S1E5: Empowering Renewable Energy Women Leaders from the Field to the Boardroom

June 27, 2024

IFC chats with Chanda Kapande Nxumalo, Co-Founder and Managing Director of Harmattan Renewables, a South African renewable energy company that is a leading provider of technical, commercial and environmental advisory services. The Renewable Energy sector in Africa is poised for rapid growth in the next 10 to 15 years. Chanda encourages women to raise their hands for opportunities, do hard things, and gain visibility.


Terry Ann Chebet: Hello and welcome to She Powers Africa, the IFC podcast celebrating the inspiring stories of Africa's leading women in renewable energy. I'm your host, Terry Ann Chebet. This podcast is fueled by IFCs Energy2Equal program and the Women in Renewable Energy in Africa network, both dedicated to amplifying women's roles in the renewable energy sector. 

With Africa's imperative to more than double its energy investment by 2030, this podcast sheds light on the transformative power of renewable energy featuring women driving Africa's energy transition. 

Our guest today is Chanda Kapande Nxumalo, an engineer and managing director of Harmattan Renewables. Chanda sits on an influential board such as Egzaro in South Africa and the South African Renewable Energy Council. In this episode, she shares her mission to empower the next generation of renewable energy leaders and her efforts through Harmattan Renewables and Areti, a non-profit driving diversity through skills development. 

Chanda, it's such a pleasure to have you on the podcast today, and I'm looking forward to a wonderful conversation with you.

Terry Ann Chebet: Chanda, tell us, Africa is on the brink of a significant energy transition while expanding energy access. Could you elaborate on what the investment opportunities in renewable energy currently are?

Chanda Kapande Nxumalo: For the continent to basically invest - and they're looking at a continental master plan that connects the entire continent in terms of grid - we're looking at an investment of about US$1.3 trillion over the next 10 to 15 years. That is to basically allow 60,000 megawatts of renewables to come onto the grid every year, which is what we need to essentially meet the SDG 7 goals and electrify the continent and also to just basically support GDP growth in countries.  

Given all of that money that's going be floating around the economy, and also infrastructure investment that's going on, there's huge numbers of opportunities, I think, for people in general, but for women in particular. [The opportunities] span from jobs and working for other companies - be you an environmentalist, a lawyer, an accountant, a financial modeler, an engineer - all of those skills are needed to basically drive this transition that we're working towards. But there's also ownership and investment in projects, in businesses, services that are needed, and SMEs that can be built, projects that need to be developed. There's a whole wide range of areas that women can get involved in, [in] the renewable space.  I think [it will be] very exciting over the next the next year to 10 years. 

Terry Ann Chebet: Chanda, to fuel this ambitious goal - 60,000 megawatts over the next 10 to 15 years - what type of training and upscaling would you say are essential for delivering on these projects, especially for women who are within the same space that you are in?

Chanda Kapande Nxumalo: I think that the training and upscaling, it's a really interesting question because at the minute particularly in South Africa, there's a lot of need for skills in the sector, but a lot of people kind of just moving around or being promoted within the sector and not bringing new skills into renewables. 

Renewables is an area that's relatively new and I think can be learned quickly.  People that have already exposure to other infrastructure - civil engineers that have worked in water for example or have worked in large infrastructure projects, it's relatively easy for you to kind of move across.  

I think in terms of skills, what we need to get people trained on is an understanding of the renewable energy technologies, how they work, how they operate, and then once you have that its relatively easy to kind of slot into the value chain of developing, building, and financing renewables. I think over the next few years we're going to see a lot more requirement for training, for short courses, for degrees on the continent, that focus purely on renewable energy.

Terry Ann Chebet: Let's talk about Harmattan Renewables. First introduce us to Harmattan and perhaps as you tell us a little bit more about that, you can tell us about some of the initiatives that you're taking, personally and as an organization, to attract women to the sector.

Chanda Kapande Nxumalo:  Harmattan, originally, I registered the company in 2013 because I decided that I didn't want work for someone anymore, but I had to keep working for someone for a little while. Our proper and official launch was in March of 2020, which was a little bit of bad timing given COVID, but also good timing for reasons that I'll go into. Myself and my co-founder, Adam Terry set up the business and I think important in these conversations that we were - its women owned and led businesses - that a lot of the time you need those supporting male roles as I tell him that he is. We set up the business in March of 2020, and a big part of why we set up the business, we were working for an international consultancy business previously, and seeing essentially skills being shipped into the continent to deliver projects, which, for us, made zero sense because you have plenty of very skilled people already on the continent and so the vision behind the business, which is a technical and environmental advisory company. We provide consultancy services for renewable energy projects, so that’s solar, wind, battery storage projects. 

The vision was really; let us create a vehicle where renewable energy projects are done and supported and managed by people on and from the continent so they can deliver projects on the continent. A big part of our mantra is that we bring in people - and you asked about the skills development previously - bring in people that have had no exposure to renewables previously or wouldn't otherwise get the opportunity to be in the renewable energy sector.  We have a lot of graduates, and we have an internship program, and a graduate engineering program that we run, and I shouldn't just say engineering because we have the environmentalists and project managers as well, but that we bring in every year and basically put people through training and mentorship and they have managers that have experience in the space.

I think our social responsibility is to bring as many people into the sector as we can. Ideally, they stay with Harmattan for a long time, but also if they go off and do amazing things elsewhere and other companies, then we're also happy to have kind of contributed to that. In terms of creating a pipeline of women in the space, I think what we recognize is that we are a relatively small company.  We are 30 people, and we can do a little bit with grads and interns, but it's never going to reach the thousands of people that need to be trained and upskilled and have exposure to the space.  We, as a company, then also set up Areti, which is a not-for-profit organization. Areti means the pursuit of excellence - but basically promoting skills and diversity in the renewable space.  How do we give people exposure? How do we give them networking opportunities? How do we basically support, brown people and women. 

Terry Ann Chebet: And of course, part of drawing the numbers of the pipeline of women in renewables includes having board members that are women. Perhaps you can tell us board diversity remains a challenge in renewable energy from what we can see across the continent. What was your journey in joining boards?

Chanda Kapande Nxumalo: My husband reminded me the other day that I said to him when I met him that I wanted to sit on boards, and we are married 10 years this year. It's been a long slow journey.  I think the thing with boards is that they want you to have experience, but how do you get experience if you don't have experience?  It's kind of a gate-keeping method - just a bit of a crazy situation.  What I did was essentially volunteer for boards and sit on them to have it on my CV for either a not-for-profit organization who just needs the support - I sat on the board of the South African PV association, which is also a voluntary position for a couple of years, just to get that exposure to how the boards operate, how do they think, and be able to put that on your CV. 

People underestimate the power of telling people what you are doing. I say this specifically for women because what I realized being on a board and then seeing how they recruit for board members and how they find new board members is that the headhunters and the recruiters basically do LinkedIn searches.   We all have this idea that they're doing these fancy algorithms and all these things – but they type in “non-executive director,” in the search and if yours doesn't say that, then you don't come to the top of the list, and you may be doing me amazing stuff as an executive. 

You may be doing amazing projects, but nobody knows about that unless you tell them about it and I think a big part of my conscious effort once I got on the boards was to talk about it and to say that this is what I'm doing, these are the projects that I'm busy with, and these are my thoughts on things. I think that really is something that women in general could be better at - promoting the amazing things that they're doing. You all are doing amazing stuff - you just are doing it and hoping that someone is going to see it, but unfortunately the reality is they won't see it unless you tell them.

Terry Ann Chebet: We need women to get out and begin to tell their stories. Chanda, tell me from an organization and policy perspective, how can more women be attracted to and be retained in roles, whether technical, mid-level, senior management within the space?

Chanda Kapande Nxumalo: I don't think it's a lack of people being attracted to this space. I think what happens and especially as you get to that mid-career level, you may want to have kids, you may want to do other things that aren't work. I think the difficulty with something like the renewable energy industry, and I think infrastructure in general, is it's very up and down kind of work and sometimes it's super intense - it’s long nights, it's a lot of travel, it's going to remote sites, it's things that in general people assume that women don't want to do. I think firstly demystifying that. There are people that don't want to do that, and there are people that do want to do that, whether they be women or not, but I think companies having some level of flexibility [is important].  

When I had my first son, I was totally foolish because you don't know when you have a baby - I was like, it's fine. I'm going to move to Senegal when he's eight weeks old and I'll be working on site and traveling to site and doing all these things.  I think what you realize is you need the flexibility of someone and my boss at the time, she already had two kids and she had just had number three at the same time.  She understood the flexibility that you needed.  I would be going in the back of the car with the guy with Lai, who was the community guy driving, and he still to this day says, “I remember that you are going [sound of pump, pump, pump] which was my breast pump sitting in the back of the car.” I'd left my son at home with a nanny, and I think the flexibility for women to be able to.  If we are delivering when and how we do, that shouldn't really matter to you.  

I work early and then I get the kids to school, and then I work, and then in the early afternoon and evening I'm with them again, and then I work again late at night. I think having that flexibility, which I think COVID really helped [because it gave] the ability to work from home when you need to, and the flexibility to allow people to deliver on their own terms. I think [this] is really important for us to retain women progress in their lives so that it fits in. 

I think the other thing to say, which I think people say and maybe some people don't - I don't think we can have it all.  I know that's a controversial view, but I think you have to pick, something that you're going to excel at and give your all to and something that you may not be doing a hundred percent of the time.  I think we're very lucky across the continent to have access to support and help and people that can come and look after our kids and our house. Don't feel guilty about doing that and taking advantage of that [opportunity]. 

It doesn't make you less of a good mother or person. You make choices and I think, I remember Lisa, who's this lady that I was working with when I was in Senegal saying, “I love my job, I love my career, I want to focus on that. I see my kids and I have quality time with my kids, but I'm not a stay-at-home mom, and I don't want to feel guilty about that.” I think we all just need to know that something has to go down on the priority list a little bit. It doesn't mean you love your kids less; it doesn't mean you're a bad mother, it just means that you reshuffle your priorities and that's okay.

Terry Ann Chebet: I love that and that's okay. Chanda, as we come to the end of our podcast today, any parting words of wisdom to our listeners, to women in the space? Perhaps women thinking of getting into the renewable energy space?

Chanda Kapande Nxumalo: The sector is really your oyster because it's new. There are not a lot of people that have experience and expertise in it.  You can come in and own something.  Take the time to be good at something. I think what I see particularly with a lot of the new graduates and they young people is that they have this super accelerated growth plan, and I want exponential growth, and I want all these things.  I think take the time to understand to build up your knowledge and your expertise and be good at something and put yourself out there. I think in a similar way to what I said about the LinkedIn post, just raise your hand for opportunities. 

I was talking to someone at this conference over the past few days and she was saying. “I always ask, the worst they can say is no, and then you're back in the situation where you were as if you wouldn't have asked.” Just ask. Put yourself out there for opportunities. 

Do hard things because it's easy to follow a set career path, but if you can look back on your CV and say well actually, I went to this really remote place and I had this experience doing this, I think it's a much easier sell for you as a person and in a job than it is if you just follow a generic career path.  

Find someone to sponsor you and deliberately, I'm not saying mentor because I think we are as women over-mentored and over-trained into things but find someone who's walked a similar path to what you want to do and just talk to them, take them out for coffee, ask them. People are normally willing to talk about themselves and probably most importantly, what that person is doing for you do for someone behind you. Throw that rope back and bring as many people along the journey as you can.

Terry Ann Chebet: Just a quick wrap with what these powerful words that you have ended the podcast with. Raise your hands for opportunities. Do hard things. Throw that rope back. I think that's absolutely amazing. Thank you so much, Chanda for joining us on this insightful episode of She Powers Africa. 

We hope you have gained valuable perspectives on the remarkable journey of Chanda Kapande Nxumalo and her impactful contributions to the renewable energy sector. As we navigate that dynamic landscape of Africa's energy transition, let the stories inspire and propel you forward. Remember, the path to a sustainable and inclusive future is paved by the passion and dedication of individuals like Chanda, who continue to break barriers and shape the renewable energy narrative. 

Stay tuned for more empowering conversations with extraordinary women in the renewable energy space. If you enjoyed this episode, you'll enjoy our previous episodes of She Powers Africa. Do listen and remember to share. Together let's amplify the voices of women driving change in Africa's energy landscape. Until next time, I'm Terry Ann Chebet, your host on She Powers Africa, signing off. Keep shining and powering the future.