Madam Infrastructure Finance: An exclusive interview with Ndahafa Kapani

Ndahafa Kapani is a Namibian born Project Finance Advisor with significant infrastructure advisory and development expertise. She advises clients on developing, financing, acquiring and divesting infrastructure, and on public-private partnership challenges for large scale infrastructure projects. This includes transportation, energy, and ICT infrastructure. She successfully delivered projects for a range of clients such as Shell, British Petroleum (BP), Vodafone, Deutsche Telekom and Private Equity firms.

Ndahafa is also a qualified Civil Engineer, skilled in structural design and heavy civil works in the oil and gas industry. She is experienced in both brownfield and greenfield projects in Europe and Africa. Ndahafa holds a Bachelor of Civil Engineering, several Masters degrees including a Master of Science in Economics, Finance and Management and is presently reading for a PhD in Sustainable Infrastructure Investment and Finance.

Ndahafa was recently in the country, and she took some time with ObserverWeekend to tell us about the making of a powerhouse that’s Ndahafa Kapani

You are an accomplished woman with so many accolades, but deep down you are just a ‘rural girl’ aren’t you? Please tell us about your fascinating journey?

I was born and raised by a single mother in impoverished circumstances in Dordabis, a sub-economic township on the fringes of Windhoek. That settlement grapples with organized crime, poverty, and drug abuse. I come from a humble background, a fact that I use not to elicit pity, but to motivate myself and other young people who, through dedication and hard work, can also achieve their dreams. So yes, I am a rural girl because I largely lived in a rural area.

I moved to the city in 2006 when I commenced my secondary education at Ella du Plessis High School. In 2010, I graduated as the best student from my high school and subsequently enrolled for a Bachelor of Civil Engineering degree at the Namibia University of Science and Technology (NUST). With a record of distinctions in Civil Engineering design and final projects, my progress culminated in the award of my bachelor’s degree with an Excellent Academic Scholarship, an award given to two best performers at the School of Engineering to pursue a master’s degree in Germany. In 2017, I was conferred a Master of Civil Engineering degree with Magna Cum Laude from the FH Aachen University of Applied Sciences. Four months prior to completing my masters in Germany, I was head-hunted by an American international firm that provides engineering and scientific services. I worked at the firm as a Civil Engineer on Shell and BP oil and gas projects in Germany. I was later promoted to Lead Civil Engineer at the same firm in the
Netherlands. In 2020, I relocated to London to pursue my dream of marrying civil engineering and finance. I secured another scholarship read for a Master of Science in Economics, Finance and Management, which was conferred with Distinction from the University of Bristol. I am presently based in the UK, where I am reading for a PhD in Sustainable Infrastructure Investment and Finance at Swansea University.

It appears that your mom played quite a significant role in your journey, didn’t she?

Absolutely, my mom is my star girl! She is the bone to my spine, and I celebrate her every single day. To begin with, I would like to describe my mum’s ambition. She has no formal educational background, but she understood the importance of education. She worked multiple jobs to provide for us, thus I draw perseverance and resilience from her. She was always cognizant of the individual gifts that my sisters and I possessed and nurtured our talents. My mom was present at every single netball game I played in primary school and tried to reward us for every ‘grade achiever’ accomplishment in high school. It is worth noting that though I lived with my mom, my dad never missed any of my award ceremonies in high school and he truly nurtured my self-belief.

How did you end up in project finance?

I have always loved finance and have been fascinated by the idea of marrying engineering and finance. In my role as a civil engineer, I acquired project management skills and enjoyed improving project profitability. Working in the project management space made me aware of the multiple challenges that project managers face when managing and completing the different stages of projects. As a project manager, I possessed engineering expertise but lacked skills essential to the delivery of complex projects such as the behavior of individuals and firms in making decisions regarding the allocation of limited resources. Thus, I realized that focus on technical aspects should be considered along with economic and financial viability of each potential solution to deliver projects successfully. This realization prompted my interest in project finance.

Project finance is tremendously rich and multifaceted. Project finance capital typically refers to funding that is provided to support the development and maintenance of infrastructure projects such as roads, bridges, airports, and ports. This type of funding can come from various sources such as governments, multilateral institutions like the World Bank, private investors, and development finance institutions. In short, it is the financing of capital-intensive infrastructure, industrial projects and public services using a limited recourse or non-recourse financing structure. The debt and equity used to finance infrastructure projects are serviced from the cash flow generated by the project. The interdisciplinary nature of project finance is what I am primarily interested in because I work at the intersection of economics, finance and engineering. I am particularly fascinated by idea of applying knowledge acquired from civil engineering to practice in finance and economics.

You have several masters degrees and are reading for a PhD, please tell us more about that?

The word several is perhaps pushing it, but I have 3 masters degrees. To be fair, I did not intentionally set myself out do 3 masters degrees. The goal is and will always be to accrue applicable knowledge and skills, not only from classroom settings but also from informal learning environments.

I was largely interested in finance but because I come from a science background, it was almost impossible to do a PhD in Finance without a strong finance foundation. I had to take an unconventional route, which meant doing ‘several’ masters degrees to get admission to my desired PhD discipline. I hold a Master of Civil Engineering, a Master of Science in Management and Engineering in Risk Management of Industrial Facilities and a Master of Science in Economics, Finance and Management. I am reading for a PhD in Sustainable Infrastructure Investment and Finance.

You went into the sciences and then switched to finance. What a combination.

The perfect combination. My background in science could provide a solid foundation in analytical thinking, problem-solving, and data analysis, which are highly valued skills in the finance industry. Additionally, engineering involves complex mathematical modelling, which is useful in my analysis of risks and financial modelling. More specifically, it was ideal for me to switch to project finance as opposed to corporate finance because in project finance, I deal with developing, financing, acquiring and divesting infrastructure. It is no doubt that my previous knowledge on design and construction of infrastructure projects serves as a benefit in the space of project finance because I understand every single phase of a construction project. I also advise clients on public-private partnership challenges for large scale infrastructure projects. This includes transportation, energy and ICT infrastructure. Ultimately, the decision to switch fields was the best for my circumstances and career goals.

It’s clear that you went into engineering at the time when it wasn’t the first career option for women in our country. Is that a fair assessment?

Fortunately, during my undergraduate studies, the female to male ratio of engineering students was fair. My fellow male classmates were remarkable in that they enabled female students and never contributed to the barriers and hostility that female engineering students face in male-dominated fields. I only started to notice the gender disparity at postgraduate level, where I was one of the 3 female engineering students in a class of over 30 students. The gender gap widened further when I penetrated the work space. In my first engineering role in Germany, I was one of only two female civil engineers in a department with a total of approximately 100 engineers. These disparities serve as proof that despite having made significant inroads into many conventionally male-dominated fields, women continue to be underrepresented in engineering. This may be attributed to the stereotypes that serve as gatekeepers. These stereotypes (social isolation, machinery focus and inborn brilliance) are compatible with qualities tha
t are typically more valued in men than they are in women. Thankfully, these are only misconceptions about the profession. I can confidently say that engineering is not a masculine and unglamorous field, it is fairly what you make it to be.

Tell us about some of the major projects you’ve been involved in. Both in Africa and Europe?In Europe, I have largely worked on midstream and downstream processes on oil and gas (petrochemical) projects. In the early days of my career, I spent a lot of time on Shell and BP refinery sites, focusing on structural design of pipe bridges and refinery layouts as well as heavy civil works. I worked on both brownfield and greenfield projects, but I was naturally drawn to greenfield projects. In the context of oil and gas projects, brownfield projects refer to existing sites or new expansions, profitability improvements and reconstruction projects, whereas greenfield projects refer to completely new sites such as the construction of new petrochemical plants and refineries. I also worked in the ICT space as a project manager for 5G Infrastructure. My most rewarding project to date is having worked on Shell’s development of the new 200MW electrolysis-based hydrogen plant in Rotterdam, Netherlands. The facility is one of the largest commercial green hydrogen production facilities in the world, with a capacity
of 820 000 tonnes of sustainable aviation fuel and renewable diesel. In Africa, I worked in Uganda and Namibia. In Uganda, I was involved in the development of a pedestrian bridge in the Muhanga district and in Namibia, I worked at Windhoek Consulting Engineers and was involved in the construction of the new NDF Building for Ministry of Finance and the new UNAM access road, both equally rewarding experiences of serving my people on the African continent.

What’s your assessment of project financing in Africa?

Project financing in Africa has faced significant challenges due to a variety of factors, including political instability, weak legal systems, inadequate infrastructure, and a lack of access to capital. There exist substantial infrastructure gaps in Africa and the continent has experienced a sharp increase in the demand-supply imbalance in all infrastructure subsectors. Early in 2022, the African Development Bank indicated that there was a projected $100 billion annual investment deficit in infrastructure in Africa. The general consensus is that financing by government and conventional donors could only fulfill 50% of infrastructure investment needs. As a result, creative solutions combining public, private, international and domestic sources of finance will need to be developed and implemented. However, the challenge to devise and implement such strategies is nearly as great as the amount of money sought for to close infrastructure gaps. Despite these challenges, there have been some positive developments in
recent years, such as the growth of domestic capital markets and the increased involvement of Development Finance Institutions (DFIs). DFIs like the African Development Bank are becoming a more important part of the infrastructure ecosystem in Africa and play a crucial role in project financing by facilitating investments and acting as capital control. DFIs are especially qualified to support long-term financing because they can join markets, take on political risk, and have unique access to government safeguards. However, DFIs cannot bridge Africa’s infrastructural gap by themselves due to the substantial amount of capital required. Multi-finance and blended solutions are likely to gain popularity as a method to de-risk projects, and private equity, local and regional banks, debt financing, and specialised infrastructure funds are ready to enter the market. In spite of these positive trends, project financing in Africa still faces a number of challenges. One major issue is the difficulty in attracting privat
e sector investment, particularly in the infrastructure sector, which is critical for economic growth and development. This is partly due to the high perceived risk associated with investing in African countries, as well as the limited availability of long-term financing.

Another challenge is the lack of regulatory and legal frameworks that are conducive to project financing. In many African countries, the legal and regulatory environment is not well developed, which can make it difficult to secure financing for projects. Overall, while there are challenges to project financing in Africa, there are also opportunities for growth and development, particularly with the support of development finance institutions and increased investment from the private sector.

Do you know of any major projects that’s been undertaken on the continent right now?

There are always ongoing projects and initiatives taking place across the continent of Africa, ranging from infrastructure development, technology innovation, and social programs. Some recent examples of major projects include:
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), a hydroelectric dam project on the Blue Nile River in Ethiopia, which aims to provide electricity to Ethiopia and neighbouring countries.
The African Renaissance Pipeline (ARP) project aims to produce green hydrogen in Morocco and transport it to Europe via a pipeline. The project is a collaboration between Morocco, Portugal, and Spain.
Namibia Green Hydrogen
, the country aims to become a green hydrogen superpower the Namibian green hydrogen strategy targets a production of 10-12 million tonnes per annum hydrogen equivalent by 2050
The South African government has announced plans to establish a green hydrogen economy in the country. The government has set a target of 3.5 GW of electrolysis capacity by 2030.
The Lagos-Calabar Coastal Railway Project, a railway project in Nigeria that will connect the coastal cities of Lagos and Calabar and improve transportation infrastructure in the region.
The Mombasa-Nairobi Standard Gauge Railway, a railway project in Kenya that connects the port of Mombasa to the capital city of Nairobi and improves transportation and logistics in the region.
The Egyptian government is also exploring the potential for green hydrogen production in the country. The government has announced plans to establish a green hydrogen hub in the Suez Canal Economic Zone.
In Nigeria, the government has partnered with German company Linde to develop green hydrogen production facilities in the country.
These are just a few examples, and there are many other ongoing projects across the continent that aim to drive economic growth, improve infrastructure, and advance social and environmental goals.

Does Namibia take advantage of infrastructure finance capital that’s available on the continent?
In recent years, Namibia has been actively seeking to attract investment in infrastructure projects and has made efforts to improve its business environment to encourage private investment. The government has also developed a National Development Plan (NDP) which includes a focus on infrastructure development, with the aim of improving the country’s economic growth and competitiveness. The establishment of the Namibia Investment Promotion Board (NIPB) has also facilitated and promoted investments in Namibia. Namibia has access to various sources of infrastructure finance capital on the continent, including the African Development Bank. Additionally, Namibia is a member of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), which has various infrastructure development initiatives aimed at promoting regional integration and development.
Namibia has received funding for various infrastructure projects from different sources. Some recent infrastructure projects that have been funded from capital available on the continent include:
The Walvis Bay Port Expansion Project – This project was funded by a loan from the African Development Bank (AfDB) and the African Development Fund (ADF). The loan was aimed at expanding the port’s capacity and upgrading its infrastructure to meet the growing demand for trade in the region.
The Windhoek-Okahandja Road Upgrade Project – The project was funded by the Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA), aimed at upgrading the Windhoek-Okahandja road, which is an important transportation corridor in Namibia.
The Namibia Water Sector Support Program – This program was funded by the African Development Bank (AfDB) to support the development of water infrastructure in Namibia. The program aimed to improve water supply and sanitation services to communities in rural areas.
The Omburu Solar Photovoltaic (PV) Power Plant – The project was funded by Standard Bank and Old Mutual Investment Group, two South African financial institutions. The project aimed to provide clean and reliable electricity to the national grid and reduce Namibia’s dependence on imported fossil fuels.
These are just a few examples of recent infrastructure projects in Namibia that have been funded by capital in Africa. To a larger extend, the country does leverage some of the funding available on the continent. However, the Namibia needs to consider innovative and sustainable methods of funding infrastructure. These include Green Bonds, PPPs, Value Capture Financing, Tax-Increment Financing, Crowdfunding and Impact Investment.

What’s your assessment of project financing in Namibia?
Namibia has a small but growing project finance market. Some of the notable project finance deals in Namibia include the construction of the container terminal at the port of Walvis Bay, the development of a solar power plants, and the expansion of the Windhoek International Airport. However, like any market, there are risks associated with project finance in Namibia. These risks include political and regulatory risks, currency risk, and project-specific risks such as construction delays or cost overruns. It is important for project financiers to carefully assess these risks before committing to a project. Overall, project finance in Namibia has shown promise, and with continued government support and investment, it is likely to grow in the coming years.

With all your qualifications and experience do you think there’s room for you or as other people might say, “Namibia is too small” for you?
Namibia can never be too small for me. I remain committed to returning home to plough back the learnings and experiences accumulated while in Europe. However, I need to identify space for myself and my expertise in the country.

On a lighter note;
Favourite athlete – Christine Mboma
Favourite team – Manchester United
Favourite holiday destination – Oia Santorini, Greece
Most admired person/personality – Kizzmekia Corbett and the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG)
Motto you live by – Fear comfort and convenience because transformation requires discomfort and inconvenience

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