Innovation and leadership to power the continent

The business of energy touches on every aspect of social, political and economic functioning, and poor leadership in this sector impacts every facet of life. Professor Lwazi Ngubevana is the Director of Wits Business School’s African Energy Leadership Centre (WBS AELC). He says this is why specialised business centres like the AELC are more necessary now than ever before. 

Energy, he says, is the engine of the economy: “Despite this, around 600-700 million of Africa’s 1.4-billion residents do not have access to electricity. This is not just an economic problem, it is a human rights violation. When you understand this, then it becomes clear that if we fail to develop leadership in this space, we fail society.” 

A seasoned chemical engineer, energy executive and academic with extensive global experience in renewable energy, Ngubevana says the social impact of the energy sector is undeniable. This is why the centre strives to include people from every level of the energy sector: “This is not a technical qualification, but rather a leadership development programme that spans across the entire value chain of the energy space.” 

Students include engineers and scientists, but also people from backgrounds in finance, HR, law, policy making, project development, and social sciences. 

“We need to acknowledge that the leaders that are emerging to drive the continent’s energy transition are not necessarily engineers, and if we don’t include them in the conversation, then we all lose,” Ngubevana explains. 

Developing energy leaders in Africa

The focus of the AELC is threefold, with the first being academic qualifications and management development short courses in energy leadership. Next, there is the research element, which aims to lead and inform the energy dialogue and thought-leadership on the continent. The third is enhanced networking, where students benefit from engagement with former and practising industry executives and experts. “We also facilitate regular dialogues, and in this way our students are exposed to practical and current conversation about the challenges and solutions within the sector,” Ngubevana says. 

The centre has a strong focus on critical thinking, critical reasoning, decision making and political risk: “It is important that we entrench not only skills, but also values. This field, like many other fields globally, is changing rapidly, and leaders emerging from our school must be able to be open to new possibilities. They must be able to analyse situations and make the best decisions based on the data at hand.” 

The issue of ethics in energy is a big one. “We need leaders — and this is something that we emphasise a great deal in our programme — with a clear ethical foundation that forms the basis of all their decisions,” he says. Communication skills are also critical. “Without the so-called soft skills of working with people and understanding the impact of the work being done for the various stakeholders and society in general, we are going to lose the plot. 

“We cannot afford to develop an energy industry that excludes people and alienates those who are supposed to be benefitting from its advancements.” 

The energy sector is one where the triple-bottom line of people, planet and prosperity cannot be ignored. This, he says, is not just a matter of principle, policy or compliance — it is a matter of survival. “This is the ethos of what we teach as a business school — to run profitably while empowering people and protecting the environment.” 

Driving continental conversations and changing narratives

The topic of energy transition is currently a hot one, Ngubevana says.“The biggest questions are how does Africa transition to a lower carbon future; how do we finance the transition to a low carbon future; and what do we do with our current resources as a continent?” 

One of the main problems with existing renewable energy solutions is that the technologies and skills needed to drive them are all imported, and do not aid local development. On the other hand, he adds, there are new coal, oil and gas resources being discovered across the continent almost daily — resources that can be developed to power the continent and better the lives of its inhabitants. “We must find a way to transition to a lower carbon future, while still taking our needs and available resources into account.”

Africa is the poorest continent in terms of energy access and energy equity, and contributes only around 3% to the global greenhouse emissions. “Why should Africa be expected to transition at the same pace, and why are we in fact being pressured to do more than the rest of the world, when our contribution is the lowest? How can we as Africans take control of our future and make use of all of our resources, including but not limited to renewable energy, to ensure that we can transition at a pace and scale that will enhance our development as a continent, instead of having energy solutions that inhibit our development, forced upon us?” 

Homegrown solutions, tailor-made for our context 

The solution lies in developing local solutions. This, says Ngubevana, may entail making use of fossil fuels. “We need to start focusing on and developing technologies that look at reducing carbon emissions, so that even in our processes where we do opt to use fossil fuels, we use them more efficiently and emit less greenhouse gases. My vision for the continent is that we can drive energy development, but also energy efficiency.”

In this way, the life span of resources can be stretched. “I am unapologetic in saying that as a continent, we absolutely have to exploit our fossil fuel resources, but we can do it in a cleaner, more sustainable way, while boosting development in renewable energy technologies. It is not a contradiction to say we can develop renewable energy sources alongside developing our fossil fuels.” This is in step with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

If done correctly, this would fundamentally change life on the continent: “I envision our future as one with an energy mix, not just based on popular technologies but based on what works for specific individuals, communities and regions. It won’t be a one-size-fits-all approach, because the ideal solution for a rural village will not be the same as for a suburb, an inner-city environment or a township. We could provide everyone with, not only access, but affordable access to a form of developed energy, whether it be through a solar panel on their roof, connection to the grid or access to biodigesters to produce biogas.” 

There is also a need to explore hyper local solutions run by communities independent of the national grid: “It’s ridiculous to think that if you turn your lights on in Cape Town, you are literally using electrons from Mpumalanga; so much energy is lost in the transmission process and it just doesn’t make sense! 

“The energy sector has to be decentralised. We need a shift towards micro-grids run by communities that can feed back into the system, selected based on their needs, resources and what they can afford.” 

Good leadership to unlock immeasurable opportunities 

Ngubevana says the country’s energy challenges — loadshedding, unscheduled blackouts, electricity theft and infrastructure sabotage — all stem from a lack of leadership. “The cost of this is not just economic — it’s costing lives,” he explains. “Not a day goes by that we don’t hear about children being electrocuted, houses burning down, shack fires that leave hundreds homeless, carbon monoxide poisoning from unsafe heating and cooking solutions … the list goes on. People are dying, and it is in our power to stop that.”

While it may not seem so while sitting in the dark during loadshedding, Ngubevana says South Africans can rest assured knowing that there is huge potential in the energy sector. 

“We have so many capable people striving to find innovative, sustainable and affordable solutions to our energy crisis,” he says. “At the AELC we work hard to support these existing and emerging leaders to see their visions for a better tomorrow realised.”

In addition, the potential within the sector to grow the economy is immeasurable. 

“With the right leadership, it is within our reach to eradicate a number of challenges the country faces — poverty, unemployment, food security, education and equality,” he explains. “This is the future that a well-managed energy industry can offer.”  

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