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Lungile Mashele: We are the ones Africa has been waiting for

Lungile Mashele, energy specialist at the Development Bank of Southern Africa is responsible for the technical review of all DBSA's energy projects across Africa.

What challenges and successes come to mind?

There have been many challenges but they related more to interrelationships between myself and the people I reported to and worked with. I’ve always found it interesting how companies hire young, vibrant game changers then try make them fit a mould; they are attracted to your dynamism but feel a need to contain you.

That did not work for me.My successes have been many.I remember doing vacation work in university and a female colleague said:“If you don’t celebrate the small things,how will you know when the big things happen?” As a result of this I have daily successes; I count my blessings daily. I keep a gratitude journal and a gratitude jar where I ‘deposit’ my daily gratitude.

Who were your mentors and how did they inspire you in the choices you made?

I’ve never believed in the concept of role models or mentors; I could never outsource my career, salvation or my world outlook to anyone else. I have however taken a leaf out of various people’s books to help shape my life. My parents helped me understand the concept of money: how I spend it and invest it. My siblings have taught me patience, calm and resilience in the ace of adversity. While a summer of reading Maya Angelou reminded me of my voice and why the world needs to hear it. Listening to Oprah speaking at a conference once – she spoke about finding your passion and living your best life – I knew then what I needed to do to turn my career around. For me it’s about listening to the right voice during times of change and deciding to take action.

Are there enough professional and technical women in the energy sector? Should gender matter?

There aren’t enough of us. We area very small circle and we all know each other. Gender and colour matter; representation matters. It’s important to see people who look like you, sound like you and share the same background as you. I teach an honours energy class at the University of Johannesburg and I’m always encouraged when I see young women walking into my class for the first time. It gives me hope that there will be more female energy professionals doing technical work.Women bring a different angle to leadership – one that is wholesome,inclusive and happy. It’s important for young women, especially black women, to see me doing what I do and living the life that I live; it lets them know that there’s more to life and to a career.

When did you decided to focus on the energy sector and in particular what you’re doing now?

I started my career in the banking sector in January 2008, just as load-shedding was at its peak. I realised then that something was not right and I wanted to be a part of the solution. I wanted to change then world; I was perhaps naïve. However I wanted to find solutions: technical, social and sustainable solutions.

I can honestly say I was never happy professionally until I found my calling. This happened after listening to Oprah speak at a conference. She said look back to when you were younger,when you knew nothing, before the world interrupted your innocence.What did that eight year old want to be,before the world told her she couldn’t do it? In my case I wanted to be a flight attendant. Looking back now, I realise I don’t have the temperament for that job. However, the eight year old me knew that I wanted to travel the world and make people happy.

With no plan or agenda, in 2012,once I figured out what I wanted to do, I quit my job! With a mortgage,car loan and no plan of how to pay them back, what I did know was that I didn’t want to sit in my car sobbing for 30 minutes before going into my office anymore.

A few months later I landed my dream job at a power utility, took a pay cut and found happiness. Fast forward five years and I’m at a job I love,changing lives and travelling. The eight year old Lungile is elated!

What is the current situation in Africa’s energy sector?

Africa has a massive power deficit that is hampering its growth; in the same breath, Africa has vast resources,which could be used to fill those gaps.Africa is abundant in coal, solar, wind,gas and oil resources; however we are not utilising these to our full benefit.

Average electrification rates in the sub-Saharan region lie at 34% and this is unacceptable. As a result electricity consumption per capita is almost 13 times below first world countries. Africa needs power for development, industry and stimulating growth. We are lagging behind other developing countries due to power deficits.

This situation is the result of political instability, corruption, indecision and the sidelining of technocrats in favour of bureaucrats – as well as a lack of funds. There are multitudes of good ideas, which unfortunately require money in order to find success.

There’s a belief that future leaders will change Africa’s fortunes and bring much needed prosperity; however I believe that it’s up to us to change. We are the ones Africa has been waiting for!

You have played a strategic role in various projects across the region – what were the challenges and opportunities that arose from these projects?

The challenges are many and relate to fuel supply, design changes, variation orders, price escalations, connection backlogs, insufficient capacity,persistent load-shedding, time and cost overruns. However, the opportunities have been just as abundant; for instance construction in an isolated rural area could mean in-migration,jobs, better social services, access to schools, clinics and hospitals. Working for a DFI, our projects need to have a conscience and a social pact.

Nothing will bring you more joy than going for a site visit and finding construction, catering, cleaning, security,laundry and transport companies that have started because the project is in construction. Finding children who previously didn’t attend school wearing heir uniform proudly, clinics functioning and well stocked, where water was once a problem finding access that services the neighbouring community.Infrastructure projects are not just about erecting transmission lines or a coal fired-plant. They are about changing lives.

As the global industry faces considerable challenges, what are you particularly concerned about?What are the potential solutions?

Globally we are facing a credit crunch,there is a tightening of the global fiscus and only the best projects will be funded. This leaves me troubled because inasmuch as everyone will be clamouring to develop the big generation projects – who will be looking at rural electrification? It is almost incomprehensible that in 2017 families will wake up without electricity, young girls will forgo school so that they can fetch firewood and water for bathing and cooking. In the midst of our preoccupation with credit downgrades and interest rate hikes,there is the real danger of ignoring this often forgotten group.

There are solutions that rely on off-grid generation, small-scale embedded generation. These solutions however are not attractive to most funders because of the low returns and high repayment risk. There are models in Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda that are working and can be emulated. The poor are willing to pay, governments just need to support these projects.As I often say, power is not just about large infrastructure and generating to major load centres – it’s about universal access and changing lives.

First published in ESI Africa.

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