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CIO Interview - Eskom CIO electrifies change

Mark Chillingworth Profile picture for user Mark Chillingworth January 23, 2024
Summary:
South Africa’s national power firm, Eskom, sees technology as central to the end of blackouts, growing sustainability and efficiency

An image of Eskom CIO Faith Burn
(Image sourced via Eskom)

Eskom Holdings, the national electricity provider for South Africa, is a mirror image of its home nation. Both are undergoing seismic changes as they develop a new culture. CIO Faith Burn has led the technology of that change at Eskom for the last three and half years. Her role demonstrates how integral technology is to an organization undergoing major change, as she and her team tackle energy demand, asset governance, the climate emergency and modern technology and processes. 

Eskom Holdings is a vertically integrated energy provider, generating, transmitting and distributing about 90% of the electricity used in South Africa. The company has 30 power stations, of which 15 are coal-fired power stations using locally mined coal. 

In the latter part of 2023, the Eskom Acting Group Chief Executive, Calib Cassim, said that the Johannesburg headquartered business needed to slow down the replacement of this ageing coal-fired fleet if it was to reduce blackouts, which Eskom calls load shedding. These planned cuts to energy supply are hard on the residents and economy of South Africa. 

There are three business units under the Eskom Holdings business: Generation, Transmission, and Distribution, but the Transmission business unit (effectively South Africa’s system operator) is being legally separated from to enable the rising independent renewable energy sector. The CIO role at Eskom Holdings, therefore, has a great deal to contend with, Burn says: 

Our organization is challenged financially; we have a turnaround strategy to improve the income statement, the balance sheet, and operations, to separate and to become an organization with an improved performance-driven culture.

Four big changes 

To meet these objectives, Burn and her technology team are fully involved in the four biggest programmes within the business: stabilizing operations, improving asset management, moving to cloud computing, and the climate emergency. In all four areas, technology is making a difference, and Burn shared the initial results with diginomica. 

The Eskom home page features alerts of power shortages and details of when Eskom will be load shedding. It is a situation we are unaccustomed to in Europe and North America. The causes include looting and breakdowns at the power plants. 

Dashboards have been rolled out across the business to depict power generation capacity and to stabilize operations. She says that technology also assists in helping Eskom’s consumers play a role in demand management: 

We are moving from passive customer engagement to one more participative, where we all take ownership of demand.

Burn says her technologists have self-developed a chatbot to deal with issues in the call centre. That bot is now dealing with 200,000 discussions a month and benefiting the business by creating an alternative method for the customer to contact the organization. 

Across the business, Burn is automating business processes in order to reduce paper-based methods, increase accuracy and productivity, and cut theft. This is leading to better asset management and, she says, has already delivered a saving of R8 billion in software asset management. She says: 

In procurement, much of the process happens outside of the systems, so we are now working with the Chief Procurement Officer to embed digital processes that will enable controls embedded in processes and thereby encourage that these processes are followed. 

The inventory of the business is critical to our operations. If our engineers cannot get to a part quickly enough, then our unplanned outages go on for longer, and that means that we are disrupting the electricity supply longer or even having an impact on load-shedding time frames. Through our price market verification solution, we also want to make sure that we are paying competitive market-related prices for purchases.

As ever, the majority of the problems of a business, whether physical, digital, cultural, or criminal, are interconnected, and technology is well-placed to tackle them. 

Her third big project has been moving Eskom to the cloud, which has been a major cultural and technological change for the business. To ease the path, Burn first sought alignment with the State Security Agency because Eskom is classified as critical infrastructure and owns national key points. She then approached the Board for approval in a period of time she describes as intense. So far, approximately 40,000 end users have moved to Office 365 in Azure. 

When Burn and I met, she had just completed the first-stage assessment for re-platforming the Eskom application estate. She says: 

We have families of applications, and we have looked at the implications and will now work with service providers and possibly a cloud broker, as we want to be a multi-cloud business, and I expect this to be a three-year focus for my team.

Finally, like all traditional energy firms, Eskom is having to reduce its carbon emissions. South Africa has a zero CO2 emissions target of 2050. Burn says that she has a two-pronged approach to reducing emissions. The first is a defensive strategy: 

What can I do to minimize my carbon emissions? For example, our data center is on-premise, so how can I minimize the footprint and save energy? We have achieved energy savings there, and I am now looking at end-point devices and where we can make savings. 

The second prong is the offensive, which is the implementation of technologies such as micro-grids and smart metering to make the entire process of electricity generation and consumption more efficient. 

These big challenges are what excite Burn, and she talks passionately about the scale of what has to be done and the benefit it will have not only for Eskom but her native South Africa: 

I am purpose-driven, and I bring value to the organization by getting into complex problems, and I dissect a problem to bring order to chaos.

Asked if the very public nature of the problems Eskom faces, in particular blackouts, caused a pause for thought in taking the job, she smiles and says that friends did question her sanity: 

I love our country and want to be of service to it.

She is a member of the executive at Eskom and works with a CEO who understands the role technology can play in the modernization of the organization. Membership of the executive is vital, she says: 

I want to understand that I have the ability to do what is necessary. I only take roles where this is the position. If you are reporting via someone, then your message is distorted.

Partnering with Huawei 

Eskom is working with Huawei, the Chinese telecoms and technology provider. Huawei has become better known in Europe and North America for being kept out of such initiatives in these economies. So, what are they like to work with? Burn said:

I have infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) with two providers in South Africa; one looks after regional needs and the other central services, and they subcontract some of the infrastructural components to Huawei, and I have gained savings in power, storage, and costs by at minimum 20%. 

It is also important to remember that South Africa is part of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) nations.

This means that the fears held in Europe and North America, whether well-founded or not, do not have the same propensity in South Africa, and the CIO is welcoming of the technological expertise Huawei has to offer. 

These big change programmes are achieved through close collaboration with the business, which means that the role of the business relationship manager is becoming more and more important. She says of the role: 

The business relationship manager is intended to be a role that has the key discussions, but throughout information technology, we should all be thinking of our relationship with other parts of the business. I see being a business relationship manager as part of my role and those of my IT executive team, too.

My take

Imagine changing the operations of a national electricity generating company in a country that is itself undergoing one of the most important changes in its society and culture. It is no easy task and one that will not ever be without problems. Eskom and its CIO are powering something that really will be a transformation. 

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