WHEN the government followed through on its commitment to invest in renewable energy infrastructure in 2011, Jannie Retief found his ticket to come home.
The 63-year-old engineer, now the CEO of what will be Africa’s biggest wind farm, Cookhouse, in the Eastern Cape, is an industry veteran, who has worked in England, the US and Canada. His experience spans the construction of five wind farms, five solar photovoltaic plants, a wave energy plant and two landfill gas projects.
This also makes him one of very few South Africans with hands-on experience.
Wind and solar plants are being built with speed around the country. But the industry is still grappling with the technicalities of transporting a 55m-long wind turbine blade by road, or of building new roads which can support such large and heavy cargo. This is new and unfamiliar ground, particularly for local construction companies.
When Cookhouse begins to produce energy at the end of May, it will be Africa’s largest wind farm, with a generation capacity of 138,6MW. It is one of 28 projects commissioned during the first round of bids in the government’s renewable energy Independent Power Producer programme.
Retief returned to South Africa in 2011, representing Italian power firm NextEnergy Capital. It tendered for projects in the first and second rounds of the IPP, but after both attempts failed, NextEnergy divested from South Africa.
When African Infrastructure Investment Managers was successful in its first-round bid to build Cookhouse, it asked Retief to head the project.
His career began at Rembrandt, after he graduated as a mechanical engineer.
Soon afterwards, he was awarded a scholarship to pursue a master’s degree at Cranfield Institute of Technology in the UK.
The early years of his career were spent designing, building and commissioning factories, after which he spent time involved in company turnarounds and start-ups.
Much of that time was spent working for Paarl-based liquor group KWV. In 1984, KWV tasked him with establishing an office for KWV in England. He took his wife, and three young children with him.
By the time he returned four years later, Retief was on KWV’s board and found himself representing the wine industry in talks leading up to the formation of South Africa’s democracy.
During this time, he regularly met members of the African National Congress. He speaks with pride about being invited to a business luncheon with Nelson Mandela at the house of Pick n Pay founder Raymond Ackerman. His photograph with Mandela takes pride of place in his home.
But after 21 years at KWV, Retief knew it was time for a change. Tiger Brands asked him to establish an office in England, and after some persuasion, he agreed. It was 1997, and South African companies were exploring cross-border growth.
But a few years later, Tiger Brands closed the office after changes to South Africa’s tax policy were put into effect.
This put Retief in a difficult situation. His three young children had already been uprooted a number of times. Moving to England a few years before had been particularly tough. “This time, my kinds came first. I chose to stay in England for their sake. But that also meant that I did not have a job. It was a difficult time.”
But that decision sparked a radical and challenging career change which helped to bring him home years later.
An approach from a friend to help with the development of a power plant took Retief back into the engineering field for the first time in years.
“I was over 50 and about to embark on a drastic career change. It was a huge learning exercise and I had to develop knowledge quickly.”
It was a move that later led to the formation of Renewable Energy Holdings, which he co-founded in 2004.
The company listed on London’s AIM exchange, raised and borrowed funds and soon after, built its first wind farm.
After that first foray into renewable energy, Retief has not looked back.
The company went on to become an owner and operator of renewable energy plants, including wind, wave, landfill gas, solar and gasification technologies. His responsibilities have included strategy, due diligence and evaluation of projects.
He was also involved in the logistics, engineering, construction, commissioning, testing, operations and management of wind and solar farms. But the global financial crisis changed the scene dramatically for small-cap firms. It wiped out the value of his company’s share price.
The European recession also changed the scene.
When the company received an offer to buy all its assets, it agreed. Soon after, in 2010, NextEnergy asked Retief to build a solar plant, which again took him into uncharted territory. “What did I know about building a solar plant? But it’s not rocket science. I learnt on the job.”
He built two plants in the UK, and was involved in other projects in Italy, before South Africa beckoned. Renewable energy was no longer lucrative in Europe. Low tariffs were sending most firms to other parts of the world. And when South Africa launched the Independent Power Producer (IPP) programme, the country immediately piqued the interest of foreign firms.
NextEnergy asked Retief to be its South African representative, which finally gave him the opportunity to return. “I always knew I would come back. This, for me, was a golden opportunity.”
NextEnergy may not have lasted in South Africa. But Retief is here to stay. Two of his children also chose to return. The third, a doctor who married in England, is specialising. “We hope he’ll also come back,” Retief says.
Once Cookhouse is complete, African Infrastructure Investment Managers has other plans. It is finalising two wind farm projects in Kenya. One reached financial close a month ago.
Retief concedes that working in South Africa is different.
Local construction companies don’t have experience with the kind of excavations that need to be made, and foundations that need to be set. Yet they are required to do everything, with the exception of supplying and erecting turbines.
Cookhouse has Danes, Indians, Italians, Portuguese and New Zealanders on site.
Local young engineers and technicians work at a level lower. “But if you’ve built one wind farm, I believe you can build the next one on your own. We won’t have need for foreign experience in future. The youngsters on our site can run the show.”
South Africa’s vast demand for electricity has the potential to create new industries. This means sustainable new employment and it means the creation of supplier companies that are South African. The opportunities are endless.
“I made a big career change late in my life. It shows that it’s possible to change direction,” Retief says.