By Charndré Emma Kippie
Based in Mabopane, Pretoria, Tumi Mphahlele is the Chief Operations Officer behind the company known as I-G3N.
I-G3N (Pty) Ltd is a manufacturing start-up that assembles LiFePO4 batteries and is currently the “Premier” player (assembler) in the Lithium Ion storage market in South Africa. The company’s core market is on stationary storage in conjunction with Solar PV and focuses on superior products and on the incorporation of latest technologies to battery functionality. One of the key focus areas is on exporting to SADC region and the rest of Africa, as extraordinary opportunities exist on the rest of the continent, especially in the development of mini and micro-grids to impact development.
I-G3N is currently the only black empowered female-owned SME to successfully develop lithium-ion batteries specifically for the African continent, and has successfully raised R20 million from Edge Growth and the ASISA ESD initiative.
What got you into the field you’re currently in?
Some years ago I was trying to establish a renewable energy project development company and with a lot of uncertainties in the regulation for small projects at the time, and with my financial resources depleting fast, I returned to corporate. I was also hoping to return to the industry in a far better financial state and my objective was to set up a manufacturing operation in the same sector. When I decided to return to start a new business, I was advised by associates who were active in the space to consider a local Lithium-Ion battery assembly plant.
What excites you the most about your role at I-G3N?
The continuous learning and the need to constantly align to the fast-paced environment of I-G3N. Our sector is classified under new industries and attracts a lot of interest world-wide. With this comes growth and competition and identifying the areas where we are likely to succeed is very exciting.
How is I-G3N enhancing the South African economy?
I-G3N locally assembles Lithium-Ion batteries that are used as energy storage mostly in conjunction with renewable energy installations such as Solar PV and wind turbines. Batteries are largely used to store energy in these types of installations to harness the energy during high production (i.e. during sun-hours or when the wind blows) that is then used during periods of low or no production, for example at night in the case of solar PV. Batteries are also used as back-up power in many instances without solar PV, for example, and so irrespective of when grid power is lost, the batteries take over. I think the negative impact of load shedding on small and large businesses is well documented and so our batteries contribute directly toward maintaining productivity and in improving the chances that businesses that rely on energy security survive.
Our business specifically also contributes to the growth in skills in the sector. The battery technicians that we employ are trained on the job and they are all youth. We are working towards increasing the local content of our batteries so that only the components that cannot absolutely be sourced from South Africa are imported. Before the end of this financial year we would have increased the local content of our batteries to over 60%.
Do you think your field is diverse in terms of gender equality?
It is not diverse. There are very few women in the energy sector in general and when it gets to energy storage the gender representation gets even more concerning. Of the hand full of battery assemblers in South Africa, I doubt any is remotely close to 50% women representation in their work-force, especially on the technical side. The sector does not have a good pool of skill to choose from and this reflects also the state of our education in general.
What are your top tips for ensuring the success of women in your field?
Work with others – to start a business from scratch, especially a business such as this one, requires team effort. There is a lot that is required of businesses, whether big or small, and if you are starting out and cannot afford all the best skills in the world to close the gap, you will need co-founders to form a good and effective. This applies to business in general. In my sector, the top tip is to believe in your abilities and be prepared to adapt to the changing circumstances. Learn quickly from mistakes and keep the momentum.
What have been some major obstacles in your career, as a woman, and how did you overcome them?
I experienced the biggest obstacle in my career in the last two three years as an entrepreneur in renewable energy. Although we constantly hear of the focus on growing spend on women-led businesses, the lived experience amongst many of my peers in business is that this does not always translate to tangible opportunities that are afforded to the rest of the organisation. We can only overcome this through talking to decision-makers, taking every opportunity to highlight that market access is the biggest mechanism to grow women-led businesses.
What are your goals for the future?
To build a world class organisation that will last generations – the kind that learns and adapts. One of the biggest obstacles to economic growth in the continent is access to information, but this requires energy. In essence, accessible, renewable energy is what will drive development and the organisation that I would like to help build is looking at playing a significant role in enabling development in the continent through increased access to energy.
What important/life-changing books have you read?
Not so much life-changing, but I think this book is the earliest I remember that highlighted to me the fact that success is actually a sum of the many decisions and the many experiences that people choose to or do not choose to take. Living History by Hillary Rodham Clinton was a gift from a friend of mine around 2011. Over the years I got to ready many books that re-enforced this for me – most recently Betting on a Darkie by Mteto Nyati and Boardroom Dancing by Nolitha Fakude. The stark similarity is that real success is deliberate and can be traced to successive steps over time, including set-back and how these were effectively handled.
What advice do you have for young women entrepreneurs who aspire to work in your field?
- Be prepared to work hard and make the sacrifices in order to build credibility.
- Create opportunities to forge partnerships that are effective and valuable – it is very difficult to convince anyone to work with your company if you are not able to bring anything valuable to the table.
Do you have a special message for all women across South Africa?
I think access to information – the fact that we have information on our fingertips – should be viewed largely as one of the mechanisms to level the playing fields. If one door closes, you do not get as stranded as many years ago. You may not have the most effective networks, but through educating yourself and putting yourself out there, you can reach people even further away that may not be judging you on nothing else other than your knowledge and work ethic. This, for me, is powerful.
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