Daring and not one to be deterred by obstacles, Linda Mabhena-Olagunju is a woman with a big goal to transform the power sector in Africa and empower more Africans. Her success story is proof that any woman can succeed in any field, even those already dominated by men. Enjoy her interview with us.
Can you tell us who you are and what you do?
I’m the founder and managing director of DLO Energy Resources Group (Pty) Ltd which is an energy investment and advisory company with a portfolio in renewable energy assets in South Africa that currently includes wind farms and solar PV power plants. We are also currently developing projects in Nigeria with the hopes of contributing to the country’s current electricity deficit.
What drives you?
I grew up in the latter part of apartheid South Africa where effectively the roles of black people as far as profession and economic empowerment goes were limited. I am driven by the desire to occupy the spaces previously reserved for old, white males. I want this narrative to change so that young African girls can aspire for even more. I grew up in the context of an Africa in which natural resources were not used as a means of broader economic empowerment and I want to challenge the way in which we structure these deals and contribute to the narrative of an industrialised Africa by contributing the key missing ingredient that is required for that industrialisation which is electricity. I am also driven by my daughter, I want her to look at me and realise that indeed everything is possible if you are willing to put in the work. I do not want her to grow up seeing restrictions in the roles women can play.
Why did you decide to start your own company?
There was a problem to be solved in our society and I wanted to be part of the solution. I knew that the only way I could effect change and live out my passion was starting my own company.
You started your career as an attorney of law. Why did you switch power/ renewable energy?
I began my career as an attorney. I studied law at the University of Cape Town and shortly thereafter I pursued a Masters degree at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. Part of the focus of my degree there was on oil and gas law. My interest in power stemmed from the time I worked for the Aberdeen Renewable Energy Group which was tasked with developing Aberdeen’s first wind farm at the time. It was then I saw the opportunity for renewable energy as a means of efficiently addressing power deficiency in a clean and cost effective manner. When I returned home from Scotland I began to research ways in which I could get involved. At first I continued practicing law at an energy firm, however I saw an opportunity to start my own company and become an energy developer. I approached a little known energy start up with the idea that I would offer my legal experience at a significantly reduced cost if they would give me the opportunity to buy equity in their projects and that effectively is how DLO started.
Tell us more about DLO Energy; what has the journey been like since you established the company?
Currently DLO is completing construction of its two wind farms in the Northern Cape in South Africa which have a combined capacity of 244MW. We expect these to go online next year. These will be amongst the largest wind farms on the continent. We are also pursuing projects on the rest of the continent across technologies such as gas and coal. In addition to our investment arm we also provide advisory and project development services to other investors. Since establishing the company we have seen it grow from stride to stride in terms of the opportunities, project development is a long term process so one has to be very patient before seeing any returns.
Your company is based in South Africa but you have some projects in Nigeria. Can you tell us more about these projects and the benefits Nigeria will gain from them?
In Nigeria we are currently looking at various projects for investment. We see great potential for solar PV in Nigeria. The recent NERC regulations have been encouraging but a clearer regulatory framework is required to attract international investment. The capital required for these projects is large and as such it is imperative that they are bankable. Nigeria has been of interest to a number of developers but the regulatory environment and bankability issues have led to slow investment. Strong government will and direction is required to accelerate the rate at which projects are being done in the country.
DLO Energy is fully owned by women. What impact has this had on the growth of the company?
I find this question very funny. Nobody ever asks about the impact of male owned companies, which are by the way a majority around the world. But to answer your question more directly a recent study by Mckinsey entitled “Women Matter Africa” showed that women run/owned companies did better in planning, saving and taking calculated risks. In fact companies that had women at the helm out performed those that did not. DLO has continued to punch above its weight, keep costs low and take calculated risk and yes we have outperformed some male owned development companies that started when we did.
Can you tell us some of the challenges you have faced as an entrepreneur and how you were able to overcome them?
Raising money. People underestimate that the biggest barrier is capital. Whilst the saying in project finance is that if you have a good project the funding will find you. They never talk about the fact that funders also want you to have skin in the game, meaning they want you to have your own money in it too and the quanta for these projects are high. The second challenge is raising funding without a proven track record. Once you have successfully closed a project funders are comfortable in backing you but until then it’s a challenge but not insurmountable.
Would you say that the power sector in African countries is a male dominated industry?
Yes very much so, aside from Isobel Do Sontos of Angola who runs Sonangol and Mrs Folorunsho Alakija how many African women do you see at the forefront of energy companies?
What do you think can be done to encourage more women to become involved in the power sector?
There must be a desire from us to succeed in this sector, and the opportunities must be there. In Nigeria as an example I find the oil and gas sector to be dominated by male players even in the indigenisation programme. If there is no legislative threshold demanding part ownership of these entities by women, then how will women begin to play meaningful roles? The same applies in South Africa and across the continent.
What role does the availability of power play in the development of a nation?
We always talk about Africa’s potential, but not a single one of these goals can be reached without access to electricity. Studies have shown a direct link between economic growth and the presence of power.
There is a myth that women cannot have it all in terms of balancing career and family. What do you think about this?
Anyone that tells you that success can be achieved without sacrifice in my view is naïve or lying. At the beginning a lot of sacrifice was made by my family my husband and myself to achieve this goal. As things progress you begin to find balance. One of the things I love most about working for myself is I am able to prioritize being a mother. Often I work from home so as to be around for my daughter. I never had a full time nanny and this was very hard it meant a lot of late nights catching up on work. But I would not trade it for anything because it allowed me to bond with my daughter. Now that she is a little older I’m able to take on more. It also helps to have a supportive partner. We both support each other’s careers. I often think as women we underestimate our strength until we are put in these situations.
Tell us about the Forbes Women Africa Best Emerging Entrepreneur 2015 award. How did you feel when you won that award?
It came as a complete shock and surprise to me; first the nomination and me actually winning. I have always looked to the people featured in Forbes for inspiration so it was a great honour to be amongst those honoured and achieving this at 31 made it. I hope it inspires other young women to reach for even higher and better.
Where do you see DLO Energy in the next 5 years?
Having a presence in at least three African countries, diversifying our technology base, empowering more Africans and putting African developers on the map.
What advice do you have for a woman who wants to tow your path?
Stay focused. Be prepared to sacrifice a lot and always be open to learning.
What do you do to relax after a busy week?
Spending time with my family, I also enjoy reading, watching TV and travelling.
The Leading Ladies Africa Series is a weekly interview series that focuses on women of African descent, showcases their experiences across all socio-economic sectors, highlights their personal and professional achievements and offers useful advice on how to make life more satisfying for women.
It is an off-shoot of Leading Ladies Africa, a non-profit that promotes women empowerment and gender inclusion for women of African descent. Do you know any woman of African descent doing phenomenal things? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and we just might feature her.