Africa’s energy sector won’t progress if it refuses transformation – women in the sector

FILE PHOTO: Steam rises at sunrise from the  Lethabo Power Station, a coal-fired power station owned by state power utility Eskom near Sasolburg, South Africa, March 2, 2016. Picture: REUTERS / Siphiwe Sibeko

FILE PHOTO: Steam rises at sunrise from the Lethabo Power Station, a coal-fired power station owned by state power utility Eskom near Sasolburg, South Africa, March 2, 2016. Picture: REUTERS / Siphiwe Sibeko

African Utility Week and POWERGEN Africa are expected to attract more than 10,000 professionals from across the globe this year.

Women in the energy sector have said that while things were changing, there were still certain roles that women were expected to perform, a perception which could prevent Africa’s energy sector from progress and development.

According to Miriam Mannak, a freelance energy correspondent and event ambassador, Africa’s energy sector would not be able to develop, progress, and remain competitive and relevant if it refused to transform and move on from being predominantly male-based structure to a diverse status quo.

“Gender diversity is a no-brainer, particularly considering the large numbers of women graduating from university. What applies to companies, applies to entire sectors,” she said.

“I still have a good laugh every now and then when I enter a meeting and they assume I am either our CEO’s personal assistant or the ‘marketing lady’,” said Zelda Weitz, COO of Symbion Power LLC, an independent power producer on the continent, who has worked and traveled in 29 countries in Africa.

“I was once at a project meeting where the client asked me to take the notes because I was the only female present. He blushed afterwards when I gave him my business card. You develop a thick skin and maintain a good sense of humour.

“I am not scared to make coffee for my colleagues and most of the time at meetings you will find the females taking minutes or arranging the logistics alongside their real day jobs. Women really are good with attention to details and are very good at adapting in challenging environments,” she added.

She further added that at her company, women were given many opportunities to grow. “Our country manager in Madagascar is a female and we have a lady in our control room at the Mandroseza power plant in Tana. In Kenya our team is 50% female, to mention but a couple of examples. I remember the days of visiting our construction sites in remote locations and the guys were surprised that I visited those sites that the construction directors did not bother to visit. I do see more female engineers, technicians, and managers in the sector and at events nowadays,” she said.

Weitz is one of the delegates at this year’s African Utility Week and POWERGEN Africa conference and exhibition which will be held at the Cape Town International Convention Centre (CTICC) from May 14-16.

At the conference, women in the sector are celebrated and making a valuable contribution to the programme. This includes a “Women in Power Lunch”, hosted by the Canadian government and USA’s Power Africa initiative, focusing on “capturing the value of private sector investment in generation, transmission, or distribution” and how women are taking the lead in the power sector, the organisers said.

Penny Herbst, strategy director at Africa GreenCo and a 30-year veteran of the energy industry said that based on her experience at Eskom, women have been making a contribution in the utility environment across various disciplines for quite some time.

Herbst said: “And I think it has got to a point, especially from the utility’s point [of] view, that it is not so much of an issue anymore. I am not sure I can say as much for the private sector especially as it pertains to my across-discipline remark, but I stand to be corrected. However, from a visibility point of view it still seems to be a man’s world. I would like to qualify this statement in one respect, I see far more women being entrepreneurial in the energy space and starting businesses as opposed to there being a real visible change in the energy corporate / IPP space.”

The 19th edition of African Utility Week and POWERGEN Africa, the continent’s leading sector conference and exhibition, is expected to attract more than 10,000 energy and water professionals from across the globe this year.

– African News Agency

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