Leader Profile

Technical Approaches to Connecting Communities

Jan 2022 | Madrin Maina, Technical Operations Manager East Africa, Sistema.bio

Growing up in a rural area in central Kenya, Madrin Maina lived the experience of limited access to energy: until the age of 11, her family did not have electricity in the home and relied on kerosene for lighting. Noticing the national power lines and cables passing by her home, Madrin wondered ‘Why can’t we just drop a line here?’ Questions like this ignited Madrin’s interest in how things are built and led her to study civil engineering at university.

After completing her degree in 2010, Madrin initially worked as a structural engineer in the real estate sector. During this time, there were prolonged blackouts as Kenya grappled with power generation and supply issues. These challenges led to a boom in the energy sector and Madrin began working as a project manager on large grid transmission projects. The transmission lines often passed through the most remote parts of the country without benefitting local communities, reflecting her own childhood experience. This catalysed Madrin to explore opportunities in the renewable energy sector.

I saw very rural communities where big power line projects passed through their land, but they had no connection to the project. I wondered how these communities could also benefit. That is how I made the change from big grid projects to renewable energy that served communities directly.

Madrin reached out to her network of peers and engineers she had worked with for guidance and contacts in clean energy. One of the main challenges for women engineers is that many jobs are filled through referrals or personal connections, and the energy sector is still very male dominated. In Kenya, both the Engineers Board and Institution of Engineers of Kenya have women’s chapters geared towards empowering women professionals. These networks, which connected her to mentors and internships, have played an important role in Madrin’s career development but she also advocates for women to engage in diverse forums.

To this day I interact with my mentors and I also mentor younger women who want to get into the engineering world. At the same time, professions cannot be gender-isolated. It pays off, as a woman, to put yourself out there. Attend seminars, conferences and social networking events and participate actively. In every forum and gathering, let your voice be heard.

In 2017, Madrin joined Powerhive as a construction manager for solar mini-grid projects in Western Kenya: an area that lacked national grid connections and relies on energy imports from Uganda. Madrin supervised the design and construction of mini-grids that connected over 2,400 households to off-grid solar power. She could see the direct impact this had on families and this experience cemented her passion to improve access to energy in rural communities.

That is when I first received the comment that ‘now my children can do homework without struggle’. I knew this was possible, but I didn’t think I would meet someone who would tell me that directly. People were now able to do things that we take for granted like charging their phones. You could feel a general change in education and business. Information and communication are power.

When Madrin felt that her solar projects had gained enough traction to pass on to another manager, she began looking for her next challenge. At this time in Kenya, tariffs on LPG, increases on the price of fuel, and government bans on logging had again launched energy into the spotlight. Madrin saw the potential for biogas in rural communities and was eager to learn more about the technology that transforms animal waste into energy. In 2019, she joined Sistema.bio as Technical Operations Manager for Kenya and she now supports their operations in East Africa

The thing that I care the most about is a product that works. I was 100% confident to do this as I believed in the product. I just had to learn the systems.

At Sistema.bio, Madrin manages a team of 50 technicians and several field managers, with 4,500 biodigesters installed in the past three years. She has contributed to the significant growth of the company in East Africa, from providing simple cooking solutions in one country to deploying a wide range of biodigesters and appliances in six countries. Madrin established a local R&D division that works with the global team in Mexico and India and developed a comprehensive training program for technical staff and business partners.  She is also committed to maintaining connections with her team and customers by regularly going into the field and collecting feedback from individuals on the ground.

For me it’s about the people so I’m very excited about training: seeing people grow. From the moment that they sign up to being extremely confident in their position. I also go to the field at least one week per month because I must be able to do what I expect others to do. Meeting people and hearing their feedback is critical: we take it as the gospel truth, as they are the actual ones doing the work. It is a continuous loop of improvement.

Madrin is thriving in a role that evolves every day as Sistema.bio seeks to cultivate innovation, streamline operations, and develop more partnerships. Looking to the future, Madrin is determined to use her technical and management skills to lobby for renewable sources of energy until they are viewed as the primary way to meet energy needs, not as alternatives.

As a professional, I believe we can find localised solutions, whether as individuals, corporations or communities to tackle these energy access issues. My goal is to lobby, support and see each household harness the power of clean energy.
Madrin is a strong leader who tackles new challenges as they come, together with her team. She is fair, humble and a true inspiration to other women. Her team has been consistently growing since she joined Sistema.bio three years ago, and it is a great pleasure to work with her!``

Esther Altorfer – Managing Director East Africa, Sistema.bio