AfricaLive talks with Zambia entrepreneur Janice Rodgers Sakwanda about the growth of engineering, procurement and construction company Grid Transmission Ltd. Having worked across the SADC region, Grid Transmission Ltd is ideally placed to take advantage of the drive to increase Intra-African trade, and the green energy revolution steadily spreading across the continent.
AfricaLive: To start, could you please give readers an introduction to the company?
Janice Rodgers Sakwanda: Grid Transmission Ltd specialises in electronic telecommunication and civil construction. We have 18 years of experience serving both the local and regional markets. We are amongst the top engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) companies, owned and operated by Zambians.
The past five years have seen us expand into Malawi, Tanzania and Angola. We have also collaborated with some big-name institutions such as the EMCO of India, Eltel transmission from Finland, TANASCO from Tanzania, REA from Zambia as well as the MTN and AIRTEL branches of Zambia. We pride ourselves as being one of the few local companies that have secured large contracts in the engineering space.
AfricaLive: How did the idea of setting up Grid Transmission Ltd come to be?
Janice Rodgers Sakwanda: The idea came about when my husband found out that the Swiss engineering company he was working for was about to leave the country. He figured that with the experience he had gained and his expertise, an independent operation was possible. His engineering competences merged with my business administration competencies to form Grid Transmission Ltd. We are what you would call a family business, but we have done a lot to corporatise the operations. We have consistently added to our workforce whenever necessary since we set up shop back in 2002.
AfricaLive: What is the size of your staff at the moment?
Janice Rodgers Sakwanda: Our staffing depends on the magnitude of the projects at hand. Staffing needs can grow from seventy people to three hundred people depending on the scope of work. Our Malawi project, for instance, involves three workstations in different towns. Each station has about a hundred workers depending on the task at hand. We, however, have a backroom administration staff of about fifteen people who are permanent employees.
AfricaLive: You mentioned that you penetrated the Malawi, Angola, and Tanzania markets. Do you plan on expanding your footprint further?
Janice Rodgers Sakwanda: We do have an expansion agenda. There are plans to increase our presence in the countries where we already operate. Our efforts will be helped by diversifying into the solar business. Giving people more energy options will help us make headway. We are also looking to form partnerships with renewable energy-oriented companies. In this era of climate change talks and increased environmental hazards, people are right to move towards green energy. Any connections to this regard would be highly welcome.
AfricaLive: Whenever you are looking to go into partnerships, how do you go about reaching potential business partners; by word of mouth, marketing?
Janice Rodgers Sakwanda: Our works in various locations do all the marketing for us. Interested entities look at our field projects, go to our website and contact us for meetings and engagements.
AfricaLive: Do you see technology playing a huge role in uplifting Africa and if so, what’s your role in all of this?
Janice Rodgers Sakwanda: Africa is an available market that needs technology. Investors will set themselves up to benefit if they invest heavily in Africa. I understand foreign investors who have had their reservations in the past. These reservations were probably informed by the historical low impact partnerships made between them and African governments. Partnering with governments can be risky because of possible misdirection of funds as well as bureaucracy. I advise foreign investors to look at partnering with local businesses instead of governments. They will stand to gain from increased transparency, more penetration, and high impact.
AfricaLive: Our research has revealed that over 80 percent of start-ups in the continent of Africa fail within the first three years of operation. What can effectively curtail business failure in Africa?
Janice Rodgers Sakwanda: Curtailing business failure requires much commitment from the aspiring entrepreneur. Starting a business needs not only dedication and focus but also finances. Most of all it needs owners to have expertise in the ventures they chose to pursue. Having expertise is the single biggest advice I give to budding entrepreneurs. Our business works because when we started, my husband and I had the necessary expertise to get it off the ground. Financial discipline is another essential component if you want to avoid failure. All the profits from Grid Transmission Ltd were invested back into the business in the first five years of operation. That five-year initial period saw us take no vacations or breaks as well. To this day, I am still on the payroll just like any other staff without taking money from our coffers whenever I want. This kind of discipline is what keeps start-ups alive for the long haul.
AfricaLive: Do you think African entrepreneurs also suffer from non-financial factors as well, such as bureaucracy and lack of mentorship?
Janice Rodgers Sakwanda: Indeed, a lot of them suffer from a lack of guidance because we don’t have schools in Zambia that teach people how to run successful businesses. Our young people who want to be entrepreneurs also suffer from the high-interest rates that banks charge for loans. The interest rates put businesses in precarious situations because they find themselves paying back way more money than they are making.
AfricaLive: In your view, what are the traits of a successful business person?
Janice Rodgers Sakwanda: You have to believe that anything is possible under the sun. The realisation that everything is within your reach will make anyone successful in business. Running a business also demands financial discipline, as I stated earlier.
AfricaLive: What legacy would you like to leave behind?
Janice Rodgers Sakwanda: When I retire, I want to be remembered as a woman who played a role in pushing the renewable energy agenda. I want to have an indelible mark in the book that contains those who fought to leave their environment better than they found it.
AfricaLive: Have you ever felt discriminated against for being a woman?
Janice Rodgers Sakwanda: I never allowed anyone to treat me differently because of my gender. I have been in meetings that were full of men, and I was the only woman. Being the one woman in the room sometimes got me awkward stares. I exerted myself and made sure the men knew that I belonged and this gave me my seat at the table. I never entertained being treated differently because of my gender, and I would urge business women to have the same mentality.
AfricaLive: There is such a high perception of risk when it comes to investing in Africa. What would you tell investors who are thinking about investing but are held back by these fears?
Janice Rodgers Sakwanda: Africa requires serious investors to develop. They need to come in and partner with local business people and not governments. Private companies know the climate, the culture, and have the interests of the people at heart. Investors would have it better; putting their money with us and the impact on society would be evident.
AfricaLive: What makes you proud to be Zambian, and what are your aspirations for the continent?
Janice Rodgers Sakwanda: I have travelled the world quite a lot. I have seen how people live in developed parts of the world. I desire to see our people in marginalised areas enjoy just the basics that other people enjoy. It is unacceptable to drive 500 Kilometers in parts of Zambia without seeing a hospital or school. I see an Africa that can do better for its children one day. We deserve to have what people in other parts of the world have. Investment in Africa is required so that the people can see their everyday lives improved.