An interview with Naheed Memon
by Kay Hare
Naheed Memon is the Chief Executive Officer of Oracle Power that currently has a large scale industrial mining project in the Thar desert. The project includes a mine-mouth power plant and coal to gas and liquid production facilities. The area of the mine is 66 square km. The project envisages the setting up of a state of art, mega industrial park centered around a large mine, deploying the most modern mining technologies. The company has plans for diversifying into other natural resource projects in other regions too. The development of the current projects in Pakistan entails numerous collaborations with the local government, China, and other partners. Juggling the daily shareholder’s questions, the mining operations, laying down agreements, and reaching out to new partners to forge forward is mind-blowing. I set out with some personal and general questions regarding Memon’s role as CEO.
As a woman involved in the mining sector, do you find it has been an advantage or disadvantage?
It is an indisputable fact that women have to work harder. While it is hoped that the power corridors in the 21 st century will become gender-neutral, the current environment does resonate with some latent prejudice. I talk about global workplaces, including Pakistan, in my assessment. This universal journey to equality for women has presented counter-intuitive personal experiences for me. At times I have found allegedly backward geographies to be much more embracing of women leadership, and in comparison, high-income societies, to be more discriminatory in a reticent fashion.
Neither situation has deterred me and only serves to inform my strategy.
Oracle power is based in the Thar desert in India (The Great Indian Desert). When you are traveling and working, do you have a morning routine or some habit that keeps you on your toes?
I wish I had a power answer to this question. I wish I could say I wake up at 6 and go for an hour run and do yoga, to be followed by a super healthy breakfast. But my morning starts in the middle of the night when I begin replying to emails, reading pending material, or messaging people who need to wake up to my reminders. I start my proper day around 8, with the first of numerous coffee cups to follow before 10 am. I try and find time to work out a few times a week. I love the thrill of work success and the challenge of survival.
Has the last 8 months been difficult for the mining, or has it been work as usual? How has the company adapted to the Covid situation? Is there a different attitude to the virus in the East than in the West?
The pandemic has reduced many businesses to nothing. Although our project development in Pakistan has been slightly delayed due to logistic hurdles and even health matters for some of our stakeholders, we remain quintessential to crucial aspects of national development.
Since we are building a project which depends on an interaction between multiple countries, I have seen the management and approach to COVID first hand in different places. Whereas Pakistan has miraculously managed to be less affected, the degree of awareness is by no means less than the UK. China is another ball game, and its management of COVID is just a textbook on discipline and autonomy.
However, beyond delays, because Oracle is in the business of developing resources, which power the planet in one way or another, we remain as relevant as we were yesterday. For those in businesses that have been affected, I reckon new opportunities that have arisen, if capitalized, may deliver even greater goods than their calculations had projected.
How many people does it take to run the operation in Karachi?
We have an office in Karachi, an office at the mine site, and an outsourced office in Islamabad.
We have five full-time employees and an equal number of legal and project development consultants on board in Pakistan.
How big is the project in Pakistan, and what are the components? What kind of support does the project have in Pakistan?
The anticipated project size, all-encompassing, is 8 bn USD, making it the largest private-sector multi-partite project in CPEC ( China Pakistan Economic Corridor) in Pakistan.
CPEC is a component of China’s global trade and connectivity initiative, OBOR. The programme provides debt financing in projects agreed to and negotiated for support between the Pakistani and Chinese governments. Pakistan has had a critical infrastructure deficit, and CPEC has managed to close this gap. Oracle s project is anchored on the development of a 16 MTPA mine in the province of Sindh to fuel a 1320 MW Power plant, setting up coal to gasification for urea facility, and for building coal to liquid plants. We plan to develop a state of the art modern industrial park, harboring future coal technologies and creating jobs, income, and scientific progress through a circular economy of coal-based products and processes. The project is included in the priority list of CPEC projects and will be developed in a very close partnership with the Pakistani government, the Chinese government, and the industry.
How important is it for the economy in the context of the socio-economic impact?
The coal reserves are located in the Thar desert in Pakistan. The place is one of the most underdeveloped regions in Pakistan on multiple counts. In many villages in Oracle s mining area, children don’t go to school. Malnutrition levels are high, and health facilities are distant. One of the direct impacts of developing Block 6 will be on the socio-economic uplift of surrounding areas.
Moreover, from a national strategic perspective, Oracle Power is the custodian of its future energy and food security. Pakistan’s natural gas reserves are depleting and are expected to become 50 percent of their current output in 5 years. The country’s mainstay is agriculture, which is dependent on urea. Since 70 percent of urea is gas as feedstock, it is now imperative that Pakistan converts coal to gas for urea, amongst other uses. Countries like India have launched a programme to inject 3 trillion USD in coal to gas through 40 new coal mines. This strategy is adopted by many countries that see the importance of the development of coal as an asset. Further, Pakistan cannot afford to import oil for power and reduce the burden on forex reserves. Indigenous fuel must be developed on a large scale.
Our project is pivotal to the national development strategy of import substitution, aimed at sustainable growth in a country of 220 million people.
How do you address local communities? Do you support them, and are some of them part of the workforce?
Our project will be developed in a poor and underdeveloped area. We will employ more than 5000 people, mostly local, including women. We also plan to train and educate young people in the area and provide them apprenticeships.
Currently, we do hire locals for assignment-based jobs from time to time and our CSR programs comply with government guidelines and international standards. Our CSR / community liaison officers have an excellent relationship with locals and we receive a lot of support and cooperation from the local communities, who see their long-term welfare in the development of their lands.
What is the best part of your job?
I am principally driven by the potential returns that my efforts may deliver. The scale of the job at hand and the size of the landscape Oracle operates in provides the management challenge that motivates, steered by an ambition to grow into a much bigger company.
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