LEGAL COUNSEL – POWER SECTOR | AFRICAN LEGAL SUPPORT FACILITY (AfDB)

WHAT DO YOU THINK MAKES YOUR TEAM SUCCESSFUL?

A shared objective. The kind of work we do, advising African governments, requires a certain passion for the continent, which is the golden thread that runs through our team. The core mandate of the African Legal Support Facility (ALSF) is to build sustainable legal capacity and ensure that African governments are well represented in the negotiation of complex transactions. We are a diverse and dynamic team where our singularity of purpose galvanises us around a common goal. The ALSF’s power sector portfolio makes up about a third of all our projects. Within this team, our success is derived from leveraging each other’s strengths to reinforce our individual weaknesses. What do I mean by this? We all have different strengths that complement another’s weakness. This gives us a unique balance that contributes to our success. It also gives the team a platform to learn from each other and grow into better power sector lawyers organically.

HOW DO YOU INCLUDE INNOVATION INTO YOUR STRATEGY?

Being a conduit for innovation is one of our main goals as a team. We have a strong sense of ownership of our tasks, which has resulted in innovative solutions to problem-solving and collective interest in supporting governments as they navigate novel and innovative technologies.

HOW WOULD YOU ADVISE OTHERS TO DO THE SAME?

It’s impossible to operate in the digital age without embracing innovation both within your team and with your clients. It requires open communication and fostering a sense of ownership. When teams feel empowered and part of the process it unlocks creativity and increased productivity.

WHAT ARE YOUR TEAM’S GREATEST BLIND SPOTS?

Underestimating the complexity of the work we are doing. Governments are intricate webs that operate within the realm of political, social and economic pressure. All these pressures impact various aspects of the power projects on which we advise and it’s important to understand the full context of the respective government’s position on an issue before rendering the best advice.

HOW WOULD YOU SHIFT THAT LEARNING TO ADVICE FOR OTHERS IN THIS INDUSTRY?

At every conference or gathering for energy experts, developers and financiers, there is a conversation about how difficult it is to get a project through to financial close. I think a lot of us have had this blind spot of underestimating the complexity of these projects and the various pressures and contexts within which they exist. Transparency and meaningful communication with governments and their advisors is a big step towards overcoming these blind spots.

HOW DO YOU SELECT WHO TO PARTNER WITH?

We look at a potential partner’s target market. For example, our work would be impossible without the buy-in of various utilities. In 2019, our starting point was partnering with the Utility CEO Forum in order to have meaningful dialogue with various CEOs. The forum, hosted by African Utility Week, was a great starting point for partnering with a utility on a project, especially state-owned utilities.

WHICH OF YOUR LEADERSHIP SKILLS WAS THE MOST DIFFICULT TO DEVELOP?

To be honest, I would say all my leadership skills are continuously being developed. It’s a lifelong journey. Each skill is put to the test, challenged and developed at different stages. However, if I were to pick out one that is particularly challenging, I would say self-awareness – understanding my strengths, weaknesses, gaps in my knowledge and above all, understanding what motivates me. I think the ability to introspect is extremely important, especially when it comes to leadership. Understanding myself better has helped me understand others. It’s helped me remain motivated and motivate others when needed. It’s a long journey to self-awareness and possibly one of the most underrated leadership skills. It impacts how we communicate, how we are perceived and ultimately how effectively we lead.

WHAT’S THE MOST IMPORTANT LESSON YOU’VE LEARNED IN YOUR CAREER?

Failure is part of the journey to success. I used to have an acute fear of failure, especially professional failure. I have changed my experience of ‘failure’ and view it more as a learning opportunity that will lead to success. I try to encourage others to do the same by focusing on the lessons learned rather than on what was not achieved.

WHAT’S THE BIGGEST RISK YOU’VE EVER TAKEN?

I packed my bags and moved to Beijing, China. “Ni hao” was the extent of my Mandarin at the time. This was almost a decade ago when the China-Africa narrative was still novel and I faced a lot of questions as to why I was making such a move. I definitely had moments when I second-guessed my decision and wondered what on earth I would do when I left China. I stayed in Beijing for three years; three years that shaped my career path in ways I could not have imagined. In fact, when asked how I became a power lawyer, the correct place to start the story would be how I took the risk of moving to China. As they say, high risk, high reward.

WHAT IS YOUR ‘SECRET SAUCE’ FOR FOCUSING ON THE GOAL AMONGST THE NOISE?

Compartmentalising. I try to keep each goal ring-fenced in a compartment. Even noise has its own compartment! Isolating separate tasks and issues allows me to focus my energy proportionally and objectively. It’s not always easy but when I have gotten it right, I have found it effective.

WHAT DO YOU BELIEVE IN THAT OTHERS DON’T?

This is a controversial one, and I know a lot of people in our sector are going to gasp when they read this… but I believe that access to electricity should be a basic human right – perhaps even free. It should be grouped with the rights to have access to primary healthcare and education. We cannot achieve access to education when reading after dark is still a privilege. We cannot reduce maternal mortality rates when one of the core challenges is women giving birth in the dark, despite being at a clinic. The longer it takes for us to fill Africa’s energy deficit, the broader the developmental gap will grow. Of course, there’s the nexus between access to electricity and economic growth and development, but I believe it goes a step further than that. I know the practicality of my belief is complex, but all great changes started as just that – an impractical belief!

WHAT TREND IN THE GLOBAL ENERGY SPACE DO YOU SEE BECOMING INTRINSIC TO THE OVERALL POWER NETWORK?

Battery storage allows for flexibility in power systems and the optimisation of variable power sources. There is increased reluctance from lenders to finance non-renewable projects such as coal. Utility-scale battery storage systems are going to be pivotal in facilitating the next stage of the energy transition in Africa to include a greater proportion of solar photovoltaic and wind into the energy mix. However, the cost thereof is still the biggest barrier as it will likely result in high tariffs.

WHAT INDUSTRY CHALLENGE KEEPS YOU AWAKE AT NIGHT?

Bankability – how to enhance the bankability of IPPs on our continent while still ensuring that risk allocation is equitable for both government and the developer.