Makole Mupita runs a fund in SA’s energy sector aiming to keep the lights on

‘We are working on one of the first green-hydrogen projects in South Africa – if not one of the big ones in the world’: Makole Mupita – fund principal, Mahlako Energy Fund.

FIFI PETERS: Our executive in the lounge today is one of a handful of women in South Africa’s energy sector who runs a fund worth over a R1 billion which hopes to invest in projects that can and help keep the lights on in this country. She’s no stranger to business and entrepreneurship coming from, I think, one of the founding families of black excellence in this country. She’s also a wife and a mother and someone who manages to juggle all of the above. Her name is Makole Mupita, the co-founder of Mahlako Financial Services. Ma’am, welcome to the Market Update. It has been a long time since we last spoke, how have you been keeping in these Covid-19 times?

MAKOLE MUPITA: Oh, well, I have been keeping safe, but I must say it’s really, really uncertain times. But yeah, I’m glad to be back, Fifi. I like your introduction – thank you.

FIFI PETERS: It took me a while, but I have much respect for you and for your work. I want to actually get to know a little bit more about you, because your maiden name is Maponya. The fact that you named Mahlako after your entrepreneurial mother does speak to the fact that business runs in the DNA of your family. But any relation to the late and great Richard Maponya?

MAKOLE MUPITA: Yes, we are related. He is our uncle Richard Maponya, and my father as well was a Maponya. He had a Toyota garage in the township in Limpopo. So actually in the rural area in Limpopo, and my mother ran that business.

So we are from a family where we grew up seeing women getting their hands dirty, waking up every day, going to work, and the men working and, more than anything, making a difference in the community that they lived in. My uncle Richard Maponya was very, very passionate about empowering the Soweto community. We grew up with parents who wanted to empower the community and wanted to make a difference.

FIFI PETERS: You’ve kept it in your family, because I see now you work with your sister, Meta. In fact, we should have actually invited her on; it could have been a joint interview. Nonetheless, that’s kind of interesting. How would you describe your working relationship with your sibling? For some people it’s not that easy.

MAKOLE MUPITA: We always get that question, but you must remember why we started our business. Our business is called Mahlako A Phahla Investment. Our mother died at an early age of 47 – a sudden death, an asthma attack. We are both chartered accountants. I run an infrastructure fund for one of the big asset managers. We always said when we started business, we would do something to honour our mother because of the role she played in our lives for us to be where we are.

Our mother died when she was 47, and our father died as well at an early age. By the time we started the business we had no parents. So my sister and I at the end of the day have each other. We’ve got two other siblings. But when you fight and you have no parents, we always remember why we started the business, because it’s bigger than ourselves. Everything we do is to honour our mother, to honour our parents. So that is bigger. But I always try to remind Meta: ‘Don’t forget who the older one is here’.

FIFI PETERS: So you’ve clearly just told us who’s the boss! [Laughing] I think I like her.

But talk to us about what you guys are doing right now, because you are trying to achieve something big in our energy space. I know it’s not limited only to South Africa, but I want to talk about South Africa specifically and what you guys have set out to do with the Energy Fund.

MAKOLE MUPITA: Our fund is South Africa-focused. What we set up to do – we’ve been in the energy sector since the beginning of the whole renewable programme. I mentioned I used to manage a fund, one of the big infrastructure funds, and that was opportunistic. We saw that energy is the sector that’s going to make a difference in South Africa, and that’s where we’ve seen a lot of infrastructure activity.

But what we realised earlier on is that when you don’t have capital – and most black entrepreneurs don’t have capital – no one takes you seriously. You always are at the back end in the bigger scheme of things; people read about you doing deals, but you don’t have the money, you don’t get investments. That’s why we started the Energy Fund and that’s why we raised this fund as well.

One of the things we wanted to do, more than addressing the energy shortage in South Africa and doing innovative things as well in the energy space, was to address the lack of capital because our fund is structured such that it’s 100% black and 100% women; it’s 100% women-owned, and our team is 100% a black team. That’s one of the things we wanted to achieve.

But the fund is doing very interesting things. We are trying to be the first in most things that we do. We did the first ……5:48 we’re doing work on green hydrogen. We are working on a project that’s going to be one of the first pioneering green-hydrogen projects in South Africa – if not one of the big ones in the world, so we are proud of the work that we’re doing with the fund, and we’re able to do it with capital.

FIFI PETERS: Can I challenge you a bit? In this, we’re trying to build back better……6:10 and we’re talking about sustainability. When it comes to the gender debate it’s about equality, isn’t it? It’s not necessarily about 100%, but about balancing the scale a little more. So how do you respond to those who think that by a hundred percent we are excluding males here, or men?

MAKOLE MUPITA: Well, we do have males in our team [chuckling]. We’ve actually just hired two males, and we have males. One of the fund’s principals and a director is actually a man.

FIFI PETERS: But even the hundred percent black – how do you respond to ‘what about the other races?’ If we’re trying to balance the scale between all of us here, how do you respond to such feedback?

MAKOLE MUPITA: Balancing assumes we are starting on an equal footing. When you’re starting on a footing as black people you are so low, low, low, low, even women. I just came back from a women’s conference in Paris. Women are lower on ownership, on representation. So we are trying to balance. That’s exactly what we’re trying to do. Mahlako’s headline is ‘Balancing Growth’ – we are trying to get growth and we’re trying to balance things as we speak. The scale is just skewed. We’re trying to bring it up a bit.

FIFI PETERS: Okay. I take your point.

MAKOLE MUPITA: We have this conversation with people where they say, ‘You’re 100% black’ – and I say yes, unashamedly so, because who’s going to give the black child a chance?

FIFI PETERS: I take your point that the starting point was not the same for us all, and there’s a lot of catching up that needs to take place.

On to your green hydrogen project in which I believe you are a partner – or are in partnership with Amazon Web Services. Is that correct?

MAKOLE MUPITA: They are a client. They’re the ones buying the electricity.

FIFI PETERS: Oh, right. As I was trying to understand exactly what you were doing there, I was wondering if you are Jeff Bezos’s empowerment partner.

MAKOLE MUPITA: [Laughing] I wish!

FIFI PETERS: But have you met him as a client? Have you met, even via Zoom?

MAKOLE MUPITA: No, although he had to approve some things. But no, I haven’t met him. It’s a very big company, but they’re a client – they’re buying electricity from us and it’s the first of its kind when someone is buying electricity for the private sector on Eskom infrastructure. More projects are coming; this is not the first.

FIFI PETERS: It’s certainly something that we are looking at and seeing as a big accomplishment. Ooh, we don’t have much time left – one-and-a-half minutes. There are a few women in the energy space. We see the numbers being reported all the time, and it’s also perhaps maybe a few black people, black businesses being given a lot of these big deals.

As someone who used to work for bigger business, in signing off or perhaps approving capital to these women-owned black businesses where’s the shortfall? Is it a perception thing in which these companies are perceived to be unable to meet the task, or is it perhaps these companies also falling short on meeting the requirements needed to make funding decisions easier? Which is it in your view?

MAKOLE MUPITA: I don’t know. From a different perspective, in terms of funding businesses, it’s there that you can get funding; but the question is the terms. If something is not regulated people don’t usually do it. If something is a nice-to-have, we won’t do it. You must look at the BEE and the history of ……10:27 came from when people started opening up businesses. It was a regulation. Unfortunately in the fund-management industry it’s not regulated. It’s a responsible thing to do.

FIFI PETERS: Last question. I was going to hold myself back, but I can’t. I’m a free-spirited journalist. Ma’am, business doesn’t only come from your family with your sister, but you are also a wife in a very powerful business-led household. You are the wife of the CEO of Africa’s largest telecoms company, Mr Ralph Mupita. Ma’am, two bulls in a kraal – how does that work?

MAKOLE MUPITA: [Laughing] Two bulls – maybe there’s only one, and maybe that’s me.

FIFI PETERS: You know what, I’m beginning to believe you.

MAKOLE MUPITA: I’ve been married since I was 26 years old, and I’m 44 years old now. Ralph and I grew up together, we’ve been together for a long time. We understand each other and each supports the other.

FIFI PETERS: And we know who’s boss. We’ll leave it there. Makole, thanks so much for joining the Market Update. A really inspiring story and really inspiring words there. Makole Mupita is the co-founder of Mahlako Financial Services.

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