Nokwanda Mngeni, 53, sits in her spacious office at Eskom Uganda Ltd (EUL) in Bugolobi typing away at her laptop.
Her soft-spoken welcome and simple elegance made me feel instantly at ease the day I met her for an interview. Mngeni, a South African accountant, arrived in Uganda twelve and a half years ago with many dreams. She hoped to carry employees up the corporate ladder; to succeed both at risk management and technically.
To a greater extent, she has achieved much more than these, and it is easy to see why. She is a tough negotiator, insistent and knows which buttons to press. Indeed, when I ask her how she wants to be remembered, the mother of four replies assertively:
“This is best answered by my legacy. I come across as harsh, a slave driver and difficult. Harsh because I never accept mediocrity. Slave driver because I am a slave myself. There is so much work to be done and no time for idleness. Difficult because I always push people to be their best and some see this as irritating.”
But for her foresight and flexibility to adjust and adapt to the ever-changing market and technology, Mngeni has been named as one of the 60 most influential people in East and West Africa’s power industry by ESI Africa, Africa’s portal for power and utility executives.
Mngeni, who has been Eskom Uganda’s managing director for eight years, is signing out on July 31 to return to Eskom South Africa, the parent company. However, it’s not yet clear what her new role will be.
For the eight years she has led EUL, a private company mandated to operate and maintain Nalubaale and Kiira hydroelectric power stations, she has decisively positioned the company for its future growth. In 2013, she introduced the talents management programme, which specialises in training, identifying and promoting capable employees in different leadership positions.
“When I see talent, I want it to blossom and this is why this programme was introduced. After the training, we then identify who we can raise through the ranks and when there’s a management vacancy, he or she is taken up,” she tells The Observer.
Despite the programme’s prospective outlook, Mngeni says it has not worked out well because of distractions that hinder people from scaling greater heights. She uses an analogy of a person concentrating on small dogs biting at his or her heel, which makes one run around in circles rather than running straight ahead.
Owing to the power industry’s competitiveness, it relies on attracting and retaining a diverse pool of young blood, capable of bringing new perspectives to the table. To this end, EUL has since 2003 trained 83 S6 leavers, diploma holders and fresh graduates to work in the industry. Of these, more than 10 have been employed in the organisation.
“Despite this success, I believe that a much stronger female influence is still needed at the top table. My experience is that ladies tend to be more committed, resilient and less involved in politics,” Mngeni, shares.
If there is any streak she is leaving on Uganda’s power industry, it is the Electricity Generators and Distributors of Uganda (EGADOU). EGADOU, to be launched this year, is mandated with closing the information gap and promoting best practices among workers in the industry.
While being a high achiever, Mngeni is one of those people who combine modesty and humility, which she is most proud of. Connie Nankya, who has worked with her for two years now, commends her in every regard.
“She is principled, very hardworking and into capacity building. She is also God-fearing, patient, resilient and enduring,” Nankya says.
RESILIENCE VS CHALLENGES
Mngeni's resilience has been tested several times. Once in 2012, she was detained by Uganda’s parliamentary police after the ad-hoc committee on energy accused her of failing to provide it with answers. She told The Observer that dealing with tough situations like these required utmost patience.
Her resilience was also tested in 2008 when, for the first time in life, she was made managing director. To her, this meant talking to and reassuring many people that she was up to the task.
“Being an accountant by profession, there was a lot of skepticism about whether I could handle an engineering industry. I have had to win the confidence of stakeholders and employees. Had it not been for this position, I would never have known my capabilities as a leader,” she confidently assures me.
Even with difficult events in life, Mngeni has learned to embrace those challenges and learn from them. One mistake she witnesses leaders make more frequently than others is them failing to count the cost of leadership. For this mishap on her side, she has had to pay with her health.
She has hyperthyroidism, a condition in which one’s thyroid gland produces too much of the thyroxine hormone, causing sudden weight loss, irregular heart beat and nervousness. She also suffers an acute heart condition, one of the factors that led her to start playing golf.
Of the many memories she will carry with her from Uganda, four are permanently etched in her mind. These are: always have self-preservation about people (do not trash people easily), family and culture are important, slow down, life isn’t a race and there is always a new spiritual dimension.
“Everything about me is fast, including my golf-swing. I am the type of person who wants to do 100 things at once and very fast. But working in Uganda, I have learnt that life is not that fast and I have to slow down and smell the roses,” she smilingly says.
When it comes to spirituality, appropriating the Bible has been her greatest gain. In fact, at one point during our interview, she drew me into several scripture expositions that pointed to her passion for spiritual things. Mngeni currently serves as a board member of Mto Moyoni, a retreat centre for people seeking spiritual and emotional refreshment.
A native of South Africa’s East London province, Mngeni is the fourth born child of Mercy Nosipho and Belton Bonsile’s eight children (the first three have since died). She holds a bachelor of commerce degree from Fort Hare University, a bachelor of accounting science honours from the University of South Africa, an executive diploma in strategic management from the City University of New York and an advanced auditing certificate.
Mngeni is a member of the Uganda, Jinja and Entebbe golf clubs. When relaxing from work, she loves to travel and dance. She is an active member of the cheza dance classes that happen daily at Forest mall in Lugogo.
“I love the creativity of the dance, it’s fun and fitness. I am definitely taking cheza with me to South Africa for others to benefit,” she says.