Suntech Power South Africa – Wholly South African Solar

South Africa is at the forefront of the solar energy sector, and Suntech is the deeply South African company that is leading the change.

Wuxi Suntech Power Co., Ltd (“Suntech”) was founded in 2001, becoming the most famous photovoltaic manufacturer in the world with a commitment to the research, development and production of crystalline silicon solar cells and modules, something it has worked at for 20 years. The company makes sales across more than 100 countries and regions around the world, with its cumulative historical shipments exceeding 25 GW.

Suntech Solar Power South Africa Pty Ltd (“Suntech Power South Africa”) is an incorporated joint venture between Suntech and a 100% South African black-owned special purpose vehicle. The joint-venture is fully compliant with South Africa’s Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment (BBBEE) legislation.

Suntech Power South Africa was formed in 2014 to satisfy the South African demand regarding renewable power while satisfying local content and local employment requirements. Despite being an offshoot of one of the world’s largest manufacturers of PV modules, South Africa is a core part of the company’s identity.

“We are an African business with South African ownership, co-owned by Chinese partners and we’re driving this business in the interests of South Africa,” says Muneeb Gambeno, CEO of Suntech Power South Africa. “We’re aware of the market and social challenges, unemployment and poverty, and our business philosophy is turning those challenges around by being responsible business neighbours. We are part-owned by Black South Africans, and disadvantaged South Africans, retaining value in the country and its people.

A Solar Success Story

And well it should as South Africa have proven to be a global success for the solar power industry.

“South Africa’s renewable energy program is one of the world’s success stories,” Gambeno tells us. “It kicked off in 2009, and if you look at the local industry, there are government-led programs that are more successful than many others around the globe, particularly in the developing world. China and the USA are on renewable energy journeys, but we were ground-breaking. Our procurement and the successful implementation of our projects have seen an uptick in the availability of renewable energy being supplied into our national grid.”

South Africa’s government has seen this success and is investing further to build on it, and Suntech Power intends to be at the forefront of that investment.

“The end of next month preferred bidders are being announced in round five of the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producers Programme. Our Minister of Energy has announced that we will see procurement being rolled out until 2030 to meet global obligations to decarbonise and create renewable energy-based power plants while reducing the reliance on coal,” Gambeno says.

These achievements do not come without challenges, particularly with Suntech Power South Africa’s commitment to localisation.

“The challenge now is localisation, particularly around our government’s requirements for greater local participation in as far as ownership is concerned and in terms of creating opportunities in the local value chain,” Gambeno points out. “In the photovoltaic space, we’ve got a definite lack of manufacturing capacity. We have imported solar PV modules with limited local content, and our government says we need a greater volume of manufacturing in-country, while China is offering high volumes of high quality, cheaper PV manufacturing and supply.”

While localising manufacturing is obviously ideal, Gambeno points to economic realities that mean South Africa can sometimes be best served through imports while using South African-made sub-components, at least for the time being.

“We ask if we want to compete with China, or whether it makes more sense to import modules and impute local content by leveraging the opportunities which are available in South Africa, such as the procurement of aluminium frames and other competitively priced sub-components,” Gambeno explains. “In Suntech Power South Africa we are alive to our obligation to support local job creation but at the same time supply modules which are of sufficient quality at a price which supports Independent Power Producers to supply cheap, clean energy to South Africans.”

One local resource Suntech Power has no trouble finding is talent. The company is led by people who grew up in impoverished communities of Cape Town, South Africa, and more than anything they want their work to create opportunities for more South Africans.

“We have a leadership team of four people. We all grew up in South Africa. Our attitude was we’d set up a business to truly give back to the next generation while extending an opportunity to people who found themselves in positions like ours,” Gambeno says. “We focus on recruiting previously disadvantaged South Africans, particularly women. Our agenda is to run our company in a profitable but socially responsible manner and empower people concomitant to the profit we make.”

For the immediate future that empowerment is going to look like building increased South African ownership within the company while growing its customer base.

“We want to bring our people out of the current employment crisis,” Gambeno explains. “Our unemployment rate is north of 40%. Most people do not get access to formal employment opportunities, that’s why we’re going out there and finding the right talent and bringing them into our company.”

The goal, for Gambeno and his leadership team, as well as Suntech Power South Africa as a whole, is not just to create a strong company.

“We not only want to be sustainable, but to be an example for others, showing what can be done when you approach business in an honest and collaborative manner,” Gambeno says.

It is clear from what Suntech Power has achieved so far, that the example it is setting is a good one.

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