How did five entrepreneurs in their twenties – none of them engineers – manage to break into the renewable energy sector? “We had the heart for it,” says Boipelo Moloabi (now 35), one of the five founders of the Pele Energy Group.
Moloabi believes the founders’ diverse educational backgrounds and experience in the corporate world – as a derivatives trader , economist, investment banker, marketer and development expert – have also been pivotal to their success in the past seven years.
Pele’s big break, in 2011, followed the announcement of the first 28 successful bidders in government’s Renewable Energy Independent Power Producers Procurement Programme.
But its story starts much earlier: three of the founders have known one another most of their lives. Obakeng Moloabi (33) is Boipelo’s uncle, and Obakeng and Thapelo Motlogeloa (30) are cousins.
Thapelo and another founder, Gqi Raoleka (33), studied together.
After graduating, the foursome took on corporate jobs but they would still meet regularly to discuss developments in their fields and their business ideas over a home-cooked dinner.
There was no shortage of ideas, Boipelo says, “but we quickly learnt that until you put in the time, it will stay an idea”.
In 2009, Boipelo, Obakeng and Thapelo saw a need for students to be better prepared for job interviews and starting careers in the corporate world. The idea of a youth regeneration programme was born and their first client was a family friend who asked them to organise a workshop for students from the universities of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg and Pretoria.
“That was our ticket to leave the corporate world to start Pele [“first” or “forward” in Setswana],” Boipelo says.
Leaving his corporate job as sales manager at SABMiller meant moving home to Thaba Nchu in the Free State, for six months. Some of the other founders also moved in with their parents, says Boipelo.
During this time, an engineer friend who was based in Italy shared developments on the renewable energy front with them, including South Africa’s plans to make use of independent power producers in future. Involvement with the community development aspect of a waste-to-energy project (generating energy from waste) in Asmara, Eritrea, soon followed. It was here that they were introduced to the fifth member of the team: development expert Fumani Mthembi (31).
“Within five minutes of meeting, we got on like a house on fire. More importantly, she had the scientific knowledge of what development entails,” says Boipelo.
To this day, considering the effect of a project on the community is part of Pele’s ethos.
A defining moment
The company’s focus had now shifted from youth empowerment to energy efficiency and energy generation. “We strongly felt there was a business case for both [efficiency and generation],” says Boipelo.
Eighteen months into their journey, Pele joined an incubation programme at business accelerator Aurik. The programme helped them to make the choice between a business focus on energy efficiency or generation.
Their decision to focus on energy generation (for example, solar and wind power) was largely based on market conditions at the time. The introduction of the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producers Procurement Programme, which would procure 3 724MW of electricity from independent power producers, created a significant opportunity.
With the benefit of hindsight, Boipelo says, he would have liked Pele to arrive at its focus on energy generation sooner. “For a long time, we had a tendency to focus on a number of opportunities that came our way. Being youthful, we were very gung ho.”
While Boipelo isn’t keen to lose the “gung ho” attitude, he says, they could have been more patient with themselves when they started out.
Two years after leaving their corporate jobs, the announcement finally came that Pele was one of the successful procurement programme bidders.
Boipelo vividly remembers them being on Gqi’s balcony when they heard the news. “The amount of shouting that we did … It was a defining moment for us.”
Not only were they among the first licensees in a new industry. They knew then that their bet had paid off.
Up to this point they had kept the business alive with their savings and with the help of their families. It was as much a victory for the founders as it was for their support network.
Boipelo admits that getting this far was “very overwhelming”.
But they had a lot going for them. Their collective corporate management experience and three of the founders’ knowledge of banking and investment banking proved to be a significant advantage.
Another advantage was the fact that the founders are “friends first”. “As much as we have a common vision in mind, we have very different perspectives on a lot of things. No one is shy to tell you that they don’t agree with you or that what you’re doing is not up to scratch,” says Boipelo.
While it has never been quite as tough as the two years before “getting over the line” thanks to their successful bid, Boipelo says business is quite simply “never done”.
What’s next on the founders’ priority list? “To become Africa’s premier utility, playing a leading role in the economic growth and development of all the communities we [affect] and beyond.”