The winds of change

2011-12-10 13:20

During the decade he spent in politics, Jacob Mabena did not blow with the wind, but served the Mpumalanga legislature with distinction under three different premiers.

Since retiring from politics in 2005, Mabena has ventured into the green economy. Renewable energy is now his passion, and manufacturing wind turbines is his business.

He is co-owner of the only fourth-generation wind turbine manufacturing company in Africa and one of three companies in the world that use such advanced technology. The other two are in Germany.

Fourth-generation wind turbines are so technologically advanced that they are able to crank up their own generators. The earlier models draw power from the grid to start up.

The company – Adventure Power in Centurion, near Pretoria – is co-owned by Venture Global and Palm Tree Power. The latter is a subsidiary of Okhela Renewable Energy Corporation, which was founded by chief executive Mabena and Emery Glenn, the corporation’s operations director.

Okhela is a holding company of subsidiaries that specialise across the spectrum of renewables – wind, hydro, solar, wave, biomass, bio-fuels and waste energy.

Says Mabena: “When I quit politics I tried many things. Having been an MEC for economic development, I was exposed to economic sectors and my background helped me to adapt to this environment.”

He met Glenn – an American entrepreneur involved in various projects designed to help African entrepreneurs to acquire sustainable energy work skills – in 2006. The timing was right, says Mabena.

The pair set about building Okhela from scratch.

“Of course, we’re entrepreneurs and want to make money. But this is also our ministry,” says Mabena with the light of the true believer in his eyes. “We want to contribute to saving planet Earth from the effects of global warming.”

Okhela sells its wind turbines to private sector companies, industries and the government. It recently won a tender with giant diamond miner De Beers (Namaqualand) to provide enough turbines to produce 180MW of electricity.

Adventure Power employs 60 people, some of whom are youngsters given on-the-job training to make and assemble parts for wind turbines that cost R5 million each.

Glenn explains: “These are high school graduates. They perform jobs that would normally be reserved for highly-skilled technical personnel in countries like the US.

“We have women on our empowerment programme who carry out technical tasks which are classified as ‘new green employment opportunities’. They are the first women in Africa to hold such positions.”

Although Okhela has made his mark in the wind turbine business, it is constantly innovating. Currently, it is looking into manufacturing bio-diesel from non-food plants which can be used as a substitute for paraffin. It is also exploring technology which uses ocean waves to propel generators in order to produce electricity.

One of Mabena’s goals is to set up offices throughout Africa, and Okhela is already building relations in Nigeria, Swaziland, Mozambique and Uganda. But definitely not the “colonial way”, he says. “We won’t move into a country to suck it dry and pull out. That’s colonialism.

We will enter into joint ventures in accordance with the laws of the countries we target to do business with.”

The fact that Africa has made no significant inroads into the business of renewable energy, leaves Mabena with a lump in his throat and prompts him to start talking like the politician he once was.

“It’s scandalous that Germany is a leader in solar energy meanwhile our equatorial countries are doing nothing,” he says. “We have got the wind and the sun. It’s high time that Africa takes its place.”

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