MBHE Group – Empowering Africa

MBHE Group, a holistic energy service company, aims to increase South Africa’s renewable potential.

What started out as a boiler company has now come a long way. Today, MBHE Group Pty Ltd is closely involved in the development of renewable energy projects in southern and central Africa, including solar photovoltaic and biomass energy and most recently waste to energy.

“The business was founded in 1996 primarily as a boiler design and manufacturing company for steam generation in the sugar and paper industries. Over the years, the company has built a solid reputation through the successful implementation of several projects including converting the 120MW Van Eck power station in Namibia to fire torrefied wood, a renewable fuel source as well as various commercial and industrial scale solar PV plants and, most recently, a utility scale 20MW solar PV plant connected to the national grid.

In 2008, MBHE Group received an order from the Central Energy Fund for an 8.4 megawatt (MW) biomass power plant, a turning point in the history of the company. This paved the way for MBHE to change its focus from process steam only and to enter the renewable energy market with diversified technologies.

The business has significantly grown under the management of Karl Siegel, the company Managing Director and Werner van Wyk, the Financial Director, who saw the potential of expanding into the fast-growing renewables sector. Karl came to work for his family company just over ten years ago with no experience in steam generation but that has not hindered him in developing the business to new heights.

He says: “The company mainly focused on biomass up until 2015 when new projects and technologies started to be introduced, one of which is solar PV and is probably our most popular business line today. We have also ventured into biogas, waste to energy and industrial effluent treatment. Given our engineering background, we were able to get some big projects off the ground very quickly.”

Today, MBHE Group consists of the original boiler design company, MBHE African Power which focuses on the development of renewable energy projects, MBHE O&M which is dedicated to operations and maintenance of renewable energy assets, and last but not least MBHE Environmental, the newest addition, which is preparing to build a waste to energy facility, the first of its kind in South Africa.

New horizons

“We are a very diversified company in expansion mode, working in Mozambique, Zambia and Namibia. Over and above this, we are negotiating projects in Malawi and Uganda. Expansion into Africa and into the utility scale projects is our longer term goal,” says Mr Siegel.

“MBHE is a holistic energy company, which means that we do everything from the initial project development through to design and engineering, EPC and operation and maintenance. We also try to retain some ownership in the projects to secure income for the business going forward.”

He points out that the company finds itself in an exciting phase right now, with its products and services in high demand in Africa’s developing energy sector. “There is so much to be done on the African continent, with its resources and its people, a continent living in poverty because of a limit on industry due to energy constraints. We feel that by promoting sustainable energy solutions we can stimulate industry to improves the lives of its people.”

Compared to other players in the sector, the company capitalises on the vast engineering experience it has acquired given its initial background, and the ability to think outside the box, coming up with more bespoke and focused solutions.

‘We make sure that this knowledge is transferred to the younger generation by hiring the best university graduates and having these young engineers working alongside the experienced older colleagues, helps to sustain the high level of competence within the organisation,” says Mr Siegel.

He points out that in addition to its core staff, the company always makes sure to employ people from local communities where the projects are taking place. “We train and upskill new employees, some stay only for the duration of the construction period but some will also be skilled in the operation and maintenance of the facilities we complete.”

“Giving back is important to the company and to me personally. My children sometimes ask me why I do what I do, and the reason is simple – to put food on people’s tables and school shoes on their children’s feet. That is what is needed in Africa and to participate in uplifting the people who live here is most rewarding.”

No time to waste

Over the years, MBHE has accomplished a long list of projects in the renewables arena, and the business is set to expand exponentially given the recent changes in the country – in June 2021, the South African government changed policy to allow private sector companies and investors to build their own power plants with up to 100 megawatts of generating capacity without requiring a license, in a bid to address the nation’s failing electricity supply.

The move to raise the limit from 1 megawatt to 100MW is part of a wider strategy to ease energy shortages that have hobbled Africa’s most industrialized economy since 2005. This change means that demand for larger projects will increase and in turn will secure the company automatic growth and expansion, says Mr Siegel.

“The longer term future, however, is in waste to energy,” he reflects. “South Africa is in a position where most of its municipal waste is discarded in landfills, which has its limits. By processing waste and turning it into energy, waste to landfill can be reduce by up to 90%. This is the way most of the cities in South Africa should go, and we will be part of this development.”

Exciting as this development is, the pace of growth brings its own challenges, specifically in Africa with unstable political situations in different countries where project risk profiles change swiftly and unpredictably, affecting availability of funds.

However, Mr Siegel remains optimistic. “My biggest challenge at the moment is getting enough guys on the ground to do the job. With the pace the orders are coming in, it is quite a task to manage the construction and completion of projects, but we are successfully delivering on time and keeping our customers happy.”

Looking ahead, he clearly sees rapidly emerging new opportunities: “Over a 12-18 month timeframe, we are set to double or even triple the revenues. We will also have achieved a larger expansion into Africa. And as I said earlier, in the longer-term future it is the waste to energy sector that shows the biggest potential for us.”

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