“I Want to Discover What My Limits Are” Elisabet Badia on Seeking Challenges

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Article by: Damaris Agweyu

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I feel freer to be me...And when you have that freedom, you also give others the freedom to think whatever they want about you. It's like shedding the need for constant approval and just letting people believe what they will. It's liberating.


Elisabet Badia, a Spanish-born environmental engineer, has a remarkable appetite for challenges. She thrives on seeking out new, demanding experiences that push her beyond her limits. Her transition from Europe to Africa in 2016 provided her with exactly that. As a champion for sustainable energy solutions across several African countries, she gets to challenge both societal and literal power structures.

Elisabet currently works as an independent consultant for the UNDP, where she oversees and monitors diverse programmes centred on energy access, climate change impact and renewable energy initiatives globally.

Her conversation with Damaris Agweyu sheds light on her drive to stretch her limits and confront deeply entrenched power structures. 

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Elisabet Badia meeting  a community in Niger

Elisabet, how would you describe yourself?

A work in progress. 

Since my very early childhood, I have been searching. Searching to discover who I am and what my limits are.  

I remember going to the theatre in Barcelona to see a play called "Piedra de Tartera" (Quarry Stone). Incidentally, the play was set in the same region where my father grew up, and the main character had the same name as my mother. It explored the life of a woman pushed around like a quarry stone, unable to control her movements. This character's struggles, set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War and the subsequent dictatorship, highlighted the plight of undervalued women as secondary characters in their own stories. That play grabbed my heart so hard that I couldn't stop crying throughout the performance. I ran to the bathroom to avoid being seen in tears.

I wonder if that play moved me so much because I understood that the key to constructing our own story is saved in our hearts or maybe because we don't even suspect how much unlocked power we have there. What I am sure of is that we all risk living as secondary characters in our lives if we fail to release that hidden energy within. 

And so I am constantly questioning things; some may call it exaggerated criticism. But for me, it's a way of getting to the core of things. To understand the why and discover if there is a better way. As a child, my mother often described me as a rebel. 

And were you?

Oh, absolutely. And I've come to accept my rebellion as a crucial part of my identity. 

I come from a humble background where my family moved from rural Spain to Barcelona in search of work. My parents did not have access to good educational opportunities, so education became my bridge to self-empowerment. I pursued two degrees at the university. However, I was not the typical "good" student who wanted to follow a regular path. I struggled at home for being different, for volunteering in social welfare associations, for pursuing an Environmental Sciences degree instead of continuing with my secure job as an engineer for power suppliers. At 19, I jetted off solo to the US for six months. It was such a fulfilling experience. Some of the most important people in my life today came from that period. 

This is how I have chosen to live my life, pushing so-called limits by putting myself in difficult situations where I need to figure out how to survive. I love that.

How did you end up in Africa?

As I was not necessarily attached to my family, I started working in different European countries in environmental and social safeguards related to power structures. While designing solar and wind farms in the UK, a previous boss asked me to join him in Senegal on a rural electrification project. This was the lifeline I needed to free myself from the monotony of what I'd been doing.

The moment I set foot in Senegal was like a rebirth. I instantly knew this was a game-changer. I felt welcomed. I grew to love the vitality of Senegal. As I explored more of Africa through various other projects, I found clear opportunities to challenge things, dig deeper into myself and construct my narrative. 

Tell me more.

Firstly, power has always been a central theme in my life in a broad sense. It's a representation of my resistance to established structures, and it's reflected in the work I've chosen to do. Societal power and electrical power are all interconnected for me. 

Working on development projects across Africa has shown me how power determines realities. In Guinea-Bissau, for example, where I worked closely with the government, I saw how power is surprisingly simple but incredibly influential. It decides what is valued and what is not, who belongs and who doesn't. It can give, and it can deprive. It determines your future. This became clearer as I worked on projects that took me to places where even hospitals lacked electricity. Failure to access energy can strip away fundamental rights like education and healthcare for so many people. And this affects people's possibilities. 

Secondly, Africa offered me the opportunity I had been seeking for a long time in my life, the prospect of settling down, of rooting myself. Having become a mother, I have integrated very different realities into my way of thinking and living as part of this “rooting process”.

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Elisabet Badia during a site visit in Bissau

Where do you feel you have a greater sense of belonging, Africa or Europe?

It's difficult to say because my upbringing, values and education are tied to Europe. But when I envision myself growing older, surrounded by what I deeply connect with—nature—it's here in Africa.

I feel very connected to Senegal in particular. I remember a moment when I was drying my hair, with my head turned upside down, and I saw these framed pictures of Senegalese people. Something hit me, and I felt like they were my ancestors. It's hard to explain, but there was this undeniable sense of connection. 

I might not be very spiritual, but nature has always been my thing. Casamance, where I currently live, is like a green haven with strong spiritual traditions. 

As I started to realise that family is something you build along your journey, it became clear that what we seek—connection, spirituality, belonging—was more easily found here in Africa than anywhere else. It's like the puzzle pieces just fit better in this part of the world.

Has your race ever been an issue?

Not really. Sure, there's this perception that being a white woman on your own is a bit unconventional, but it doesn't really bother me. Actually, it's one of the liberating things about being in Africa—I feel freer to be me.

Back in Europe, there's this tendency to label and categorise, you know? It's like you're placed in different spaces, and they adjust the size of the space depending on what they think you've achieved. If you haven't met their expectations, they squeeze you into a smaller space. It's more manipulative. But here, it's freedom. Freedom to express yourself. And when you have that freedom, you also give others the freedom to think whatever they want about you. It's like shedding the need for constant approval and just letting people believe what they will. It's liberating.

As someone driven by the need to constantly search deeper, what has your year-long experience with WE Africa revealed to you?

That the real search for oneself goes beyond external stuff. Self-discovery is a journey within. It starts from a place of inner peace, calm and stillness. And when you find your internal energy, your power, you can confront anything. 

It's also been eye-opening to witness the strength of women in Africa's environmental space. These women don't fit the typical mould of being assertive and highly visible leaders but are, in fact, doing extraordinary things and not often speaking about them. 

Do you feel comfortable speaking about your achievements?

I don't. During a project in Sierra Leone, a colleague told me, "You're much stronger than you think." It was surprising to me but also lovely to hear. People from all walks of life tell me that I've done many difficult things and that I shouldn't be shy about discussing my accomplishments, but I find it hard to do this. My sessions with my coach have taught me to value what I've accomplished more, and I am beginning to understand why this matters. 

I'm more technically inclined in my work, so being seen as an inspiration for others isn't exactly my thing. But there have been times when I've noticed women in the communities I've worked in looking at me with admiration. I believe that's important if it helps reshape the power narratives in some way.

When do you feel most powerful?

When I see the results of my efforts—that certainty that comes with knowing that something got done because I contributed. Not because I'm some hero but because I put my heart and soul into what needed to be done, and it got done. And for me, contribution translates to changing power narratives in small or big ways. 

***

This interview is part of a series profiling the stories of the 2023 WE Africa leadership programme fellows, African women in the environmental conservation sector who are showing up with a strong back, soft front, and wild heart. 

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