On the frontlines of SA's energy transition

Newly promoted within Siemens Energy, Henley alumnus, Monish Gala, is at the forefront of driving innovative and sustainable solutions in the African Energy Sector.

In 2001, as Monish Gala was starting his engineering degree at the Bharati Vidyapeeth College of Engineering in India’s bustling Mumbai, the same city where he had been born and grown up in, he probably didn’t spend much time thinking about the connections between his land of birth and distant South Africa.

He may have been aware, however, that the two countries’ sometimes chequered ties go back to colonial times, when indentured Indian labourers were first sent to South Africa. Today the countries share other noteworthy overlaps in their respective energy sectors as well. India, for instance, is the largest market for South African coal. Both countries have also over the past years lived under the dark cloud of rolling power blackouts.

What Gala didn’t probably know, however, was that his chosen field of instrumentation engineering would soon put him front and centre of South Africa’s energy sector. Instrumentation engineering being dedicated to the measurement and control of variables such as pressure, temperature and flow in a system – including systems such as coal-fired power stations.

Soon after finishing his studies in 2005, Gala joined a Mumbai-based engineering contracting company that provided services to German engineering giant Siemens. The German multinational has a deep footprint in South Africa’s energy sector. Famously, it had in 1897 built South Africa’s first electric power plant, the Brakpan Coal-Fired Power Plant near Johannesburg, then a small village in the throes of a gold-fuelled growth spurt.

A century on, and Siemens was, among other things, providing control and instrumentation (C&I) services to South African coal-fired power stations under the banner of spin-off company Siemens Energy. Which is how Gala came to move to South Africa in August 2006, appointed to lead C&I upgrades and modernisation projects on behalf of Siemens Energy the ageing Komati power station, then being rebooted. (It was finally put out to pasture in 2022.)

Back then, there was little public interest in the now-beleaguered Eskom, recalls Gala. “There wasn’t the same awareness of how energy is produced and consumed in South Africa as there is today,” he says. “It was very much as long as I have electricity, I am happy.”

Today, of course, most South Africans have had to become well versed in the ins and outs of electricity, everything from which inverter is the best to invest in and how smart grids can check household consumption to how can government solve the energy crisis.

Gala’s career has likewise shape-shifted from a focus on hardware to a specialisation in software and systems. As digitalisation champion at Siemens Energy from 2018 – he had joined the company the year before – he would oversee the growing adoption of digital tools in the distribution and consumption of electricity.

As he was transitioning out of the technical side of the business, Gala also decided it was time to brush up on his skills, signing up first for a short course on digital transformation at Gibs and following that up with a Postgraduate Diploma in Management Practice at Henley Business School Africa, “as a warm up for an MBA”.

He would finish the course cum laude the following year, but it wasn’t always a straightforward exercise. The restrictions imposed by COVID-19 meant that the in-class engagement among students, and between students and faculty, was diminished. “Because what you don’t share is your body language, your energy levels, your passion for a particular topic – those things do get eliminated,” he says. “And I always have a preference for in-person engagement.”

It was also a testing period as presenters were also adapting to offering a new course in a-then-still-novel online environment. “It was a learning experience for all of us, and we were all unsure about what the dos and the don’ts were of online teaching and learning,” he says. “But I had a good bunch of classmates, and it was good for me to hear from my South African classmates the similarities between how things are done in Asia and how things are done in Africa, and to be constantly amazed by that.”

Adaptation is also a theme in Gala’s new role with Siemens Energy, as business development lead guiding the company’s three African sub-regional business developers. “Just as the sector had to adapt to changes in consumer patterns during the pandemic, so too it must adapt to newer technologies and new imperatives – like the demand for cleaner sources of energy,” says Gala.

That’s not always easy for a sector that doesn’t take kindly to sudden changes, he adds. Power stations are designed to run for decades, and don’t bend easily to short-term shifts. But pressures brought on by loadshedding have forced the hand of those overseeing the sector.

“There’s always been talks of modernising our infrastructure and bringing in new sources of energy generation, getting the mix right,” says Gala. “But the tone of the conversation is changing.”

This is an exciting time to be on the frontlines of the energy transformation; something that will play a foundational role in the country’s economy, and Gala is ready for the challenge.

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