Africa’s construction and engineering companies must collaborate and share skills, knowledge and resources if the continent is to turn the corner in infrastructure development and worsening skills shortages.
The industry across the continent should also up its game in terms of encouraging young people to take up engineering as a viable career option, and by unpacking the wealth of opportunities the sector has to offer.
These are the view of Simbi Phiri — construction industry magnate and chairman of Khato Civils (Pty) Ltd and South Zambezi (Pty) Ltd — two of Africa’s leading construction, engineering and infrastructure development companies.
“Traditional construction practices must give way to innovation, creativity and new, efficient approaches if we are to leapfrog the continental growth agenda to deliver life-changing projects. We need to put currency to the issue of regional integration and co-operation by bringing down the barriers that prevent collaboration among ourselves as Africa’s construction, design and engineering companies. This also goes for the other sectors of the economy, not just the engineering and infrastructure development sector,” says Phiri.
“No country has ever developed by using exclusively its own engineers. Skills should be drawn from the whole world. In some instances engineers are engaged on a needs basis.”
This was during an interview with Mail & Guardian Africa conducted as part of the commemoration of Botswana’s 50 years of independence and sovereignty. His companies have a footprint in a number of African states, including Botswana. Phiri, who has been a leading figure in industry for over two decades, was approached to share his journey as he built his companies from scratch to become the formidable, self-funding giants they are today.
Khato Civils (Pty) Ltd is a South African-based design and construction company involved in the development of large-scale infrastructure. The company boasts a pool of the highest skills and qualifications in terms of qualified professionals with broad experience in the areas of fibre optics, mass earthworks, pipelines, water works, roads and concrete works. Also anchored in South Africa, South Zambezi (Pty) Ltd is a civil and structural engineering company, with operations in various African countries. It is a standard bearer for such services as engineering consultancy in civil and structural works, quantity surveying, architecture and town planning, geotechnical, environmental professionals, project and program management as well as electrical and mechanical works.
“The construction sector remains inherently unpredictable, with the last two years experiencing subdued economic growth. We have had to rely on our collective and individual knowledge to navigate our companies through this challenging period,” says Phiri.
One of the factors that have contributed to his companies successfully navigating the choppy waters is the fact that they are well capitalised and own financing.
“We can tackle any project as soon as we are contracted and we finance it from our own resources. We do not have to approach the banks to negotiate financing for a project. That talks to prudent financial management of our companies,” he says.
Moreover, Khato Civils also entirely owns its heavy plants and equipment, an advantage that has eased pressure on the companies.
It is easy to understand why the companies have grown to become models of good practice across the African continent in construction, engineering and infrastructure development. Phiri places a high premium on the people and partnerships with the communities in which Khato Civils and South Zambezi operate.
“We reward our employees and take care of them very well. I can state without fear of contradiction that there is no company in South Africa that pays better than we do, and in accordance with a person’s professional bracket. We take care of our people and do not leave that aspect only to their spouses. We help them accumulate assets such [as] a house that fits their status, their general health and social welfare,” says Phiri, adding that when people are happy at work productivity goes up and the bottom line is impacted positively.
“Our world-class team of professionals consists of excellent individuals, who are constantly assisted to upgrade their skills. We do not believe in micro-managing people. We tell our people to push themselves to the best of their abilities and to have fun.
“At Khatho Civils and South Zambezi we strive to create and maintain a professional environment that does more than just improve productivity; we have a strong, vibrant organisational culture that allows and supports all employees to make important decisions, contribute to the company’s success, be accountable and assume responsibility for results.”
Phiri’s philosophy and business model is that of making tangible investments and dropping an anchor in each of the countries in which they operate.
“In Botswana we have acquired land and we will have offices for our business in that country. What is left now if to finalise the paperwork for change of land use and purpose. In Malawi we are constructing an 11-storey building. Such a local component breeds accountability and responsibility for our actions in that particular country,” says Phiri.
“By investing in immovable property in the countries we are demonstrating our commitment and the fact that we are local, we provide local employment, seek to interact with the local economy and we are not a company that ‘helicopters’ itself into an area, gets the benefits and out it goes. We build a legacy wherever we operate.”
Khato Civils (Pty) Ltd and South Zambezi (Pty) Ltd also have a strong CSI component. The company recently spent R3.6 million revamping a school in Giyani in Limpopo province.
“A major highlight for me is that we are about to complete building a home for the family of one of Nelson Mandela’s longest serving workers. The project is in Olievenhoutbosch township in Centurion. Though she has passed on, her husband and children will benefit,” says Phiri.
The companies have also built a house for one of the ANC’s uMkhonto weSizwe veterans in Mahikeng. The cadre used to be responsible for facilitating the underground activities and movements of ANC freedom fighters during the struggle against apartheid.
Phiri was asked to identify some of the biggest challenges he has faced in business.
“When you are a successful black business person you are labelled as someone who has stolen money. When people learn you have landed a huge contract they think all the money goes to your pocket. They overlook the fact that there are taxes to be paid, wages to take care of, equipment to be bought and costs of running the business to be addressed,” he says.
“Black people are not used to seeing another black person making it in business; jealousy creeps in and all the financial intelligence units descend upon you. Instead of supporting one another we pull each other down and make each other look like criminals. You do not have to be white to be competent and succeed in business.”
He added that attracting good human capital is an uphill battle due to the fact that some people do not believe that a black-owned company can provide job security.
“Even some suppliers do not believe they will be paid on time — or at all — and want you to pay upfront. In this kind of business that is very difficult to do,” he says.
“My role models are people who came from nothing, did not have privilege, but built themselves up to become successful. I admire Abraham Lincoln. He was self-taught. He became a lawyer without formal education. And, he fought hard to become a congressman and eventually president of the United States of America. Growing up, I never doubted I could do anything if I put my mind to it.”