She is the fresh face of renewable energy in Africa. By a twist of fate, this young lawyer, who grew up with her grandmother by candlelight, is now spearheading Africa’s dash for energy.  Sometimes it hurts.

“It feels like I haven’t slept for four years, I have been so busy working on deals. But it was the deal of a lifetime.”

So says Linda Olagunju on her deals to put two wind farms and two solar photovoltaic (PV) farms onto the barren landscape of De Aar in the Northern Cape. Two deals she patched together that will contribute 254MW to South Africa’s energy grid.

“The wind projects reached financial close and are currently under construction. It’s a partnership between China Longyuan, Mulilo and DLO Energy Resources in De Aar. It’s been almost one year of signing documents. The legal fees on these sorts of transactions can go up to R20 million ($1.57 million) if you are lucky.”

It’s the fruit of the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producers Procurement (REIPPP) program. In short, Eskom, the country’s power generator, attracted bids for private business to apply for tenders. Under it, investors generate electricity for sale at a tendered rate. This brings the total committed private sector investment in the REIPPP, since 2011, to $13.25 billion (R168 billion). It is fierce competition.

“There about 85 solid IPP [independent power producers] developers in South Africa. In Round One to Four, there was 5,200MW on offer, the next rounds are 6,300MW. It’s a bloodbath. You are competing with international companies that are coming in dirt cheap,” says Olagunju.

This may be a drop in the ocean but it’s a very important one. Renewables have been a saving grace. According to Olagunju, 39 of these projects are up and running, supplying 2,050MW to the grid.

“It’s the first successful program since democracy. It’s not that there haven’t been any independent power producer programs on the continent. It’s just that this one is the largest one of its scale and being backed by government.”

Olagunju’s childhood was far from electricity. She grew up in Matatiele, a village in the Eastern Cape 782 kilometers from the boardrooms of Sandown where she now works and lives with her Nigerian-born husband.

“It was rural, like candle rural… [My grandmother’s village] only got electricity in 2005,” says Olagunju.

This was in time for the power cuts of 2008, when Eskom admitted that it had run out of capacity to supply electricity. At this time, Olagunju had left home to follow in the footsteps of her father and study law. At the University of Cape Town she studied laws governing fossil fuels rather than green energy.

“I’ve always known I was going to go into resources. I just didn’t know if it was going to be mining or oil and gas. The biggest thing for me is why Africa, which is so well endowed in resources, remains the poorest continent. I always hated injustice, growing up in apartheid South Africa,” she says.

Olagunju struggled to find her niche and ended up as a lawyer for Mulilo, a startup renewable energy company in 2008.

“Mulilo needed a lawyer, but couldn’t afford any. So I said I would do the services in return for shares. I still had to pay for them. At the time, the company [owed] R11 million ($870,000) and the company is now valued at R5 billion ($394 million)… in three years,” she says.

This sparked her idea of entrepreneurship.

“I always felt the way to change things is through entrepreneurship. Through law I had the opportunity to see how government makes these decisions on large scale projects… I said ‘hang on a minute, we have a lot of wind in South Africa and we have a lot sun in South Africa, so why haven’t we put renewables on our grid?’ I started doing research,” she says.

The business of renewables can take years to see a profit.

“There is a lot of risk, anything can go wrong. You are in a contract for 20 years, governments can change and I know there are laws to take care of that risk. The wind may not blow for as long as you thought it would. Your sun may not shine as brightly as you thought it would. They are long-term projects.”

“You identify the land. You go into lease agreements. Do an environment impact assessment (EIA) process that can take three years if you are lucky. You then bid your process with a construction period. If everything goes right, [a farm] will be up in 20 months.”

“Then you start seeing a trickle dividend. A trickle dividend at connection in the first seven years is very minimal. It’s nothing to write home about. It’s not even enough to pay your operational expenses.”

Then, there are the hiccups.

“We have existing infrastructure. And then we have the [REIPPP]. The grid infrastructure hasn’t been expanded to accommodate the increasing demand on that particular infrastructure. It’s not Eskom’s fault necessarily. It’s a matter of planning.”

“One of the points we raised before we began these projects is getting the grid contacted properly before you have a program. But it’s always difficult how you spend on infrastructure not knowing where those programs are going to be awarded.”

“Eskom said that they have developed a map where they now know where the hotspots are for energy projects and where now they are doing their best to upgrade in those regions in anticipation of the other [REIPPPs] being built.”

Olagunju believes gas, coal and nuclear could all go the same way.

“You can go and leverage an asset and try and participate. The key thing about these deals is to learn from them. Once you do one, you have built a portfolio. You can go and knock on a door in Nigeria, rather than say you have an idea,” she says.

If you are Olagunju, at the tender age of 31, you could also argue it’s good to have a foot in the door.