A fearless visionary

South Africa’s energy supply sector is sailing into a hurricane and needs raptor-like perspective, agility and determination to navigate around this electric storm

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Thabiso Tenyane, the Executive Chairman of the Phakwe Group, has proven that South Africa can develop its energy sector autonomously and successfully—to the benefit of the country, the region and the continent. Tenyane is a man who has had leadership responsibilities thrust upon him from an early age and never dreamt that he would supply electricity to his country one day.

For one to excel at leading companies, you have to have impeccable leadership qualities that equip you to constantly evolve and formulate adaptive business ideas and solutions. Can you tell us more about your background?

I’m a township boy, born and raised in Thokoza in the East Rand. I started school in 1976.

So, we grew up in an environment of student politics and disrupted classes. It also meant one took up leadership without realising it.

On a daily basis, we challenged other students who wanted us to disrupt the classes. My response to them was, “Is there another method [of protest] we could follow to not affect the classes, for example during breaks or after school? Because we want to go to university.”

By the age of 15, I was the Secretary of the Thokoza Youth League and I began to take responsibility for things that were beyond student issues.

I matriculated in 1987 and was accepted at Wits University to study medicine. Here, student politics were even more intense. In that year, I built a shack at Wits to demonstrate that black students also wanted to have a res on campus.

In my second year, I went to Rand Afrikaans University to study B.Com Human Resources, then completed the Management Advancement Programme at Wits, followed by an Executive Development Programme from Wits Business School.

My first job was a human resources position in the government in 1994. We were tasked with moving the then Pretoria-Witwatersrand-Vaal (PWV) administration in Pretoria, establishing it in Gauteng in Johannesburg. This was a transition or transformation where I learnt a great deal. Taking over the government is the most intense and testing process I have ever experienced.

In 1997, I moved to the North West to work with then Premier, Popo Molefe, and the Director-General, Job Mokgoro, to help set up the province’s payroll system.

In 1999, I joined Q Data (which later merged with Persetel), which is known as Business Connexion today. I was there for five years, ending my tenure as the Head of the Public Service division, responsible for all provinces, Swaziland, Namibia and Ethiopia.

In 2004, I formed Air Telecoms, which built cellphone towers for Vodacom and MTN in the rest of Africa. However, I first identified a small company and bought it with a R72-million loan from the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC). Some called me brave, others called me stupid for borrowing that amount. By that time, I had already decided to never be a small player. Then, I founded Bihati Solutions and led the company from 2006 to 2011. We built cellphone towers in 16 countries. Of Vodacom’s network in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), 95% was built by my company.

In 2010, I recognised the opportunity that the proposed an energy mix of the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) presented. With the engineering capability from our telecoms projects, we decided to participate in this space. This lead to the construction of the 27-megawatt (MW) Metrowind wind farm near Port Elizabeth, of which I’m still the Chairman and second-biggest shareholder. In 2014, we plugged this facility into Eskom and it was the first wind farm to connect to its grid. Now, Phakwe is busy with five renewable energy projects in the Northern Cape, two in the North West, and we have a share in the Grand Inga hydroelectric project in the DRC.

As the group’s Executive Chairman, what is your main role?

I drive the strategy and identify talent, because it doesn’t matter how good your strategy is; you need talented people to implement it. Talent is unlocking or unleashing everyone’s greater potential in what they do.

Due to my understanding of the policies of the country and the continent, I can guide the people who have to drive the processes. Companies are not differentiated by their strategies but by the people they employ. My role is to continue to find those people, groom them, guide them and help them to become the best they can be.

In which direction are you steering the group with regards to expansion into Africa and beyond?

If you look at our company structure, you can see there is an emphasis on Africa: powering Africa, connecting Africa and so on. I think there is more to be done on my continent and once we have achieved certain goals here, we will then go to other continents.

We have a strategic relationship with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in the energy sector.

The UAE is a very sober nation. They stick to what they plan for the longer term. They have 50-year or 100-year plans. We are building a power station in Egypt with the UAE. We associate with the UAE and China because of their long-term thinking and consistency. There, it doesn’t matter who takes over from a leader because he will further the plans of his predecessor.

What are your thoughts on the power supply in South Africa and Eskom?

We know energy is the lifeblood of any economy, so we have to choose the right way to do things. There are two models in building a power station. The first is the Engineering, Procurement and Construction (EPC) model. This is a turnkey model that holds no risk for the customer. But Eskom chose the EPCM (M for ‘Managed’) model. This is where you say, “I’ll buy a boiler from A and a turbine from B”, and so on. “And I will manage all of you, paying as we go.”

China does EPCM very well but they build eight power stations a year, so they have the experience. But with Medupi and Kusile, we didn’t have that experience and Eskom took all the responsibility and risk, and then threw money at the problems, while reducing the maintenance budget of existing power stations from R30 billion to R17 billion.

What leadership philosophy do you live by?

Be ethical. Be authentic. Do what you said you would do. Then people will follow you, because you have demonstrated it. If you are consistent in what you are doing, you will see the result in others who will then emulate what you are doing.

As a successful leader with years of experience in business management, human resources and business development, many people look up to you and young people aspire to follow in your footsteps. Do you have any words of wisdom for them?

Firstly, accept who you are and know your capabilities. Acknowledge and accept your shortcomings. Then, you will know who you have to work with and who will complement you in things you are unable to do. Just know yourself.

Due to unemployment, people are starting businesses to earn a living. But if you can’t pay yourself, it’s a terrible idea. Take time and apply your mind to what you are about to do. People should work on an idea until it is fundable and bankable and only then should they give it 100% of their time. 

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