FIFI PETERS: Our executive in the room today is one of the few women in South Africa’s energy sector managing a fund worth more than one billion rand that she hopes to invest in projects that can help keep the lights on in this country. She is no stranger to business and entrepreneurship coming, I believe, from one of the founding families of black excellence in this country. She is also a wife and mother and someone who manages to juggle all of the above. Her name is Makole Mupita, co-founder of Mahlako Financial Services. Ma’am, welcome to Market Update. It’s been a long time since we last spoke, how have you been in these times of Covid-19?
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MAKOLE MUPITA: Oh well, I have stayed safe, but I must say that these are very, very uncertain times. But yeah, I’m glad to be back, Fifi. I like your presentation, thank you.
FIFI PETERS: It took me a while, but I have a lot of respect for you and your work. In fact, I want to know a little more about you, because your maiden name is Maponya. The fact that you named Mahlako after your entrepreneurial mother speaks to the fact that business is in your family’s DNA. 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 was also Maponya. He had a Toyota garage in Limpopo Township. Actually, in rural Limpopo, and my mother ran that business.
We are from a family where we grew up watching women get their hands dirty, wake up every day, go to work and men work and, more than anything, make a difference in the community in which they lived. My Uncle Richard Maponya was 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 have kept it in your family, because I see that now you work with your sister, Meta. In fact, we should have invited her; it could have been a joint interview. However, that is something interesting. How would you describe your working relationship with your brother? For some people it is not so easy.
MAKOLE MUPITA: We always get that question, but you have to remember why we started our business. Our business is called Mahlako A Phahla Investment. Our mother died at the young age of 47, a sudden death, an asthma attack. We are both CPAs. I run an infrastructure fund for one of the great asset managers. We always said that when we started the business, we would do something to honor our mother for the role she played in our lives so that we are where we are.
Our mother died when she was 47 years old and our father also died at a young age. When we started the business, we had no parents. So my sister and I have each other at the end of the day. We have two other brothers. But when you fight and you don’t have parents, we always remember why we started the business, because it’s bigger than us. All we do is honor our mother, honor our parents. So that’s bigger. But I always try to remind Meta: ‘Don’t forget who is the oldest here’.
FIFI PETERS: So clearly you just told us who the boss is! [Laughing] I think I like her.
But tell us what you are doing right now, because you are trying to accomplish something great in our energy space. I know it’s not just limited 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 focused on South Africa. What we set out to do: We have been in the energy sector since the beginning of the entire renewable program. I mentioned that I used to run a fund, one of the big infrastructure funds, and that was opportunistic. We saw that energy is the sector that is going to make a difference in South Africa, and that is where we have seen a lot of infrastructure activity.
But what we realized before is that when you don’t have capital, and most black entrepreneurs don’t have capital, nobody takes you seriously. You are always at the end of the larger scheme of things; People read about you making deals, but you don’t have the money, you don’t get investments. That is why we started the Energy Fund and that is why we also raised this fund.
One of the things we wanted to do, rather than address the energy shortage in South Africa and do innovative things in the energy space as well, was to address the lack of capital because our fund is structured in such a way that it is 100% black and 100% female. ; it is 100% female owned and our gear is 100% black. That is one of the things we wanted to achieve.
But the fund is doing very interesting things. We try to be the first in most of the things we do. We did the first …… 5:48 we are working on green hydrogen. We are working on a project that will be one of the first pioneering green hydrogen projects in South Africa, if not one of the largest in the world, so we are proud of the work we are doing with the fund. and we can do it with capital.
FIFI PETERS: Can I challenge you a bit? In this, we are trying to rebuild better …… 6:10 and we are talking about sustainability. When it comes to the gender debate, it’s about equality, right? It’s not necessarily about 100%, but about balancing the scale a bit more. So how do you respond to those who think that we are 100 percent excluding men here, or men?
MAKOLE MUPITA: Well, we have men on our team. [chuckling]. In fact, we just hired two males and we have males. One of the directors and managers of the fund is actually a man.
FIFI PETERS: But even one hundred percent black, how do you respond to “what about the other races?” If we are trying to balance the scale among all of us here, how do you respond to those comments?
MAKOLE MUPITA: Balance assumes that we start on an equal footing. When you start out on a base like black people, you’re so short, short, short, short, even women. I just got back from a women’s conference in Paris. Women have less property, less representation. So we are trying to balance. That is exactly what we are trying to do. Mahlako’s headline is “Balancing Growth”: We are trying to grow and we are trying to balance things out as we speak. The scale is just skewed. We’re trying to bring it up a bit.
FIFI PETERS: Well. I understand your point.
MAKOLE MUPITA: We have this conversation with people where they say, ‘You’re 100% black,’ and I say yes, without shame, because who is going to give the black child a chance?
FIFI PETERS: I understand your point that the starting point was not the same for all of us, and you have to catch up a lot.
Let’s move on to your green hydrogen project in which I believe you are a partner, or you are associated with Amazon Web Services. Is that correct?
MAKOLE MUPITA: They are a customer. They are the ones who buy the electricity.
FIFI PETERS: Correct. As I tried to understand exactly what he was doing there, I wondered if he is Jeff Bezos’ empowerment partner.
MAKOLE MUPITA: [Laughing] Wish!
FIFI PETERS: But did you meet him as a customer? Have you met, even through Zoom?
MAKOLE MUPITA: No, although I had to approve some things. But no, I haven’t met him. It is a very large company, but they are a customer: they buy electricity from us and it is the first of its kind when someone buys electricity for the private sector in the Eskom infrastructure. More projects are coming; this is not the first.
FIFI PETERS: It is certainly something that we are seeing and seeing as a great achievement. Oh, we don’t have much time left, a minute and a half. There are some women in the energy space. We see the numbers being reported all the time, and maybe it’s some black people too, black businesses get a lot of these great deals.
As someone who used to work for larger businesses, signing or perhaps approving capital for these black, women-owned businesses, where is the shortfall? Is it a perception in which these companies are perceived as incapable of fulfilling the task, or perhaps these companies are also falling short in meeting the necessary requirements to facilitate financing decisions? What is it in your opinion?
MAKOLE MUPITA: I do not know. From a different perspective, in terms of business financing, this is where you can get financing; but the question is the terms. If something is not regulated, people usually don’t do it. If it’s good to have something, we won’t. You must look at the BEE and the story of …… 10:27 came from when people started opening businesses. It was a regulation. Unfortunately, in the fund management industry it is not regulated. It is a responsible thing.
FIFI PETERS: Last question. I was going to hold back, but I can’t. I am a free-spirited journalist. Ma’am, business not only comes from your family with your sister, but you are also a wife in a very powerful family run by business. She is the wife of the CEO of the largest telecommunications company in Africa, Ralph Mupita. Ma’am, two bulls in a kraal, how does it work?
MAKOLE MUPITA: [Laughing] Two bulls, maybe there’s only one, and maybe that’s me.
FIFI PETERS: You know what? I’m starting to believe you
MAKOLE MUPITA: I’ve been married since I was 26 and now I’m 44. Ralph and I grew up together, we’ve been together for a long time. We understand and support each other.
FIFI PETERS: And we know who’s boss. We leave it there. Makole, thank you very much for joining Market Update. A really inspiring story and really inspiring words. Makole Mupita is the co-founder of Mahlako Financial Services.