This year at Africa Energy Forum 2021, I caught up with a key figure of ABSA, the South African Bank: Shirley Webber, the Head of Natural Resources.
We discussed a range of topics amongst which:
• Current trends across Africa in the resource and energy sector and how local and international governments can ensure inclusive growth.
• Africa’s role in the international gas market.
• Africa’s energy transition and how to ensure this is a ‘just’ transition to renewables.
Listen to the interview HERE
TT: Welcome everybody. We are here at aef 2021 – Africa Energy Forum. It is the first time in 16-24 months and it just feels good to be in the same room. I am sure many people are enjoying it and not just me. I have the privilege here to be with Shirley Webber from ABSA. I am going to give her the choice to tell you who she is the way she would like to do it. Thank you for accepting to talk to us at Renewables in Africa first of all. I am sure our audience would love to hear what you have to say. Would you mind introducing yourself?
SW: Thank you Tony. My name is Shirley Webber. I look after the resources and energy space for the bank (ABSA). Africa is very important for us as a continent and the fact that we are present in many countries and as well as dealing with many non-present countries in Africa, one of the aims from our side is really to make sure that we assist countries through the energy transition as well. From the financial services point of view, we definitely do cross spectrum banking. That includes, investment banking, corporate banking.
TT: Okay, we just finished COP 26. There was an agreement. The Glasgow Climate Pact which was mixed with views. I just wanted to know how you find the whole atmosphere around COP 26? Is it different from what we’ve had in the past from your personal opinion?
SW: I definitely think that COP 26 this year versus many other typical forums was different. This is because of the way that companies, communities, companies and governments are looking at the energy transition. I also think COVID accelerated the entire process because people could actually sit back and think about the impact of all of our actions. It was definitely a more different and positive view that we got but also a more conscious view that it cannot just all happen all over a night. It is seen as a process.
TT: Okay. That’s quite interesting. Just coming back on COVID, we are not yet post-pandemic but definitely at least we are having a better understanding of the situation. So, how was it for the bank?
SW: From a COVID point of view and the impact on Africa, especially with the role out of the vaccine that didn’t happen as planned in many of the African countries, we had to make sure that we cut the outbreak of the pandemic a little bit more. So, shut-downs happened a little bit more. That had quite a big influence on the economies. The growth of aspects was definitely hindered. When you look at the commodities sector, everyone thought that commodity prices would remain low but in all of that, it actually kept its own and especially the battery minerals and metals that are of much importance for energy transition. For Africa, I think it is going to be an exciting time because we do sit where a lot of those commodities are to be used for that.
TT: You mentioned the commodities, thank you for bringing that up because I was actually interested to understand a little bit more from you since you are the head of resources. What are the current trends in the continent in terms of natural resources in the energy sector?
SW: Definitely the big thing is moving away from just having fossil fuel as the energy source but also making sure that the combination of gas, a greener type of energy source and making sure that renewable energy has more attention. That includes the wind, solar and hydro though we all know that water is also becoming a problem in some countries. I believe that if you look at large corporations in Africa, things like hydrogen and natural gas are getting attention in Africa. It is going to take a combination of many of these that I have mentioned to get to its targets from an economic point of view. It can never just be one because we can never forget about the inclusive growth impact on communities and on governments. For example, the various sectors that are linked to all of these resources.
TT: And talking about inclusive growth, it is so important, isn’t it? You don’t want to have an economy that works for some people and not for others. What do you think that the local and international governments should do to make sure that we are having inclusive growth?
SW: I think for inclusive growth, it is important to start from the ground first. With everyone wanting to build projects, it doesn’t matter if we are talking about renewable projects or energy projects, battery mineral projects, we think it is very important that all stakeholders actually work together. That includes the communities and making sure that the stakeholders and shareholders work together to make sure that the value chain that follows the actual project and that there is more involvement from the community so that we remove poverty and those other aspects that pull countries down. We all have a responsibility to look after the environment as well. That’s why for me, collaboration is important to ensure the environment and communities are not left behind. This yields a very positive outcome if we are just very responsible in the way that we do business and that includes the financial industry as well. We should make sure that when we look at projects, they are financed when all of these aspects that I have mentioned are looked at and that conscious decisions are made.
TT: I attended COP 26, especially the second week. I spent a couple of days with your compatriots from the delegation of South Africa. They were quite bullish about the attitude of the country towards COP 26 which is a good thing since South Africa is one of the biggest economies in the continent. Talking about COP 26, we all know that there was a little bit of controversy towards the end. May I ask you, according to you, what should be the position because I know it is a difficult conversation but we should have this conversation. If we are saying that we are making the transition, what is your view regarding the treatment of coal. What is that we need to do given the social and environmental aspect because we know that there are some people depending on coal?
SW: South Africa has always been a country for power generation and coal was the most important commodity. I do think overtime as well, as we have seen, our South African government has been very advanced in the way that they are starting to roll out the renewable programs and as you know we are ground five and we have just been awarded. Clearly there is a process to start building all those plants and I think not choose a phase down or a phase out. Ultimately all will have to be done in phases on our side. I do think that many of the African countries are in a similar position although they might not have their renewable programs so advanced but they have for example more natural gas and they will use that as the next phase of the energy source. The reality is that South Africa is very reliant on coal at this time and renewables are being built and with time, we will see a phase down as other energy sources are built.
TT: I wanted to understand, according to you, what is the role that Africa should play for international gas?
SW: I think the continent is very rich in a lot of commodities and one of them being gas as well. We can talk about Nigeria, Ghana, Mauritania, Mozambique and Senegal where there are a lot of gas reserves sitting. I think we can play an enormous role to get gas as the transition energy source. We have seen various governments being involved in those projects but one thing for Africa to be successful in using gas as a transition energy source is that political stability has to be very important. Clarity of things like fiscal policies, monetary policies etcetera, all of those are going to be of great importance. Unless we have that, then the international investors might have issues investing in Africa. It is about bringing a balance back to our Africa countries and investment will follow.
TT: Thank you for that. I just have one more question for you. Just as you said there is going to be a transition. We need to have a transition. The transition needs to be just. According to you, what does that mean according to you because it could just be a slogan?
SW: Just using that slogan is not good enough. I believe that various countries and companies should put proper plans out there that are public and we have seen transparency for example on the decarbonization happening and so even if many countries are still relying on older energy sources, they still are supposed to have clear plans on what they are doing to get to the transition phase even if it means over a number of years. One thing that I liked about COP 26 is that there are now feedback sessions that will have to take place on whatever was put on the table from a deliverable point of view. The various countries will have to come back and say how they did over the last year or two. For me that is good because it brings commitment to the process. Just transition might be slogan evidence must be there to back it up.
TT: My last question and I am sure this one is dear to your heart because I am sitting before a very successful professional. How do we make sure there are more women like you in the sector and what are you personally doing to make sure it actually happens?
SW: I think for every female out there, it is important to bring out aspects of your knowledge, being assertive and making sure that we are able to understand what is out there in the market. Ultimately, gender and equality is very important for everyone and it can be seen in a very similar way making sure that if you know what you are doing you should be recognized for it. Hopefully that Is happening as we speak. I do not believe that there is ignorance towards that. I think it is just being aware of individuals in the company that can fulfill the same role.
TT: Shirley, it was a pleasure to be interviewing you this afternoon and I wish you a good end of the Africa Energy Forum session. Thank you for that.
SW: Thank you Tony.