Nhu Quynh Ta is matter-of-fact when she describes what it is like to hold a senior leadership position in Vietnam’s hydro power sector.
“It’s almost 99.9 per cent men.”
Indeed, when the General Director of Lao Cai Renewable Energy (LCRE) attends meetings of the hydro union, she is often the only woman in the room. But it’s a position that comes with advantages and disadvantages.
“Firstly when people notice me, they assume a woman knows nothing about the power sector and technical elements of renewable energy,” Nhu says. “It can be hard to be heard and taken seriously.”
But it’s not all negative.
“I just look at it as a privilege,” Nhu explains.
“When the Coc San hydro project connected to the national grid, I asked for help from relevant parties. They said ‘wow, a woman! Tell us what you need, we want to support you.’”
Mixed responses to her gender come with the territory in Nhu’s line of work, but at the end of the day she says it all comes down to what she and her team achieve. The 29.7MW run-of-river Coc San Hydropower Project in northern Vietnam’s Lao Cai Province is, deservedly, Nhu’s pride and joy.
“Whenever local authorities have a meeting with other investors, they always say to them ‘just do it like Coc San.’” She laughs.
“Our message is that Coc San demonstrates transparency; a project that has run to deadlines and one that hires almost entirely local people.”
InfraCo Asia stepped in to support the Coc San project in 2012 when it had stalled due to a range of factors, including difficulty securing financing. InfraCo Asia took a majority stake in Lao Cai Renewable Energy (which it has since diluted) and led the development of the project through to financial close in late 2014. Carefully developed to preserve the health of the Dum River and the beautiful rice-terraced rural landscape of the project site, the Coc San hydro power project commenced operations in April 2016.
Nhu joined Lao Cai Renewable Energy as Finance Controller in 2013, having previously worked for the international NGO, Urban Development Zone, the real estate sector, and then on projects being developed under the Clean Development Mechanism and power sector.
When InfraCo Asia’s CEO Allard Nooy and LCRE outgoing General Director, Ids Groenhout, sat down to discuss succession prior to the official launch of Coc San in June 2016, Nhu was a clear choice.
“I was very worried about stepping into the role of GD,” Nhu admits.
“Some people in the hydro industry warned me that it’s not easy, especially for a woman—but Allard and Ids, Srini Rao (Chair of Viet Hydro) and the Board assured me that I coud do it, especially with support.”
Nhu has taken smoothly to the task of piloting LCRE.
“We had a very good end to the year, with everything reaching its budget. This is thanks to a wonderful team, and a very good Board of Directors. That’s the reason we’ve achieved so much in the past year,” she says.
“It has not been easy, taking over the full project management. We’ve had to create a working environment that manages this change, so that we all ‘match’. Now we are building a new working culture, which is going well, but also takes time,” she explains.
Eight months since stepping into the role of General Director, and almost one year since Coc San began producing power, Nhu says she has learned an extraordinary amount.
“Working within Vietnam’s power sector and with government officials does require patience and negotiation skills. The other challenge remains that I am a woman working in the power sector.” Nhu says.
“To get people to respect me in my role, I have had to learn a lot,” she says.
“If you want to manage people, you have to understand the issue, otherwise there’s no way anyone will take you seriously, so I had to study. My team had to teach me about how everything works—hydrology, incoming flow, discharge and all of that.” Nhu says.
“From the beginning, I was open with my team about what I didn’t know. I told them they would have to teach me. I explained I am good at these areas and you are good at those, together we are a team, with skills combined.”
When Nhu was first exposed to Vietnam’s renewable energy sector, however, she says that hydro power elicited a negative reaction.
“I understood that banks and the government didn’t like hydro, because past investors destroyed the forests, took the land from ethnic minorities and gave them nothing in return,” she says.
“Then I found that it could be done well, with much better results than importing coal, which has no potential.
“Gradually I came to love renewable energy. Now, whenever I talk to people about hydro power, they often still misunderstand. We explain to them every time what the benefits are, and especially the success of smaller hydro projects like Coc San.”
In the months since Vietnamese government officials, World Bank and IFC representatives, industry peers and representatives of the Australian, Swiss and UK donor governments gathered for the launch of Coc San, work has continued to nurture and develop the project site.
“The trees we have planted are growing, we’ve developed the landscape. We want it to be a place for people to stop—to attract its own tourism,” Nhu says of the Coc San dam, situated along the road to the popular Sa Pa region.
She is also conscious of the ongoing benefits of the Community Development Program LCRE and InfraCo Asia fostered during project development.
“We worked on roads and schools for the communities. There was crop education, helping people to grow corn and rice and raise goats or pigs.” She says.
“I tried to have the team understand the impact of growing something for the benefit of the local community; their daily life. We worked closely with some of the ethnic minorities who live by Coc San, and the team learned there is a good reason to do more than just the basics.”
Not only that, but Nhu enjoys the feeling of contributing to a larger plan.
“We contribute energy to Lao Cai Province, because the need for energy is high. We still have to import some energy from China, but Coc San is part of the government’s clean energy agenda for Vietnam.”
Nhu frequently visits the Coc San project from her home city of Hanoi, which she believes is an essential part of managing her team face-to-face and keeping everything running smoothly. While the project site is unsurprisingly dominated by a male workforce, Nhu delights in the presence of young female engineer, Thuan, whose husband also works in a technical role at Coc San.
When Nhu initially sought team members to train Thuan in the requirements of the eight-hour shifts worked at the Coc San power house, she found few willing volunteers. They were worried, she explains, about a woman’s ability to keep up with the technical demands of the shift.
Proving herself unsurprisingly adept at the work, Thuan earned her rightful place.
“Everybody else said ‘why didn’t we take her from the start?’” Nhu says.
“I hope other women will see that they could do that job. Working in the power sector is not easy, but I do believe that women can do anything.”
As Nhu settles in to her first year as General Director of Lao Cai Renewable Energy, she is justly proud of what has been achieved through the Coc San project.
“Now I have more confidence,” she says. “But I know it will take another year to consolidate everything.”
Nhu’s commitment to Vietnam’s renewable energy development is fueled by passion and energy, and the hopes that she might demonstrate to other women that they are capable of taking on a leadership role in the power sector. However, some years down the track, a different vocation may beckon.
“I always wanted to be a farmer or landscape architect, something very simple. I would like to plant vegetables, fruits and design the landscape,” she says. “Because being a farmer, you can build your dream.”
For now, her work with the Lao Cai Renewable Energy team and management of the Coc San project will see her role as an ‘outrider’ for women in Vietnam’s renewable energy sector.