot of us who move back need to take caution in not becoming conceited because we feel we know everything. We have been exposed to German precision, British civility, the American dream etc and so it’s sometimes hard to appreciate certain things that actually work within the Nigerian system. It is important to remember that if you really want sustainable change, it has got to come from the inside.
Also bear in mind that you need help, you can’t be great without the help of people here; your drivers, co-workers, government officials, everybody. In order to get their support and their help, you have to accept some things the way they are and learn to integrate. First, before you take on the challenge of changing things, learn what works right and why people do things the way they do; only then can you understand them enough to inspire them to change. I think that is part of the key to success for people wanting to move back to Nigeria.
Many thanks for your time and best wishes moving forward.