Interviewed by Citrine Ghraowi, Photographed by Mariah Miranda
Toyah Barigye is the Senior Project Manager for The Solar Foundation’s SolSmart program. She works with communities to reduce solar soft costs, lower barriers to solar energy and streamline planning, zoning, permitting and inspection processes aligned with industry best practices. Prior to joining The Solar Foundation, she worked as a Renewable Energy Specialist at Arcadia Power, recruiting solar and wind energy clients.
She holds a Master of Science in sustainability management with a focus on renewable energy from Columbia University and a Bachelor of Science from the University of Connecticut. Toyah is a member of the Women’s Council on Energy and Environment, where she has been an author of several solar related articles. She recently served as a judge for the Department of Energy’s Solar District Cup Collegiate Design Competition, evaluating nine student solar and storage proposals focusing on conceptual layout and optimization strategies for the University of New Mexico. Toyah was also selected as a recipient for the 2020 Energy News Network’s 40 Under 40 award. The award program highlights emerging leaders and their work in the United States’ transition to a clean energy economy.
Can you state your name, pronouns.
Toyah Barigye Callahan. She/her/hers
Tell us a little bit about yourself!
I was born in Nairobi, Kenya. My father was from Uganda and royalty to the Ankole Kingdom. He was an ambassador to Germany and to the Vatican. My mother was also from a royal family but a different kingdom. She was from Tooro kingdom. At one point this kingdom had the youngest crowned king in Africa.
My parents had been living in Nairobi when I was born and after 5 years they decided to move back to Uganda. I grew up in Kampala and attended primary school there. I went to an international school where my mother taught French. ThereI was exposed to students from different cultures and I was always curious to learn more. As a teenager, I attended a boarding school in Kenya. Our school was extremely diverse. During my last year of high school, my parents decided to send me to South Africa. I had mixed feelings about my experience. For the first time in my life I experienced discrimination because of my skin color. I was the only Black girl on my field hockey team. I decided to put my best foot forward and focus on the game rather than the discomfort that filled the air every time I stepped on the field. This experience was the first of many where I realized I had to work hard to prove myself. After I graduated high school I decided to pursue a college education in the United States. I moved to Connecticut and enrolled in classes at a local college. Initially it was difficult to fit in. My accent was different and I was the only African in my classes. At times when I told people I was from Africa I would get a flood of questions like, “oh do you have an elephant in your backyard”? As a freshman it was difficult to make friends but as time went on and after I moved to a larger university, I began to adapt to the new culture I was immersed in. My experiences in Africa and in the U.S have truly shaped the things that matter to me and where I focus my energy.
You work at the Solar Foundation, tell us a little bit about that.
Yes, the Solar Foundation (TSF) is a non-profit based in Washington, D.C that is dedicated to advancing the use of solar technologies worldwide. I started off at TSF as a project manager for a U.S Department of Energy funded program and after a year I was promoted to senior project manager. My work at TSF is truly fulfilling. I work with local governments across to reduce solar soft costs, lower barriers to solar energy and streamline planning, zoning, permitting and inspection processes aligned with industry best practices. My audience consists of mayors, city managers, planners, energy and sustainable departments. I work with cities, counties, towns and villages across the country and recently I started working with the U.S Virgin Islands on their solar processes. The work we do makes an impact on large, small, rural and urban communities to create an environment that is favorable to clean energy.
How did you get into the work that you currently do? What inspired you to do so?
I remember my first experience with solar was when I was about twelve years old. I had gone to visit a relative who lived in a remote part of Uganda. At the time her house was not connected to the grid and she relied on solar power. I was so intrigued by the system on her house and how it harnessed the sun to light up her home. Solar was not common in Uganda at the time. I never saw another system in Uganda until my mid 20s. As a sustainability student at Columbia University, I accepted an internship with the UNDP which allowed me to work in Uganda. I spent a summer looking at solar and water piping systems in a remote village in the western part of Uganda. During my internship I visited a local clinic. While I was there, one of the staff approached me, introduced herself and began to tell me about the energy challenges they had. The clinic didn’t have any access to electricity. At night patients were turned away. If a pregnant woman came in and she was in labor, the delivery took place with the use of a flashlight or cellphone light. This broke my heart. It was the first time I understood the connection between lack of electricity and access to adequate health care. To give you a better picture, if you don’t have electricity in a health facility you can’t use life saving machines which means patients will die. You have to turn patients away at night. You can’t refrigerate vaccines or use incubators for premature babies. This visit changed my outlook and motivated me to shed light on this issue. A few years later, I did an assessment on thirteen health centers in Uganda. I shared my findings and analysis with multiple NGOs. It was encouraging to see that there are significant efforts being made to alleviate energy scarcity in Uganda and in Africa as a whole.
Is there anyone that you look up to?
I am sure most people are aware of the African saying it takes a village to raise a child. Well I look up to the women who have mentored me, given me that constructive criticism and believed in me when hope seemed beyond reach. These are the strong women I believe in and I can’t let down. My husband is also one of the most optimistic people I have ever known. He motivates me each day to look at the best in people, situations and life in general.
You were born and raised in Africa, tell us about your experiences coming to the United States in relation to how your identity aligns with your current line of work and your passion for the earth.
Growing up in Uganda provided me with a unique perspective on the deep relationship between man and the earth, conservation, architecture, sustainable design and energy. Uganda is home to Lake Victoria, the largest tropical lake in the world. This country has a natural beauty of the inland plains and the area has a rich history that has been chronicled through time. As a young student in Uganda, I remember sitting in class at age twelve and learning about soil erosion, deforestation and desertification. At age twelve, sustaining the environment may not have been a popular choice of interest among peers. This was not the case with me. I was interested in how simple earth materials were used to construct great buildings. Fortunately in school, our curriculum would engage us in different topics, which varied from irrigation systems, crop rotation, penalties and restrictions given to factories for damping as well as the benefits of afforestation. The principle of cutting down one tree and building three appealed to me.
I always had a curiosity for design. In Ugandan history, one of most intriguing structures is the Kasubi tombs, a place of special burial for the Kings of Buganda. The Kasubi tombs are a reflection of Uganda’s organic architecture and heritage. Built in 1882, the structure is made out of wood, thatch, reed, daub and wattle. A true architectural achievement that I admire. So when I did pursue a college education in the U.S, it was only fitting I attended architectural school. Here I began to learn about energy use in buildings. Though I still had a deep appreciation for architecture, my focus eventually shifted to energy, particularly renewable energy and today this is where my focus lies.
Do you have any advice for those who want to work in similar fields, especially advice to women identifying BIPOCs?
This is probably advice for young professionals or those thinking about shifting into a new field. One thing to remember is you cannot succeed alone, this at least applies to the majority of the people on this planet. Nobody succeeds without someone either giving them a hand or nurturing their hopes and dreams. Do not be afraid to ask for help or for advice from those you respect. Surround yourself with people who build you up, mentor you and support you. Network and always ask questions. Challenge yourself even when it feels uncomfortable. If you are interested in a field that is male dominated, do not let anyone tell you can’t do it! Do not let that deter you, but also set realistic expectations and goals. The clean energy field has endless opportunities and while you explore them you can make an impact. Clean energy is the future!