SAPVIA – A Ray of Sunshine

SAPVIA is a shining source of optimism for the solar energy sector.

The South African Photovoltaic Industry Association, or SAPVIA as it has become known, is a not-for-profit organisation run for the benefit of its 540 members. The Association services and advocates for the entire photovoltaic value chain from power-producing companies to individual technical professionals in the field.

“Our focus is three-fold,” explains Niveshen Govender, SAPVIA’s COO. “We focus on policy advocacy and lobbying with the intent to increase solar’s market share, handling the hurdles that face the industry, and finally creating a platform for member organisations promoting products and services.”

As the only industry association in South Africa purely focussed on the Solar PV sector, SAPVIA carries a great deal of responsibility and is faced with a number of challenges.

“There is ongoing debate regarding the benefits of solar PV and renewable energy,” Govender tells us. “South Africa’s political landscape is multifaceted with some leaders who are supportive of leveraging renewable energy, while others are not as supportive. This means that as an Association we are constantly having to advocate and profile the benefits of solar power.”

An Industry-Wide Effort

While it is a challenging position to be in, it is also an exciting one. Talking to Govender it is clear that we are at a real ground-floor moment for companies looking to enter the renewable energy sector.

“It’s still a relatively new sector, so we’re working on getting the right policy framework, the right regulations in place, and then in terms of the organisation itself we’re very under-resourced,” Govender says. “We have four full-time employees serving the whole 540-member organisation. More resources mean we can achieve more.”

Getting this right is not only the work of SAPVIA itself but all its members and stakeholders.

“Stakeholder engagement is extremely important to ensuring that the renewable energy and solar PV agenda is well known and easily understood by all social partners Government, Labour, Business and Community – that we engage with,” Govender insists. “There also needs to be a strong marketing and communications angle. We position ourselves as thought leaders, having conversations ahead of the curve, learning from international experience in the developed and the developing world, bringing those lessons to South Africa to create opportunities everyone can participate in.”

A big part of that process is ensuring you are drawing from correct and up to date data, which can be a challenge in an industry where many competing companies are keen to keep their cards close to their chests.

“We can carry out data collection to develop proper research. Market intelligence has always been a challenge for us, particularly with regard to intellectual property issues,” Govender says. “We’re continuously looking at different strategies for data collection and research. We collect data and make best-case assumptions to best represent the industry. We create incentives for data sharing and collect data in a way that protects the data’s owner to avoid intellectual property leakages.”

Despite the many challenges facing the sector, SAPVIA has been able to launch a number of key programmes to aid the industry. These include its “PV GreenCard Programme”, launched three years ago as an industry-led quality mechanism for small scale embedded generation installations. The programme is based on skills development, accreditation, standardisation and documentation. As Govender has pointed out, solar is a young industry, and at that point, it lacked the standards and policy necessary to benchmark and support the industry.

“It’s been very successful. The programme has trained 1,800 candidates, registered over 400 companies in this space, and established a highly acclaimed skills development programme in the industry,” Govender says proudly.

SAPVIA is also behind the PV Spotter programme, a market intelligence tool for consolidating data from solar PV projects across the country.

“We know where projects are installed, the differences between residential and industrial solar, and who is looking at solar PV. It is going to provide lots of market intelligence,” Govender says.

PV Spotter is accompanied by PV Professionals, a platform to share upscaling opportunities, training opportunities, and business opportunities within the sector. It is a register of professionals that offers a platform to engage with other like-minded professionals to discuss the hurdles the industry is facing and together develop solutions to future-proof the industry.

Finally, there is the Solar PV Marketplace, which will allow for industry figures to engage with each other for services, products, and offerings, creating cooperation across the sector the way SAPVIA intended.

Led By a Close-Knit Team

While these are industry-wide efforts, SAPVIA is primarily the work of a team of four dedicated staff, with a unique combination of skills and competencies.

“Working in an industry association is a specialised job that requires a good balance of skills,” points out Govender. “People need a balance of technical, policy and stakeholder management knowledge, as well as being administration focused. Finding the right candidate is sometimes difficult, but luckily enough I’ve been here five years and we’ve been able to retain staff.”

While the staff come into the organisation with a strong skill base, they are also given opportunities to upskill themselves in line with business requirements, identifying key areas to improve their skills.

“We support that and allow for exposure, encouraging association members to expose themselves to a variety of stakeholders at various levels to learn and grow within the industry,” Govender says.

It is an approach that is working. This year SAPVIA has just celebrated ten years of excellence. But while celebrating the organisation’s achievements, Govender is also looking to what more it can achieve in future.

“We’ve reflected on our achievements, and we’ve taken that into planning for the next ten years,” he says. “We’ve refreshed the brand, updating the association structure, including more information, more interactive relationships with stakeholders, and we have restructured internally to cater to discussions in all aspects of the industry. We’ve changed our focus from an internal member focus to one encompassing the industry as a whole.”

For Govender, the vision for South Africa is clear.

“The bulk of our energy mix is in renewable energy, and we have seen policy directives improve to include more renewable energy,” he says. “Now our future goal as an organisation is to create more opportunity for local participation, black participation, and more small business participation.”

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