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‘Symbion and many other companies from the United States are ready to invest in Africa.’

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Exclusive interview with Paul Hinks, CEO of Symbion Power, platinum sponsors at the upcoming African Utility Week.

Paul Hinks

Why the recent decision to acquire the stake in the South African company EJP Power?
We wanted a foothold in South Africa and we wanted to strengthen the management of our organization on the Africa continent.  EJ Power has good, experienced management who live in Africa.  We can’t manage day to day business with a whole day of time difference and between 9,000 and 13,000 kms of distance, depending which of our current operations you measure it against.

Is this a vote of confidence in South Africa’s economy and future?
It’s a vote of confidence in Africa.  South Africa’s economy is mature compared to many of the emerging economies in Africa but it’s a hub for African business so a good location to have people.  But we don’t consider South Africa as the only hub in Africa these days.  There are others in West Africa and East Africa where the economies are thriving.

You already have a good track record in Tanzania.  Can you tell us how your project is progressing there?  How important has your relationship with the government been?
Tanzania is the first country in Africa that we have worked in. Until then we were heavily focused on Iraq and Afghanistan so it has been a pleasure to return to Africa.  We now own 3 power plants in Tanzania generating 217 Megawatts and we have recently signed an agreement with the utility there, TANESCO, to jointly develop a 400MW power plant and a 650km transmission line in the south at Mtwara.  This plant will have the potential to provide natural gas fired power to neighboring countries such as Mozambique and Malawi and eventually it can feed the Southern African Power Pool. It’s an important Public Private Partnership due to the large gas deposits that have been discovered, in addition to the existing gas field at Mnazi Bay.

How excited are you about entering the Nigerian market?
Very excited. Nigeria is the most vibrant market in the energy sector in Africa and it’s so very, very different than the Nigeria we used to hear about decades ago.  I tell everyone who is skeptical to just go there and see what’s happening and not rely on old information, or the words of people who haven’t been in recent years.   We will soon open a new office in Lagos that will become the headquarters of our African independent power business.  South Africa will be the headquarters for our construction and engineering business but we intend to pursue IPP opportunities in South Africa too.

What is your vision for Symbion in Africa?
I’d like to see Symbion become one of the leading independent power companies on the continent who can also build our own infrastructure at economic costs.  I’d also like us to leverage our origin in the United States to bring other US interests into our developments such as the various government agencies that provide debt funding and credit support as well as other US and African private sector companies.  The name Symbion comes from the word Symbiotic, which means a relationship of mutual benefit between two or more entities.  That’s what we strive to achieve. We have many different partnerships in Africa and elsewhere.

What surprises you about this industry?
What most surprises me is that electricity, a commodity that people all over the world see as being essential for daily life and critical to growth, is so insufficient in Africa.  However, right now I see great efforts being made throughout the continent to change this although some places are still woefully behind the curve.

What has been the secret of Symbion’s success so far?
Symbiotic partnerships with local companies.  Not being greedy and trusting and sharing with our local partners.  Symbion’s men and women are committed and they are courageous.  They aren’t intimidated by adverse news reports about security issues and we make our own judgments about the risks we will take.  Eight years of Iraq and Afghanistan built a very strong team who look out for each other.

What will be your message at African Utility Week?
My message to everyone at African Utility Week is that Symbion and many other companies from the United States are ready to invest in Africa.  These firms are ethical, they have integrity and they need partners in both the public and private sectors.  The US government wants to support both the US and the African private sector as this is the route to development on the continent.  President Obama’s strategy for Sub Saharan Africa was set out in June 2012 and I am sure that everyone will soon see that he is committed to it.
Anything to add?
Yes,  as well as my duties as the Chief Executive Officer of Symbion Power I am also the Chairman of the Corporate Council on Africa which is the largest (not for profit) organization in the United States that promotes trade and investment between the United States and Africa.  Until this year it was exclusively American but now we have opened the doors to companies from Africa too.  I’d encourage private sector players who have interests in partnering with US companies to join the CCA www.africacncl.org  because this is where you can get the introductions and the information you need to build new relationships with some of the major players in the US.  I’d also encourage public utilities to attend our CCA US Africa Summit in Chicago in October this year.  Details on membership and the Summit can be found on the website.