Blen Genene - COO at APCON Enterprises Limited

“Nobody is going to pull you a chair if you want to sit at the big table, you have to pull your own chair. And then if they don’t listen to you, work on yourself so much so it is hard to ignore you”. Those were the words of Blen when asked about how she got past the challenges of being a woman in the energy sector.

Blen, born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, is the fifth child in a family of six children. Growing up in a household that valued education and fostered independence, she developed into a confident and adventurous individual. Blen’s educational journey began at Kidane Mihret school, where she completed her studies up to grade 10 before transitioning to American mission school(now known as Bethel Mekane Eyesus School) to complete her high school education.

With a strong exposure to technical skills from her father, who owned a sizable garage, Blen developed a familiarity and affinity for practical tasks from a young age. This upbringing significantly influenced her decision to pursue a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering at Mekelle University. Blen was part of the pioneering group of women who enrolled in mechanical engineering at Mekelle University in 2005. Among the 30 female students enrolled as first year students, Blen’s journey truly began. The experience was not only new for her but also for her peers and professors. Since the field was traditionally male-dominated, many teachers initially resisted the idea of women joining their ranks. They went to great lengths to make the experience more challenging for the women, aiming to prove that they were not capable. Despite the obstacles, only five out of the initial 30 women, including Blen, successfully graduated. Reflecting on her university years, Blen attributes her resilience and belief in overcoming any challenge to the struggles she faced. She emerged from the experience stronger, with an unshakable conviction that perseverance can conquer any obstacle.

Over the course of her career, Blen has held various positions in the manufacturing and energy sectors, demonstrating her versatility and entrepreneurial spirit. For a period of five years, from 2008 to 2013, she worked in industry steadily progressing from a technical sales representative at BALEX to a project engineer at Sigma Electric PLC  to general manager at M2k. As a sales representative at BALEX, Blen was responsible for explaining the different products the company offers to customers. At Sigma Electric, Blen was able to work on several air conditioning implementation projects for Hotels and resorts. In 2012, she started working for M2k as a Factory manager. Her responsibilities included setting up the local factor for aluminum fabrication for window and door enclosures for buildings and houses. Eventually, she assumed the role of general manager at M2k Aluminum, where she played a pivotal role in establishing the company’s structure and ensuring its smooth operation and oversaw activities from production to final installation at customer sites. During her time at M2k, Blen supervised a team of approximately 30 staff members, showcasing her leadership capabilities. In addition to her career, alongside her work, Blen pursued her master degree in Business Administration, specializing in project management for the university of Sikkim Manipal University (Addis Ababa campus). 

In 2013, Blen embarked on a new venture as the general manager of a solar system project in South Sudan, working for Green Sparks Solar. The company’s business was engineering, procurement and construction (EPC), and after sales service for standalone solar systems. As a country representative, Blen led a team of designers, technicians, etc. and oversaw installation of solar systems with up to 70 kW capacity to various UN offices as well as education centers. With around 20 staff members under her supervision, she gained valuable experience in the solar energy sector, paving the way for her future endeavors.

Driven by her entrepreneurial spirit, Blen decided to return to her home country after a year and establish a company with her husband, Benedetto Construction and Electrotechnical. Specializing in civil engineering, the company built schools, factories and even had its own real estate. During her three years stay at the Benedetto, Blen was responsible for operations of the company. However, her journey took an unexpected turn when she relocated to Freetown, Sierra Leone. Despite the move, Blen continued to operate her construction company while taking on new challenges.

In Sierra Leone, she worked for four years as a consultant for companies, focusing on solar energy. Additionally, Blen founded a new venture called ACACIA Furniture and Furnishings, capitalizing on a market gap in the furniture manufacturing industry. Despite facing numerous challenges, including a commitment to quality and a lack of qualified workers, she persevered. Blen personally trained her employees, using resources like YouTube to teach them the necessary skills inviting them to her home. Language barriers did not deter her from imparting her expectations to the team. Through her dedication, the company achieved exceptional quality she initially set her mind on, leading to the furnishing of embassy residences, city council buildings, and more throughout Sierra Leone as well as exporting her product to 15 countries worldwide. Starting with a team of 10, the staff grew to 25 both permanent and outsourced employees as her enterprise flourished.

While Sierra Leone had been a land of success, Blen found the environment challenging for raising her two young children. Thus, after five years, she made the hard decision of relocating once again, this time to Nairobi, Kenya. The move not only aimed to provide a better environment for her family’s well-being but also to consolidate all the family’s businesses (Benedetto and ACACIA). Blen and her husband merged their companies, forming APCON Enterprise Limited, where she now serves as the co-founder and chief operations officer, while her husband assumes the role of CEO. The company’s focus lies in engineering, furniture manufacturing, and real estate/construction, with a strong emphasis on solar energy. The company has operations in Kenya, Ethiopia and Burundi. 

By October 2021, after completing all the necessary legal procedures, APCON Enterprise Limited secured a significant projectt that aliens with the Woreda transformation plan of Ethiopia. The scope of work encompassed electrifying six woredas, including schools and health centers, totaling 254 sites. Operating as an EPC (engineering, procurement, construction) company, APCON provided site assessments, system design, procurement, consultancy, and construction services. The project aims to install 1.6KWp/5kW to 56KWp/50kW systems with solar generation. Thus far, PV panels for 85% of the project is completed and once the construction of distribution grids for some of the bigger sites is done, the sites will be handed over to the relevant government offices.

Blen says that the industry’s growth has been hindered by Ethiopia’s policies and foreign currency restrictions, along with a lack of skilled manpower. However, she prefers to focus on solving a problem that is not out of her hands, which is the lack of skilled labor. She addressed this issue by providing exchange training to ensure her employees and stay updated and bridge their skills gap. She takes special pride in the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) activities of APCON. They have provided training named “ Bridging the gap in Solar Energy” in Ethiopia to selected technicians and engineers on design, installation and on-site commission of solar PV systems. Further, they have a plan to donate computers to schools and laboratory equipment to health centers they electrified as their CSR activity.. 

Blen’s journey is a testament to her unwavering drive, adaptability, and determination to excel in multiple sectors and regions. Her commitment to quality and her passion for renewable energy have positioned her as a leader in the field, with her company making a significant impact on communities across Africa. 

One of the key factors contributing to Blen’s success in various fields is her team management skills. She firmly believes in being hands-on and approachable, always ready to lend a helping hand to her team members. However, once she has hired competent individuals capable of handling their respective areas, she refrains from micromanaging. Blen understands that the success of any enterprise lies in having capable workers and providing them with a conducive communication platform to freely exchange ideas and seek assistance when needed. Throughout her career, Blen has drawn inspiration from her early experiences, particularly from a supportive lecturer who motivated her with his management style. She recognized the importance of such leadership qualities and vowed to emulate them in her own journey. While she has evolved and developed her own adjustments along the way, she attributes the birth of her leadership style to that influential teacher.

   Blen has faced multifaceted challenges throughout her journey. Initially, she bypassed the obstacles that often plague women in her field, where they are frequently overlooked by working harder than her peers. However, as she climbed the ladder in her business and sought funding, she encountered further challenges because of her skin color. Blen acknowledges that her ability to juggle the responsibilities of being a great mother to two children and managing an enterprise with bases in three different countries is challenging. However, effective communication and compromise with her supportive husband have been instrumental in her success. Their partnership in running the company is an added bonus, and she firmly believes that finding the right partner is crucial for long-term success.

Looking ahead, Blen and her company harbor ambitious goals. With their presence established in three countries, Blen and her team have ambitious plans for further expansion and growth with a target of being operational in additional five countries within the next five years. On a personal level, Blen is dedicated to continuing her education, as her husband and the employees within her organization. They recognize the importance of ongoing learning and growth. When asked to describe herself in a phrase or sentence, Blen aptly chose “ambitious and strategic” highlighting her drive and calculated approach to achieving her goals.

Author: -EWiEn