Ubuhle Noluti Mtetwa is the National Manager, Secondary Logistics at bp Southern Africa.
With a degree in Transport Economics and Logistics Management, Ubuhle Noluti Mtetwa is a driving force behind groundbreaking projects within a traditionally male-dominated industry. Her rapid ascent within bp, from a Logistics Intern to the esteemed position of National Manager of Secondary Distribution, showcases her remarkable capabilities. Mtetwa is featured on the African Energy Chamber’s list of 25 Under 40 Energy Women Rising Stars.
Please share a brief overview of your journey in the energy industry that led to your current role? What are some key achievements or milestones that you are particularly proud of?
From a young age, I always had ambitions to be involved in work that was dynamic, operational, challenging and impactful! Armed with a degree in transport economics and logistics management, I had my heart set on the skies. I was confident that I would find myself working in passenger operations for a global airline, and I went as far as securing a scholarship with the Airlines Association of South Africa to ensure this. Only to find myself redirected into an industry that has built nations and driven the world economy for centuries. AirBP, a contributor to my scholarship, gave me my first steppingstone into the world of oil and gas as a Logistics Graduate intern. I found myself deep in an environment that was extremely male dominated with little female representation, even at junior levels. Tasked with delivering a project that would produce an innovative way of measuring nationwide logistics performance, it forced me to find my voice very quickly within the organization. This project challenged the status quo and left me with no choice but to be bold and courageous if I was to be successful. That set the tone for the rest of my career: be bold, challenge the status quo, and leave no wo/man behind.
I found myself quickly climbing the ranks, navigating from a logistics intern to handling million-dollar import cargos in trading operations, to supplying our largest market via pipeline operations, and coming full circle back to logistics as the national manager of secondary distribution in the country. My success and progression in the business gave me the opportunity to participate in various sponsorship and leadership acceleration programs, giving me the opportunity to establish strong networks for future advocacy. Moreover, I made time for my own development by acquiring an MBA from Wits Business School, which opened the door for operational and senior leadership positions.
I can confidently say that I am most proud of my work in advocacy within the industry for women and men alike, many of whom have succeeded me. I have been able to successfully ‘pay it forward’ and contribute to the upward mobility of many women within the industry as well as in other sectors of the South African economy. I continue to use my platforms for the progression of others and contribute to business successes through servant leadership.
The energy industry is known for its complexities. What were some significant challenges you faced along the way, and how did you navigate through them to achieve your goals?
The past three years have seen unprecedented global events such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the Ukraine-Russia War, which saw oil prices move from one extreme of low demand and excess supply to the other of constrained supply and increasing demand. All of which was exacerbated by a complete strategy shift and rebranding of the oil and gas companies to those of energy companies tasked with meeting Net Zero by 2050. This move, along with the complex geopolitical environment, meant the current ways of work and operations were no longer conducive to good business, bringing with them massive retrenchments and restructures across the industry. Two of which I have had to experience over the past 3 years. My goal was to continue to demonstrate business value through adversity by delivering results via efficient, lean, and optimized operations while protecting as many jobs within my direct reporting structures. This period required me to lead from the back and ensure that I empowered my teams enough to take accountability for their own fate and come out of the retrenchment process successful. In turn, those I had advocated for in past years were able to do the same for me through turbulent times.
What advice would you give to young females aspiring to excel in the energy sector? Are there any specific strategies or mindsets that helped you overcome obstacles and reach your current position?
The energy sector is going through a major transformation, and a big part of that is the equitable distribution of opportunities to all women across the board. I implore all young women to stay abreast of the opportunities and ensure that they position themselves accordingly to be able to take advantage of what is available. On the other hand, it is key that a young, aspiring female drive her own development and not use the gender parity movement as a primary vehicle for progression. One needs to develop a personal philosophy that encompasses self-discipline, a good work ethic, and a hunger to learn. The future of the industry is one of constant change and ensuring that one has a personal strategy of re-invention and ‘performing while transforming’ will bring certain success.
Further to this, a young woman in our industry needs to balance her technical skills with strong interpersonal or “soft” skills. The key to all my successes begins and ends with a person. Likewise, the center of many challenges faced began and ended with people. The ability to navigate human nature will have a young woman excelling in all levels of corporate dynamics.
As a young leader and especially as a woman, I have faced scrutiny of my capabilities and experienced resistance to my leadership from colleagues and direct reports. I have been able to navigate all the above by implementing the below strategies:
- Being AUTHENTIC. Which meant going on a journey to truly understand myself and the values I live by and show up accordingly in all facets of my life. “Be you because everyone else is taken.”
- Adopting a mindset of prosperity through good governance while leaving room for failure
- Be visible—speak up, put your hand up, and take up space.
- Building networks across the industry and my organization. Ensuring that within those networks I have identified allies, sponsors, a mentor, and a coach. All of whom ultimately served the purpose of advocacy and relationship building.
- Being entrepreneurial and creating my own opportunities. There will always be an unsolved need in a business.
- Lean in on your team and take them along with you on your journey of success. You are only as strong as your weakest member.
Lead with grace: extend grace to others and do not be afraid to connect.
A career in energy can be demanding. Could you describe a typical day in your life?
I lead a team of 10 individuals who are responsible for fuel deliveries to over 500 retail sites across eight South African provinces. The team fulfills a business-critical role as well as an essential service to the country by ensuring that every one of our filling stations has product at the right time and place to meet customer needs. Over 5 million liters of fuel are delivered a day, utilizing a fleet of 80 vehicles, nine terminals, and 200 drivers to achieve the latter. Central to business continuity and profitability, my team’s success relies on an extraordinary amount of cooperation, coordination, and optimization between our dealer network, moving assets, and the supply-demand balance.
As a senior member, my typical day requires engaging internal and external stakeholders across the value chain to ensure assets, people, systems, and products are in place for my team to execute on business deliverables in a safe and efficient manner. I also oversee the review of policies (regulatory, safety, accounting, etc.) and strategic plans to ensure that our value chain remains agile and responsive to ever-changing external environments and customer requirements. Given the volatile nature of the South African landscape, no one day is the same: one can go from a peaceful start to the day to a complete shutdown of operations due to protest action, riots, or extreme weather. Ensuring that our work environment is responsive to changing dynamics while facilitating quality output from my team and customer satisfaction is the most integral part of my day, regardless of the operational challenges faced on that day.
Looking ahead, what changes or advancements do you hope to see in the energy sector, and how do you envision your role in shaping that future?
There is an energy deficit in Africa as a whole, and the move away from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy could further grow this deficit in energy. I would like to see continued conversations and advocacy on a Just Energy Transition that looks to sustainable and economically viable approaches to reduce carbon emissions while ensuring that the lives and communities that are tied to high-carbon energy industries are not left behind in the shift towards a low-emissions economy.
Further to this, I do hope that continued efforts are made in South Africa and the African continent towards decentralized energy supply, which gives room to establish localized microgrids and distributed energy systems. This model could facilitate growth in local entrepreneurs and job creation while closing the ever-growing energy deficit on the continent.