Amanda Donahue: Navigating Peaks – From Sidewalk Stands to Corporate Summits

Africa's 10 Most Inspiring CEOs Making a Difference, 2024

Distinguished by her self-defined “Flexible, Dynamic, and Unconventional” professional identity, Amanda Donahue, the CEO of Proto Energy, has propelled her and her team to the zenith of achievement over the years. And no wonder we find ourselves nodding in agreement with her triumvirate descriptors. Heralded among “Africa’s 10 Most Inspiring CEOs Making a Difference,” Amanda’s personality acts as the alchemical catalyst, infusing adaptability and ingenious thinking into the ever-evolving canvas of the energy industry landscape.

“As group CEO, no two days are the same, but that actually stems from knowing the business inside and out,” Amanda explains. Having immersed herself in various roles, from sales to fleet operations and even taking on teaching responsibilities, she possesses a comprehensive grasp of the intricacies. This hands-on experience equips her with the ability to pose pertinent questions, guiding managers to navigate challenges effectively.

Operating where traditional working hours blur, Amanda seamlessly conducts business via phone calls and WhatsApp, often multitasking on her laptop during transit. The absence of “standard hours” is not a hindrance but a preference, allowing her to transition effortlessly from engaging with manufacturing teams to high-level government meetings in a single day. With extensive travel between Nairobi, Mombasa, and other international destinations, each day unfolds uniquely, mirroring her busy lifestyle.

This cover story delves into Amanda’s lasting impact on the industry, drawing from her wealth of experience. Her astute observations become a valuable resource for those aspiring to leadership roles, offering insights into forging distinctive pathways to success.

Views on Success

As per this experienced executive’s perspective, success in the contemporary landscape isn’t a static achievement; instead, it involves pursuing a perpetually shifting goalpost and aiming for greater heights. Amanda revels in her industry’s challenges and fluid dynamics, where

“navigating every pitfall feels like success, solving problems feels like success, and ultimately envisioning the next plan” and incrementally progressing toward it constitutes her daily success.

Proto Energy and Its Services, in Brief

Proto Energy, a Kenya Energy Group (KEG) subsidiary, was established just five years ago. KEG, a prominent bulk importer of LPG for over a decade, has developed a robust infrastructure and logistics system for distribution across Kenya and East Africa. Recognizing the demand, the company naturally expanded into downstream distribution, offering affordable LPG to households and businesses nationwide. Despite its brief existence, Proto Energy has swiftly claimed the top market position in LPG downstream distribution in Kenya, making it an essential and aspirational product that is accessible.

Presently, the company is actively involved in key initiatives. One initiative involves transitioning schools in Kenya from using firewood to LPG, accompanied by student engagement in conservation efforts such as tree planting. Additionally, another initiative focuses on expanding the business by converting cars to run on LPG instead of petrol. Proto Energy is a versatile company poised for growth, actively participating in community engagement. These initiatives exemplify the dynamic and exciting prospects shaping the company’s future.

Amanda’s Impact on Proto Energy’s Growth and Success

Under Amanda’s leadership, Proto Energy has experienced remarkable growth, with her expertise leaving a lasting and positive impact, particularly in people development. The CEO prioritizes empowering her teams and finding fulfillment in witnessing the progression of younger employees within the company. Actively fostering a culture that embraces innovation, Proto Energy strategically hires a significant number of young talents, recognizing their eagerness and potential for driving positive change. Amanda concocts corporate responsibility and profitability as complementary objectives, emphasizing that sustainable and impactful product lines can coexist with business expansion, ensuring broader access to cleaner and healthier energy sources. Central to her vision is the core value of integrity, which she instills across all levels of the organization, extending from team members to partners, aiming to fortify the company’s foundation with unwavering consistency.

Navigating Challenges: A Woman’s Journey in a Male-Dominated Industry

Reflecting on her career, this skilled professional candidly shares, “One of the biggest hurdles I have faced is being a woman in a man’s world, a predominantly male industry – not just this one, but I have always had this issue, which is still relevant today.” 

Undeterred by this challenge, Amanda believes it may have fueled her determination to confront it head-on. However, she acknowledges that being a woman in such an environment inevitably shapes how one approaches various aspects of one’s professional life. She discovered the art of leveling up early in her career, realizing that industry knowledge is merely the first step. Knowing the facts, believing in her insights and negotiating with full certainty that she deserved a seat at the table regardless of gender, were key to Amanda’s success.

She replicated this recipe when relocating to foreign countries and frequently transitioning between industries.

Leadership Milestones: A Reflection on Recognition

When inquired about the best recognition she has received as a leader, the accomplished executive responds, “With my existing company, the best recognition has been greater responsibility.” 

To Amanda, the recognition took the form of entrusting her with decision-making authority as the group CEO, empowering her to guide the business through one of its most important expansion phases. She notes the common narrative where excelling leads to increased responsibilities, exemplified by the sentiment: “You’re doing great. Here’s more work!”

Mentorship Mission: Cultivating Future Leaders

Amanda’s commitment to mentoring has been a steadfast aspect of her career mindset, shaping her approach to leadership. Having guided and propelled numerous young individuals to new heights in the business domain, she recognizes the transformative impact of mentorship. In the evolving landscape of Kenya, where a palpable drive for innovation and growth coexists with limited opportunities, this resourceful savant finds immense satisfaction in identifying ambitious young talents. Her approach is particularly pronounced with young women, who may have been taught to listen instead of speak and to wait to be told what to do. Amanda is dedicated to providing a platform for these emerging leaders to experiment, learn from failures, and persistently develop and utilize their unique talents, ultimately shaping a new generation of empowered and self-assured leaders.

Amanda’s Forward-Thinking Vision for Proto Energy

As the visionary leader at the helm of Proto Energy, Amanda eagerly anticipates the coming years, brimming with excitement for numerous projects set to unfold in 2024 and beyond. Highlighting the company’s dedication to addressing climate change and contributing to education for the next generation, she emphasizes the mission to transition Kenya away from reliance on charcoal and wood. Beyond the core focus on LPG sales, Proto Energy is actively involved in several initiatives tackling these pressing issues. Proto Energy’s CEO takes pride in the company’s multifaceted approach, transcending conventional business boundaries.

“Proto is young but dynamic, and our base is expanding to neighboring East African countries,” she shares. With an ambitious mindset, Amanda adds, “I like to think big, so there is no doubt that next year will prove to be our best yet.”

A Journey of Transformation: Life Preceding Proto Energy

Reflecting on the origins of her career, Amanda says that her early life was a testament to the adage, “Morning shows the day.” Demonstrating entrepreneurial spirit as a child, this goal-oriented enthusiast crafted business plans even for sidewalk stands, setting the stage for a remarkable journey.

Embarking on her professional path, Amanda seamlessly integrated work with education, rapidly shouldering additional responsibilities. Pursuing an MBA, she ascended the corporate ladder throughout her twenties. However, her trajectory significantly shifted when she left the U.S. executive realm for a 6-month sabbatical in Kenya 14 years ago.

Rather than taking a break, Amanda first put her efforts and drive into a poultry venture which multiplied in success many times over. She then shifted her focus, initiating a Maternal Health Program in Muthari, Huruma, and Korogocho, where the program impacted 35,000 Kenyan women. Recognizing the technology gap, Amanda transitioned to the private sector, aiming to introduce accessible technology and innovation. Venturing into FinTech and Energy start-ups, she leveraged her extensive experience in the local Kenyan economy to bridge the gap between community needs and technological solutions.

Amanda is a driven go-getter whose passion led her to 34 African countries, where she fostered collaborations with telecom companies, banks, and local governments. Customizing services to each market, she played a pivotal role in driving innovation. Amidst this journey, Amanda closely observed Proto Energy, a nascent company. Seizing the opportunity to join, she reached out to the owner, expressing her readiness to undertake any role.

Balancing Act: Amanda’s Approach to Life and Leadership

In the intricate dance between personal and professional spheres, Amanda seamlessly weaves the two together, finding inspiration in the captivating facets of her business that stir excitement even at unconventional hours. As she puts it, “While I don’t expect anyone to answer my calls at 3:00 a.m., there are so many interesting and exciting aspects of this business that keep me up at night – in a good way.” With seven kids in her bustling household, Amanda prioritizes family time, often embarking on weekend adventures beyond Nairobi. She acknowledges the importance of a great team to navigate the complexities of both roles. Rising early to steal moments for reflection and embracing multitasking as a way of life, this diligent executive personifies the art of balancing familial responsibilities with the demands of her dynamic role.

Motivated by the legacy she’s shaping and the strategic challenges akin to a chess game, Amanda sees her work as a continual pursuit of growth. She shares, “I have always said the day that I see one of our branded trucks or tuktuks on the road and don’t feel that I want to shout out ‘PRO!!’, then that will be my clue that it is time to change jobs.” This passion extends to her team, whom she encourages to immerse themselves in the market, learn from customers, and actively contribute their innovative ideas. This deft doyenne wants her team to grasp the profound impact they can have, drawing inspiration from the “happiness on a mother’s face when she just switched to gas and can redefine her day, have more time for her kids, make tea so easily, and feel pride in having that cylinder.” In Amanda’s leadership philosophy, the convergence of personal fulfillment and professional success is not just attainable but essential.