Exclusive interview: Gadi Taj Ndahumba

HEAD OF POWER SECTOR | AFRICAN LEGAL SUPPORT FACILITY (ALSF)

Gadi Taj is the Head of Power Sector at the African Legal Support Facility (ALSF), an organisation developed and hosted by the African Development Bank. He is responsible for the transactional support to numerous African governments and utilities for the development, procurement and financing of over 30 power sector infrastructure projects across the continent. Lawyer and Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA®), Gadi is leading a team of legal professionals advising on projects ranging from small-scale innovative technologies to largescale conventional projects in the hope of tackling the African energy deficit.

WHO HAS INSPIRED YOU THE MOST IN LIFE?

I’ve met many inspiring people at different points in my life but I do vividly remember a university professor who made me understand, by the way she taught, that knowledge is fundamentally a personal journey that no one else can take for you. It redefined the way I was studying and, later, my approach in continuing to educate myself as a professional.

WHAT’S THE BEST BOOK YOU’VE READ THIS YEAR AND WHAT WAS YOUR KEY TAKEAWAY?

Without a doubt, Hyperion by Dan Simmons. Although it was written more than 30 years ago, it grapples with the complex ethical questions of artificial intelligence and the relationship of humans with their environment. It’s really interesting to see how much foresight the author had into what is now live and unfolding ethical debates about the place and dangers of artificial intelligence in our societies and our ability to limit the detrimental environmental impact of our ways of life. It was by far one of the most transporting books I have ever read. I highly recommend it.

I feel it’s important to push the boundaries of your imagination if you want to be able to bring new solutions to old problems. In recent years, I have mostly been reading books that are useful to my work, and Hyperion was the first sci-fi book I had read in a long time. It reminded me why it is critical to keep expanding your mind and that science fiction is a great getaway while often touching on many topics that are highly relevant to my line of work.

WHEN MEETING OTHER LEADERS WHAT DO YOU ASK THEM?

I think that most leaders, like athletes, do not completely understand why they are good at what they do. Every successful professional or leader develops a narrative about their success but it is often misleading (not intentionally) because hindsight is imperfect. Thus, I don’t typically ask questions about their work in specific terms; rather I speak to them about their passion (not necessarily work) and try to use that window to peek into their minds.

WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST LEADERSHIP EXPERIENCE AND WHAT LESSON LEARNED DO YOU CONTINUE TO PRACTICE TODAY?

I actually consider my current position to be the first real leadership experience of my career because it is the first time that I really have to take into account the development and career goals of other professionals. What quickly became clear to me is that it is important to avoid assuming that everyone is driven by the same interests as you. It becomes even more key in a working environment such as the ALSF where you have colleagues from all over the continent and overseas with very different cultural backgrounds. I’ve learned to put a lot of emphasis on communicating the expectations as clearly as possible and try to give as much room as possible for my team members to express their interests and concerns.

IS A LEADER BORN OR MADE?

That’s a really difficult question. I’ve read several studies stating that certain attributes like being tall for example will increase your chances of becoming a leader. In that sense, there is a part of it which comes from your natural predispositions, skills or features but I am sure that none of them is critical. Especially since I also think that you need different types of leaders for different circumstances.

A great CEO in a fast-growing industry, for example, will not necessarily be perceived as a good leader for a company going through difficult times. We often focus on the leaders but there is a lot to be said about who chooses the leader and why.

WHAT DO YOU THINK MAKES A SUCCESSFUL LEADER?

Empathy is an important vector of leadership success regardless of the context. It allows you to understand your colleagues and what drives them. Once you know what motivates the members of your team, it becomes more intuitive to empower them and guide them towards the collective success of your organisation. I would say that empathy is a skill that can be learned.

WHAT INDUSTRIES OUTSIDE OF THE POWER AND ENERGY SECTOR ARE YOU LOOKING AT FOR INSPIRATION?

I find the cryptocurrency space and blockchain technology to be quite interesting at the moment with very similar dynamics to the ones we are seeing emerging in the African energy sector. There are many parallels to draw. A national currency is a deeply centralised monetary system with a few actors and significant government control; cryptocurrency is challenging this model by bringing decentralised and tokenised subsystems, which not only allow several different tokens to coexist in the same space but also to serve different and sometimes very specific functions while still being interchangeable.

Ultimately the energy transition will see a similar gradual decentralisation of the national grids into more flexible and resilient energy subsystems. With the rise of offgrid, mini-grid and energy storage solutions, the diversification of the energy mix, the new bridges between the transport and energy industry, and the bi-directionality of green hydrogen, C2G and V2G, the energy transition is offering many exciting ways to completely redesign our industry with fewer boundaries making way for optimised and bidirectional systems.

Additionally, cryptocurrencies are often praised for their anonymity but their technology makes the transaction history of each token an extremely reliable feature for any chosen activity. In our sector, this could address the growing demand from consumers to know whether the electricity they consume is green. I think that to be able to fully grasp the potential of the new technologies, we will need as much vision and creativity as we currently see in the cryptocurrency space.

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

Moving from Montreal to Abidjan. I started my career at one of the top law firms in Canada and had a welldefined path to partnership. Staying there would have most likely been a great career but I’ve always wanted to find an opportunity to work on the African continent. When it came around, it was for a junior role on a six-month contract and with a significant pay cut.

I have been almost five years at the ALSF and I have been able to progress from a junior position to the Head of the Power Sector, with so many interesting and challenging projects during this time. Without a doubt, I don’t regret taking this leap of faith.

IF YOU COULD WISH AWAY A CHALLENGE TO YOUR BUSINESS OR THE INDUSTRY, WHAT WOULD IT BE?

I hope for a greater focus on smallscale innovative projects. The African energy sector is currently structured to favour a significant allocation of the available financial and human resources towards conventional large-scale projects. With the number of years it takes to develop and finance one large-scale project, the continent cannot hope to erase the energy deficit without a acceleration of smaller projects.

Large projects will remain relevant and vital, especially for the manufacturing sectors of African economies, but alongside them smaller projects can rapidly increase access, track more closely the growth in consumer demand, increase the portion of local financing in the sector and establish a track record of creditworthiness for public and private off-takers.

WHAT TOOLS AND TECHNIQUES DO YOU USE TO KEEP A TEAM MOTIVATED?

I suspect that each type of team demands different motivation techniques but I believe it is mostly about finding ways to empower each member and supporting their drive to push their expertise in a particular sector. When you are working with a team composed of already driven professionals, and you allow them to develop their interests in a way that parallels the objectives of the organisation, it allows you to unlock a sweet spot where interest and professional pursuits align.

HOW DO YOU DEAL WITH UNCERTAINTY AS A LEADER IN A TIME WHERE LEADERSHIP IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN EVER?

 I’ve always been comfortable with a certain level of uncertainty but I think we can all agree that 2020 brought it to another level.

WHAT ROLE DO YOU SEE YOUR TEAM PLAYING IN THE ECONOMIC RECOVERY OF THE 2020 GLOBAL PANDEMIC?

The pandemic has significantly slowed down the project pipeline across the continent. With an already dire energy deficit before the crisis, it will likely have long-lasting consequences on the efforts of African governments to bridge the gap. Going forward, the ALSF will have to focus on supporting governments and utilities in finding innovative ways to more efficiently procure electricity generation. We currently support several tenders across the continent and although they have been impacted by the COVID-19 crisis, none of them has failed so far and we are optimistic that they will close in this year. Hence, it will be critical in 2021 that our team continues to support the current projects while launching new projects and probably without travelling for the greater part of the year.

HOW IMPORTANT IS SCENARIO PLANNING WHEN IMPLEMENTING ANNUAL STRATEGIES?

You can and should always set objectives and attempt to anticipate some of the likely scenarios that may occur, but I find that scenario planning is mostly useful for specific situations like a meeting or a fundraising effort. I would not use this approach for an annual strategy because there are so many variables. The COVID-19 crisis is the best example. I doubt that anyone included this scenario in their 2020 annual planning. We certainly did not. I find it is more useful to work on your team’s ability to adapt to unanticipated situations than to try to illustrate all the potential scenarios.

WHEN WE TALK ABOUT DIGITALISATION, THE COMPLEXITIES AND INTRICACIES, WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS AND FEELINGS AROUND THIS AND HOW IT WILL CHANGE THE SHAPE OF THE POWER AND ENERGY SECTOR AFRICA?

I find that digitalisation is often portrayed as an end, especially in Africa. The reality is that digitalisation is a broad phenomenon which has been happening for some time in all aspects of our societies. Digitalisation is more a feature of our time than a driver of the African energy transition. That being said, many new sector trends will probably be impossible to operationalise without digitalisation.

The rising complexity of the interplay between the various components of an energy system will require constant analysis of the data to be able to seize the benefits of innovation and deeply optimise the system. Digitalisation is the stepping-stone toward a greener and more resilient energy industry.

WHAT DO YOU WANT YOUR LEGACY TO BE?

I really hope that I am still too young to think about legacy…

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