Hilary Cox Maxson, MBA ’05:
Growing the Grid
If you think dropped calls and dial-up modems are a hassle, Hilary Cox Maxson would invite you to spend some time in Cameroon. A resident of Douala, Cameroon’s largest commercial city, since January of 2010, Maxson has experienced the frustrations of an emerging market power grid firsthand. As CFO of AES Africa, the sole provider of electricity in Cameroon, she’s working hard to make that power grid more reliable — and more accessible to the country’s 18 million citizens.
Nine years ago, AES (formerly Allied Energy Systems) paid Cameroon’s government $72 million for a majority stake in AES Sonel, the country’s sole energy provider, understanding that additional investments would be necessary to upgrade the nation’s energy infrastructure. The challenges to modernization are many, Maxson says. As is common in many emerging market countries, transmission towers are sometimes stripped for parts, and illegal power networks provide energy to entire communities in the larger cities. The small power stations which provide energy for the televisions, light fixtures, and occasional refrigerator in remote villages run on heavy fuel oil, and unpaved roads mean fuel delivery can take days. Then there is the messy matter of collecting payment. “Since it’s a cash society here, it’s a big challenge,” Maxson says. “You have people walking for miles to make a payment, and then waiting in line for hours in 100-degree heat.”
Slowly, Maxson says, conditions and services are improving. With the help of a 260-million-euro loan provided by a consortium of multilaterals, AES has begun renovating the country’s largest hydro plants, rebuilding power lines, adding more collections agents, and connecting many remote outposts to the main grid. Last year 60,000 new power connections were made, and the company’s growth rate is a robust 9 percent. “A process-oriented way of doing business is still new here,” Maxson says. “But we feel the changes we’re making in budgeting and planning can make a real difference.”
Maxson says she and her husband miss going to the movies (there are no cinemas in Cameroon), but she raves about the abundance of fresh local food at the markets and the white and black sand beaches. And after years of living in one-bedroom apartments in New York City and Washington, D.C., Maxson is enjoying the pleasures of living in a house equipped with first-world amenities. “That’s our joke,” Maxson says. “We had to move to Central Africa to get our first washing machine.”