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Women In Power: Annemarie Goedmakers, The Woman Who Brings Light To The Darkest Corners Of Africa

Posted: 06/25/11 01:57 AM ET

A special series profiling trailblazers in energy innovation and champions of the environment. See previous stories here.

Annemarie Goedmakers grew up in the center of Amsterdam not far from the storied Anne Frank House and was just three when her grandmother died of brain cancer. In the years that followed, she dreamt of becoming a scientist and professor in cancer research. "Everybody told me that I looked after her. I have photographs, but I don't remember her," Annemarie says. "I would have liked to have been able to speak to her because she seemed to be a strong woman--she raised her kids on her own."

Until she arrived at the University of Amsterdam to pursue a degree in biochemistry, Annemarie went to all-girls' schools. And at first, the implications of gender bias scarcely occurred to her. "We had quite serious mathematics classes, and the professor said, 'I wonder whether all of the girls will come through'. And when our exam results showed, the girls' average was higher," she cheerfully recalls.

Goedmakers was inspired by Marie Curie because of "her perseverance to come from Poland, arrive in Paris, have a family and nevertheless continue to study and achieve in science." Even in those early years, Annemarie, too, possessed an unusual measure of resolve. "During my biochemistry studies I found that it was a working environment I didn't like," she remembers. " There was so much research to do, but everyone kept their results from each other. It was a very narrow-minded atmosphere." Goedmakers received a BSc in biochemistry and MSc in biology with honors nonetheless.

In ecology, Annemarie found an atmosphere more to her liking and it was in this field that she conducted her PhD research. "It was at the other end of biological science from the micro to the macro, [but] as interesting scientifically," she says. "I also liked that there were more links with urgent political issues like the environment and pollution."

But as Goedmakers studied and looked to begin her career, unpleasant realities came to the fore. "I was roughly brought to my senses when I tried to get my first job. I had been a very good student and even published two papers in my name, which was quite exceptional at that time," she explains. "One was for fisheries, the professor almost never gave high notes and had never accepted a student paper. Then when I had done my exams and there was a job, I couldn't apply. He said, 'No, it's on a ship and we don't want women on the ship'. And a boy--who was very much below average--got the job."

Annemarie signed on as a research assistant instead, though the cloud of discrimination lingered. "In the Netherlands at that time you could get a job for life. At the same institute there were two jobs, a boy got the job for life and I got the job for three years," she remembers. "From the outside people think the Netherlands is a very open and modern society, but women are very much underrepresented. There is a very low percentage of female professors, and it's also bad in the private sector. I think maybe it's the best in politics, because there you have a quota."

And in politics, Goedmakers shined. After moving to a small coastal village in the Netherlands she was invited by friends to a gathering of the Dutch Labour Party and was immediately taken. "I never would have thought about it, but I took the chance and liked it enormously," she says. "I visited one meeting and after that I was the provincial representative and a member of the board. We had great results and from local politics I came into national politics."

Annemarie was "asked several times to be a Member of the European Parliament." And as her 40th birthday neared, she felt the time was right: "I thought, I have to do it now because later I will always say no." Goedmakers focused on finance, research, and energy in parliament for five years. And this laid the groundwork for her next chapter.

"When I left the European Parliament, I was asked by Nuon--then the biggest utility in the Netherlands--to become their director of renewable energy," Annemarie says. "At that time most European utilities were rather hesitant about renewable energy. But Nuon was very proactive. They gave me the space to expand and invest enormous amounts of money. We set an example and that made other utilities in Europe follow us a little bit." It was 1995.

According to Goedmakers, Nuon had investments across the globe--wind farms and solar plants from America to China. "I saw there were so many people in the world without light and thought, 'If we can find a way to bring a product to these people, it might be an interesting market niche, because nobody thinks you can earn anything in the rural areas of the underdeveloped world--no commercial company works in that field.'"

So in 2001, Annemarie established two fee-for-service solar electric companies together with French Utility EDF--one in South Africa, the other in Mali--where villagers who did not have access to the national electric grid paid "a small amount per month for two lights and one socket or three lights... whatever they liked." Two years on, Nuon chose to divest from all foreign ventures in order to concentrate their business in Western Europe. Goedmakers feared the fledgling companies "would simply perish" because "nobody would be interested" in buying them. But she had a plan.

"I suggested to my boss--the CEO of Nuon, 'Why don't we set up an NGO [non-governmental organization] to run those two companies and then expand and find new money?' The CEO said, 'Okay, that's a good idea. The NGO will be independent, but we will set it up.' And then I became its Executive President." And in 2004, Foundation Rural Energy Services (FRES) was born.

In the time since, FRES has grown its locally-operated companies in South Africa and Mali to serve more customers, established new businesses in Burkina Faso and Uganda, and plans to expand into Guinea-Bissau and Benin as early as this year. FRES is non-profit, but the companies it oversees are for profit. "That way we can invest in either the same company to expand it, or elsewhere in new companies that provide light to more people," Annemarie explains.

"If you look at rural areas in Africa, it gets really dark around 7:00 p.m. and you see nothing. The families that have our service suddenly have light and it's enormously important for them. The kids can do their homework. Small businesses can stay open later. You can charge a mobile phone or have a radio at much less cost over time than buying batteries. And you see it in nurseries: imagine women giving birth at night with an oil lamp, and then giving birth with electric light."

And access to electricity spurs new economic and social activity. Goedmakers tells the story of a man who set up a small movie theatre with his light where customers paid a small fee to see a film in the evening. "It changes their lives," she says.

Through reinvestment of profits, private donations, and corporate sponsors, FRES hopes to supply 100,000 households and small businesses with clean, affordable electricity by 2020. "If you have 100,000 customers, then it means you have reached about 1 million people in Africa," Annemarie explains. "They are big families and a lot of people have the advantage of the light."

Goedmakers says FRES currently has about 13,000 customers so has touched the lives of 130,000 people--a major accomplishment. But according to the International Energy Agency's 2010 World Energy Outlook report, 587 million people in Africa are without electricity. True to form, Annemarie is undaunted when asked about that stark reality: "Yea," she says. "But I hope that through this kind of system that works very well we can rapidly expand. Of course, it is difficult, but you have to start somewhere."

At a Glance
Hometown: Amsterdam, the Netherlands
Education: BSc in biochemistry, University of Amsterdam. MSc in biology, University of Amsterdam and Universit├ę Claude Bernard, Lyon. Doctorate in aquatic ecology, University of Amsterdam.
Professional Highlights: Executive President and CEO of Foundation Rural Energy Services (current), President of Foundation Chimbo (current), Managing Director of Renewables at Nuon, Member of the European Parliament.
Advice for Young Women: "You cannot do everything on your own. You need people that like you, or like your ideas. It might be your boss, a friend, or a group of women that pushes you for a certain post. It's essential to have these kinds of sponsors around you. They give just the push at moments where on your own, you wouldn't be a success."

 

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