CFO Lethabo Manamela enjoys the freedom of thinking that comes with the research industry

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As the CFO of SANEDI, Lethabo Manamela is at the coalface of looking at what the country and its citizens need to address the increasing energy challenges in South Africa.

When Lethabo Manamela had to go to university, she was faced with the first big decision that would alter her life. Despite her love for fashion design, the industry didn’t provide much stability in South Africa at the time, so Lethabo had to go with her Plan B: becoming a chartered accountant.

Her choice was inspired by her father, who loved accounting. “As far back as I can remember, there was always a book about accounting lying around somewhere in the house,” she remembers. “I don’t think there’s a prouder dad out there.”

Like a Hallmark movie – which Lethabo binges religiously with her children over Christmas holidays – she’s beginning to think fashion design might have only been a fling. “As I progressed through my career as an accountant, I fell in love with what I was doing,” she explains.

But it wasn’t the money and turning profits that won her heart. “I needed to be part of something bigger, so after completing my articles at KPMG I went to the Auditor-General of South Africa, where the focus was largely aimed at building public confidence and ensuring accountability in the public sector,” Lethabo says.

The AGSA opened the doors to the public sector, where Lethabo realised she would be best-placed to make a difference. In 2014, she joined state-owned entity South African National Energy Development Institute (SANEDI) as its CFO.

“SANEDI isn’t a conventional company where we worry about the bottom line – we really focus on the impact our work is having, especially when it comes to policies and technology and ensuring the right ones are in place,” she explains. “Here, it’s all about trying to find solutions to the challenges within the energy sector, and achieving the goals that are in the national development plan, including ensuring energy security.”

Lethabo is excited to be part of shaping the energy landscape in South Africa. “Years from now, when everyone is driving hydrogen cars, I can say I was part of that research.” She explains that SANEDI supported the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) during the development of the Hydrogen Society Roadmap and the Hydrogen Valley for South Africa. “Most people don’t think about this, but coal is going to run out at some point. When that happens, we need to have a back-up plan. Introducing hydrogen as an alternative energy source will help with energy security in the long term.

“We are also starting to see the impact and feel the pains of climate change evidenced by some erratic weather patterns. We need to find solutions to reduce our carbon footprint, given that South Africa is among the top polluters given our mostly coal-fired power stations.”

Alternative energy sources will also help address the loadshedding challenge that’s been affecting everyone in South Africa. “SANEDI is represented at the NECOM [the National Energy Crisis Committee], and we’re working with different ministries to develop new projects around saving electricity and reducing demand,” Lethabo says.

“For example, we are working with the DBSA on an electric bus pilot project to deploy electric buses. This is one of the ways we can reduce our carbon footprint. We are also supporting the DMRE with the implementation of regulations around energy performance certificates in buildings, a project that has massive potential to reduce energy demand and have an impact on the national grid if the spirit of the regulations is embraced, which is to ultimately have buildings that are energy efficient, creating a culture of responsible energy use.”

SANEDI is also implementing the 12L incentive on behalf of SARS, which offers a tax deduction for taxpayers who implement qualifying energy-efficiency measures. “The private sector needs to take advantage of this opportunity, as it will not only help to improve the capacity of the grid, but also improve their operations and reduce costs,” Lethabo encourages.

“I believe we can all contribute in some way or another towards resolving the current energy crisis and we should all take every opportunity to do so.”

She adds that SANEDI is hosting the DSI Energy Secretariat. Among the flagship projects under the Energy Secretariat, this is a coal CO2 to X project which is aimed at providing solutions that will ultimately reduce the carbon footprint of South Africa. Under this project, CO2 is captured and transformed into products like ammonia salt, sodium bicarbonate, diesel and fertiliser.

“Because of projects like these, we can then identify coal power stations that don’t meet certain standards and are at risk of being shut down, and use this technology to reduce their carbon emissions and re-introduce extra megawatts back into the electricity grid.”

Lethabo says technologies like these can help us achieve carbon neutrality. “However, with research, things take time unfortunately, and it’s not always a guarantee that they will work the first time.”

Taking on challenges

Lethabo explains that there’s a lot of pressure that comes with working at SANEDI, which does research that benefits the entire country. “Energy touches everything, right down to the individual on the ground, and trying to please everyone with limited resources can be difficult sometimes.”

Funding for research is also a challenge. “We are always open to partnering with other like-minded partners who share our vision for the country.”

She is up for any challenge, though, and enjoys the freedom of thinking that comes with the research industry. “I like going out there looking for answers – understanding whether things can or can’t be done, and trying them when they haven’t been done before. If I were to be in a routine environment, I’d die a slow and painful death,” she says.

Surviving comes down to knowing what and how to prioritise the most important problems. “For example, the public sector is highly regulated and you have to stay on top of all those rules. If you don’t, it ends up in your audit report, affecting your audit and risk committees. There’s also an expectation from the broader public for greater accountability, especially from state-owned entities. We’ve been able to address both these demands by making sure we comply with all the relevant laws and regulations,” Lethabo explains.

SANEDI has consistently been unqualified as well as receiving clean audits for the past two years. “Funders don’t want to put their money where no one can account for it, they want to know that it’s going to the right places – especially given the sector’s history – so keeping our finances and everything clean and transparent is important to us. Getting a clean audit is hard work, but it’s our licence to operate,” she adds.

The finance team uses ERP systems to help it track and report on where money goes in the organisation. “In my life as an auditor, and especially in the public sector, I’ve seen what it looks like to operate without all the bells and whistles, and it can be quite painful. So, for me, technology is an enabler,” she says. “Because of these, we are able to produce reports in an hour and rapidly respond to the dynamic demands of the stakeholders.”

Bringing people along

Lethabo uses the impact the company has as a driver to motivate them when things are tough. “I am a very big believer in bringing people along and getting people to understand the bigger picture, because I’m like that as well. If you can help people understand what you’re trying to achieve and why you’re trying to do it they can take that vision, personalise it and drive it as their own. So I always start with the why, then everything else falls into place naturally,” she explains.

She used a similar tactic during the Covid-19 pandemic, when the CEO left on the first day of the lockdowns on 26 March 2020 and she had to take over as the interim CEO. “During that time, I would present the whole organisation the strategy and plans of the organisations as well as progress towards our annual targets. The result was a 97 percent achievement of all targets during those years, and two international awards.

“If I went to Parliament, I would also give the organisation that feedback, and if concerns were raised, I would present the strategy towards addressing those concerns,” Lethabo says.

She adds that:

“I see myself as the link between them and our stakeholders, so if they don’t understand how the stakeholders perceive us, then they don’t understand what and why they are doing it.”

Savouring the cheesy moments

When she’s not working, or doing research to support her work, Lethabo enjoys watching Netflix with her children. Their go-to is a good family animation, and Boss Baby is one of Lethabo’s personal favourites. “Over the Christmas holidays, we love watching Hallmark movies and rating them on a cheesy scale from 1–10, with 1 being cheddar, for example, and 10 being mozzarella,” she shares.

And although her passion for fashion has dwindled, Lethabo says she might go back to it when she retires one day – if she manages to keep up with the fashion trends.

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