Riccardo Ridolfi
Interview with Tobias Bischof-Niemz, Head of the CSIR Energy Centre, and confirmed speaker at the upcoming African Utility Week in Cape Town.

Who were your role models during the pivotal stages of your life?
My parents instilled a strong value system in me that puts the common good first, a theme that sets the foundation of how I approach everyday situations. My PhD mentor taught me scientific rigour, and that the difference between theory and practice is far greater in practice than in theory – something I learned the hard way during my PhD. He introduced me to the scientific methodology as captured by Popper, which I use as my guide when I face a problem that needs solving. My managers at the Boston Consulting Group and at Eskom taught me that scientific rigour and a fast-paced business environment do not have to be contrary.

What are your top attributes of a successful leader?
1. A leader should have a guiding vision/story from which the long-term objectives are derived – begin with a clearly articulated end in mind.
2. A leader must be willing and able to listen to the people around them and process the external stimuli to understand and reflect on what is being communicated.
3. In some instances, a leader may need to adjust their vision and top story line should new evidence arrive, which means having mental flexibility – in contrast, having a dogmatic approach is not beneficial to the success of a team.
4. By demonstrating the above and acting within this boundary, a leader should act consistently and be predictable.

From a global perspective, who inspires you in the power sector?
The likes of Eddy O’Connor, Jigar Shah and Matthias Willenbacher, all three of whom are players in the renewable space and who come from different global environments, saw from a very early stage the global energy transition coming. They started implementing in the spirit of this energy transition, against all odds and against, at the time, a very difficult environment. In addition, I highly regard all global leaders in energy-system thinking and planning, because 1) energy systems are amongst the most complex systems that humankind has ever created, and 2) they have a very long lifetime.

It is these attributes of the energy system which require strong system thinkers and long-term planners, who can assess the effects of all different components making up the system and their interplay. This I find highly inspiring.

What leadership qualities are lacking in the African power sector and how can this be overcome?
Firstly, I feel that there is a lack of vision towards the desired end-state. To me the end-state is very clear and non-negotiable: Everybody on the continent must have access to electricity in a reasonable timeframe. People sometimes seem to be afraid of simply mentioning this vision – probably because of the enormous task at hand. But without articulating the desired end-state clearly and unambiguously, non-achievement can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Secondly, to achieve the desired endstate leaders should have the courage to leapfrog the current energy-system architecture, away from large centralbased power generation towards more distributed and renewable generation, closer to where the load is.

To overcome this, it first needs to be realised that we do not have to wait for technological breakthroughs in the energy sector to alter the energy-system architecture. Silently the technological breakthroughs have already happened and are still happening: the mass manufacturing of wind turbines and solar photovoltaic (PV) has led to a new provider of bulk, affordable energy. The variability of these two sources is not bad, it just requires flexibility in the mix. Flexibility there is plentiful both on the supply and the demand side; it just needs to be unlocked, which was not required historically.

What values do you demonstrate as a leader?
• I try to give clear direction and vision, which derives from logical thinking. We can only share a common vision if everybody understands why we are going in a certain direction.
• My team can operate very freely to achieve their own goals within set boundary conditions. This model can only work well if the common vision is shared amongst all team members.
• I believe that I have a strong valuesystem, which drives my behaviour.

What is your greatest weakness and your greatest strength?
My key strength is that within my team’s realm of content, I am an inspirational thought leader. I am able to paint the vision of the future and our role in achieving that goal, which I can attribute to the high morale of my team. If I analyse it quite logically I would say that small talk is not my forte and there is potential to improve my empathy level, both of which I am actively explicit about to my team. I ask people to be proactive and engage with me if there are concerns, as my weakness prohibits me from assessing these situations – my door is always open.

What is the one thing in your opinion that people commonly misconceive about your character?
In the professional context, I only speak out once I have fully understood and processed the issues at hand. Even complex topics become intuitively clear once they are fully understood. I often do not allow my counterpart, who might not have been exposed to the same complex problem before and therefore did not have the opportunity to think it through, the time to ‘get up to speed’. Because my responses are usually firm, people often perceive as me being arrogant, which can also be misconceived as a personal attack – this is not the case.

How do you motivate a team after experiencing a defeat at a time of low energy and enthusiasm?
If there is a defeat, of which there are many in this space, I apply my personal approach to a situation and lead by example. I reflect on the outcome in the spirit that you should not worry about the things that you cannot change – move on and strive for the vision.

In the short-medium term what do you foresee for Africa’s power future?
I foresee Africa leapfrogging the centralised way of power generation towards more distributed power system architecture, based on interconnected renewables-based island grids. Secondly, I see auction systems for performance based payment guarantees for large renewables projects, and standard-offer schemes for smaller projects.

Is there an increased need for sector crossover and are we seeing enough of this in Africa?
I do see a need for sector coupling, but first this sector coupling must happen within the energy sector. In energy, we have three large final-energy end-use sectors: electricity, transport and heat/ cold. For electricity the next steps are relatively straightforward; the transport and heat energy end-use sectors however are less clear in terms of how they will transition towards cleaner energy sources. Both water and food sectors require energy as an essential primary input. With abundant and inexpensive energy available, both sectors will have one less problem.

How important is bilateral trade between Africa and foreign countries?
I am not a trade expert but I would say that the manufacturing supply chain for energy technologies is similar to all other supply chains these days: a global one. Energy technologies will be produced in many different countries around the globe, and very likely every region will focus on its strengths and market opportunities.

What is important for Africa is for its countries to collaborate as many are simply too small to build and own sufficiently utilised manufacturing industries around each energy technology. An ‘Airbus Model’ for each of the energy technologies for the African continent is probably advisable.

Are there any achievements/challenges that your country of residence has experienced across the power value chain?
Africa continues to be open for business on attractive terms to investors. Although there are challenges around the political environment, regulatory regimes and general operating environment, these are negated by the delta in returns and significant investment needs.

This interview is exclusive to The African Power Elites: Projects and People 2017 publication, available for download on esiafrica.wpengine.com.