To make a success in the very niche electronics manufacturing market, I believe it’s important to have experience in both engineering and business management. I therefore have a diploma in electronics engineering, a diploma in business management and administration, and a certificate in sales and marketing.
I started out at Barlows (AEG) as a student technician fixing microwave ovens, before starting my real work at Ash Electronics Industries in the early 1990s, where we were manufacturing prepaid electricity meters for Eskom and municipalities. That’s where I gained the most experience as a young calibration technician. I also started using a pick-and-place machine. You could say my first experience with pick-and-place technology was at Ash Electronics Industries, where I also met lots of interesting players in the industry.
After going back to school to complete my diploma, I returned to join the same company but this time it was bought by QEC Placement, and this is where I met my mentor, the late Mr Paul Soteriou – may his soul rest in eternal peace. It was there that I learned a lot about both business and engineering skills.
I then joined Phahama Systems Development in the mid 2000s in search of personal growth and most importantly to get out of my comfort zone − you could say to spread my wings because I felt I had done my best at QEC and there wasn’t much room for growth. At the moment I’m the majority shareholder and director of Phahama.
Highs and lows
Over my years in the industry, I have to admit there have unfortunately been more lows than highs.
One of the lows for me has been, in general, the issue of using black shareholders as fronts and a lack of support from big businesses to take small companies under their wings. The playing fields are very skewed with little help coming from established entities.
When I came into Phahama, the rail industry was booming but transformation was lagging behind. Then came corruption in the state owned enterprises (SOEs) that killed the industry and brought about a new crop of businessmen who knew nothing about reinvesting or sustaining their businesses. It was very bad to see people winning tenders because of their connections and patronage while they had zero skills.
That left me very frustrated and even today we are still battling with the same issues. Big companies are not willing to share work with us, and the government is not doing much in terms of localisation and reviving the industry. There is a total lack of political will to promote our local brands.
The high is the experience I have gained in the industries that have contributed so much to my growth.
Where the electronics industry is trending
The IoT is here to stay as is the often talked about Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) where we don’t see much being done to promote it. There are few locally designed gadgets and digital products that are not getting enough support from consumers and big companies. If these initiatives are supported, we could see a turning point in the manufacturing sector through knowledge and not other means. I want to be there when the first laptop is manufactured in this country. There is so much to hope for but with little support we won’t achieve much.
I want to see the CSIR playing a better role in incubating small business from the R&D; point of view. We should have more incubation hubs in townships and underprivileged areas, and the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA) should be more visible and take an active role in the industry. All those entities must work with the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) and other funding houses that can breathe life into the manufacturing sector.
I’m impressed with the work being done at Tshimologong in Braamfontein. It’s a Wits University incubation programme in partnership with the private sector. The talent is amazing but there is no adequate support from different sectors of the industry. The guys there are just phenomenal and during my few interactions with them I have started to have hope for this country.
Facing ‘the C word’
Pre COVID-19, the industry was already on its knees but COVID just made it worse. There were no new locally made products and China had a huge bite in our market – a lack of investments pushed the industry into this difficult situation. The mining sector was holding the industry together but there wasn’t much coming out of other sectors. The mentality has completely shifted to China and to some extent I think even government supports that shift. There was no will to re-energise the sector, and companies were closing down left, right and centre.
Since COVID struck, many companies have gone under. Life is extremely difficult with little hope of survival. We hope and pray that government will take the right decision with the 730 000 NSFAS tender. I hope the industry will come to the party in supporting the National Association of Manufacturers in Electronic Components (NAMEC) in its call for local content. We have to do this for the country and we must take a stand on this. NAMEC is determined to take this to the higher education minister’s front door. This will be the shot in the arm that the industry needs, and will bring a huge relief to the already struggling industry.
Looking to the next generation
To the youngsters, I can say that they must really put their energy into innovation. We can’t succeed as a country without our locally developed products. What I have experienced in Tshimologong is the right mindset that is needed to build the future. Small businesses are the way to go. We need better collaboration with institutions of higher learning to produce more engineers. Our youth need to develop business skills and have the right attitude. As I have mentioned there is talent in this country and it needs to be nurtured.
On the broader issue of community development, I’m really worried about the state of our society. You can’t have a 19 year old with three kids who is not employed. We can’t succeed on grants.
For more information contact Hosia Matlou, Phahama Systems Development,
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