Meet Phyllis, a dynamic trailblazer in public health and renewable energy. Armed with a deep commitment to improving the well-being of her community, Phyllis has honed her skills in public health to address pressing issues affecting marginalized populations. Through her innovative approaches, Phyllis is an inspiring figure, demonstrating the intersectionality of public health and renewable energy in driving positive change in Africa;
Hi Phyllis, thank you for joining us, and for volunteering to share your story with the rest of the world
Thank you so much, Winnie, for having me, and hello to the audience. I also want to thank Angela for recommending me for this interview.
We shall jump right into the first question; briefly introduce yourself to our lovely audience
As you mentioned, my name is Phyllis Addo. I am from Ghana, born and raised in the central region of Ghana, in a village called Agona Swedru. Currently, I lecture at the University of Health and Allied Sciences in the Volta Region. I also run a solar business in Kasoa in the central region of Ghana. So, briefly, that is me. The audience will get to know the details as we go on with the rest of the conversation.
How do the two fields of STEM – Health and Renewable Energy – intersect in your line of work?
These are things I unconsciously picked up from childhood and have stayed with me to date. I would describe myself as someone who is very determined and strong-willed. Looking back, I realize that I did not fit into any conventional “box” as society wanted me to.
I grew up in a very modest household with two siblings, as the first female child and second born in the family. My neighborhood was known for high teenage pregnancy and school dropout rates. There is a term “Sakawa” which means using the internet to defraud people. That is another thing my neighborhood was known for. So, growing up with all this around me, there was something in me that was determined to become different.
Fortunately, my parents valued education, even though they did not get enough education themselves. They were willing to go to every length to push us through school. I vividly remember us attending the best schools in the area, even with the financial challenges that my parents faced. My father always made reference to rich people who had an inheritance to leave for their children. His own inheritance for us was education. So, education has always been a priority in my life.
I did my primary and secondary education well and gained admission into the University of Ghana for my undergraduate degree in Nutrition and Food Science. As the requirement is in Ghana, I had to do National Service, which was in my same department, as a teaching and research assistant. I then got a partial scholarship for a masters degree with my head of department then. However, it was upon me to find the rest of the money for the program.
I, one day, stumbled upon a National Essay Competition on Empowering Women for Leadership. Now, this competition was for females in the Northern part of Ghana only, but because I really needed the money, I applied. The winner would take 5,000 USD! Winnie, that amount in 2011 was of huge value! After going through several interviews and trainings I was one of the awardees of the competition. That is how I funded my masters.
Right after graduating, I was hired as a nutritionist with a mobile gym, before getting another offer by the university to manage a project. I did that for almost a year and got admission for a PhD in China on a full scholarship. I had to learn the language because the program I enrolled in was not taught in English. It was another hard experience but I stayed.
One time during a visit home, I was asked to greet people in church and share my experience. I spoke a little Chinese while sharing and a gentleman from the congregation was impressed with what I was sharing. He invited me for a chat after church and now he is my husband, haha. Through him, I was introduced to Engineering and renewable energy – he is an Engineering Lecturer.
He took advantage of the fact that I was based in China, to find a solution to one of Ghana’s most pressing challenges – the energy crisis. The original idea was to work as business partners, not to get married, haha. We did our research and market analysis. He found the clients, made a list, and I bought the goods and shipped them to Ghana. This is how I joined renewable energy without any educational background in engineering. Right now if you asked me anything about solar systems, I would respond confidently.
Wow! This is another definition of “hybrid” careers, haha. The way you are able to shine in Public Health and still be this knowledgeable in Renewable Energy, only you can tell us! Keep up the good work, Phyllis.
I am now curious to know how challenging this journey has been for you
The different stages in life present different challenges. Growing up, I was termed a stubborn child, but I wasn’t! It was only because my mind was inquisitive, wanting to find out how everything worked. Because this raised a lot of comments and complaints, I tried my best to “tame” my personality. As a child, I was tired of offending people and getting compared with other more reserved kids.
I started losing my confidence, sitting in corners, not asking questions, and all sorts of things. But, there were still a few people in my life who knew the real Phyllis and made it a point to not see me shut up. One of such people was my teacher in primary school. He saw something in me and did his best to nurture it. He challenged me to join a Macmillan upper primary Math quiz when I was still in my lower primary. I did not win but coming 3rd in that quiz meant a lot to me. It is part of the things that helped me regain my confidence. I also had a Physics teacher in high school who believed in me and helped me. Yes, there were some teachers who made negative comments but I proudly say that I had some teachers looking out for me.
As a career wife and mother, I have also had some challenges getting help while raising my kids. However, this is not so serious because my mom and young sister always come around to help out when I am swamped.
I still mention the financial challenges but lucky for me, since university, all my studies have been sponsored. So, that stopped being a challenge, haha. So, to answer your question, the two biggest challenges have been financial and confidence-related.
I am happy to hear that you have a good support system around you. What else motivates you to keep pushing in life when difficulties arise?
The support system I have had in my life is immense. Aside from my mom and dad, my elder brother chose to give up his education for me. He realized that our parents did not have enough, so he chose to take a step back for me to go to university before him.
I mentioned earlier that some friends in my neighborhood and external family, unfortunately, fell into the pits of teenage pregnancies and all sorts of limitations to bright futures. These were motivating factors for me in a way. I was determined to be different. My father also kept showing me examples of women who were living good lives. I aspired to make him proud.
Still related to my childhood; as I mentioned earlier, my neighborhood has a reputation for bad character. That has to change! I want people to know me as the girl from Agona Swedru, but also attach all my success to that. I want them to know that this might have been a challenge but I did not let it win me over.
Lastly, my biggest motivation is my insatiable curiosity, haha. I mean, I went to China to do a PhD in a whole new language! Such “crazy” things drive my zeal to challenge stereotypes and reach greater heights.
Allow me to add this to encourage someone. I got married in the 3rd year of my PhD because it felt like a good time. Then I got pregnant, had my child, and paused school for a year before heading back to China to close that chapter. I defended when I was about 5 months pregnant with my second child. During that time, I still knocked on doors asking for opportunities because I needed to land firm after my PhD. I received a call for a Postdoc immediately after giving birth and asked my husband to carry my laptop as he was coming to see the baby, haha. One year into my fellowship, I got my current job.
Let us talk about some of the moments that have made you feel very proud to be a woman in STEM
My first day of being featured on National Television after winning the essay competition I mentioned earlier. My phone kept buzzing, I got messages and calls from people I had not heard from in a long time. It felt very nice because, for the first time, I did not have to go to my parents and stress them with money issues. I applied for a political science grant without experience in political science at all! My application was judged by 10 powerful women in the Ghanaian politics space and I still won. That was very prestigious! I used part of that money to run a program in a basic school where we educated girls on health, and ICT, and set up peer-to-peer mentorship programs.
I also graduated as the best MPhil nutrition student in my year. Another achievement was receiving a full scholarship from the Chinese government for my PhD, in joint support with the government of Ghana. This helped me live a very comfortable life and also support my family back home. My postdoc also came as a miracle after having my baby.
With my Solar business, I was recently awarded a grant of 21,000 CAD by the Ghana Climate Innovation Centre, sponsored by IDRC for green businesses in Africa. Because of that, we are moving the business into another phase, with a lab to experiment with manufacturing some of these solar components in Ghana.
There are other smaller achievements that I am very grateful for.
I see you wear many hats, but, who are you outside of all these walls?
I am a family person who loves to clean and cook a lot. My friends know that when they call and I do not pick up over the weekend it is because I am spending time with my husband and two kids. I also help out in church a lot.
Another thing I am passionate about is the youth. Even as a teacher and lecturer, I do a lot with my students out of school. One of the ways of breaking the cycle of poverty is through education and putting ourselves out there. I want people to know what our young people are able to do.
What is your favorite quote?
“The only limit we have to our realization of tomorrow would be the doubt of today” ~ Franklin D. Roosevelt.
I know many people are losing out on opportunities because of self-doubt. I say this because I have been a victim before. Overcoming those doubts can lead to incredible achievements because it is all in the mind. Once your mind is free and open, you can do amazing things. The Bible says, “Be ye transformed by the renewal of your mind”. I have been in both supportive and negative environments and know how powerful the mind can be when supported.
What is your word or encouragement for a young African girl in STEM?
One thing I want to encourage young girls to do is to always ask for support. I remember taking advantage of all the resources around me when applying for the essay challenge. I read, practiced, and asked people to train, challenge, and help me prepare for the interviews.
Another piece of advice from my personal experience; everything I have applied for, as long as there is a date for feedback, I will hold the recruiting team accountable. I keep sending emails and calling back to ask for feedback.
My professor used to say that if you fail or receive a no, it is not written on your forehead. So, do not be afraid to try something because of rejection or failure. Take your chances, you never know. Always believe in your abilities and go the extra mile. This is STEM, it has undiscovered corners, and you might be the next inventor.
Thank you, Phyllis, for sharing your wisdom, experience, and life with us. I wish you more wins in life and a smooth launch into that solar lab.