AfricaLive: Kindly tell our readers about the idea behind Khato Civils?
Simbi Phiri: We took over the company in 2010 because we saw a niche area in South Africa. Lots of South African companies were either being priced out of deals or running out of budget to complete certain projects. We also wanted to bring a special quality to the market in a way that exceeds what customers want and need.
AfricaLive: At the start, you were involved in water engineering and supply before going into energy. What expertise have you gained on that journey and which of these disciplines do you feel will take your company to the next level?
Simbi Phiri: Water and sanitation is without a doubt the main area that will boom in Africa in the short term future. If you look at big cities like Accra, their biggest issue is water and sanitation. The same applies to other cities like Lagos and Kinshasa with power and roads coming a close second. We focus mostly on water and sanitation as well as roads and infrastructure development because we know how dear these issues are in our countries.
AfricaLive: What impact do you think the African Continental Free Trade Area Agreement will have on your sector, and what opportunities do you foresee for yourself?
Simbi Phiri: The agreement is an inspired idea because it gives us a chance to have a business without borders. We will now be able to go into places like Zimbabwe, Zambia and other countries to compete. It also gives us a chance to compete with multinationals from India and China in those other countries and possibly win which we have done before. The agreement will lay to rest some of the restrictions that were imposed by colonial legacies of the past.
We can now go into areas without worrying about Portuguese or francophone protocols being a barrier. Another big plus is that fellow Africans will see an African-owned organisation like us that is well organised and accomplished and our success will rub on them. Overall, the trade agreement provides a platform where better African companies can set the marker for the rest to follow and catch-up.
AfricaLive: What kind of partners do you seek out for as you look to expand into new markets?
Simbi Phiri: We look for competent like-minded partners and we have found some in Italy, USA, and other places. The companies we have worked with have done business in far-flung areas like Asia and understand how to operate in unfavourable conditions at times. We also have partnerships with companies in Europe as well as some within the continent in places like Kenya. We need to find people that have a passion for changing the status quo and enabling us to develop without being under the auspices of other people. We also want people who care about the people here and are not just interested in profitability.
AfricaLive: What do you believe is the role of the construction and engineering sector when it comes to de-risking Africa in the eyes of international investors?
Simbi Phiri: I believe it’s all about getting projects done on time, within budget, and with proper quality. People will trust you more if you have a track record of delivering what’s needed with allocated funds. Risk comes in when we have companies that do not do what’s required of them with borrowed funds. Once we develop professional and social proof based on the work done with borrowed funds, it will boost our credit rating and make it easier for us to access more capital.
AfricaLive: As much as there is a push to de-risk Africa in the eyes of investors, there is also a need to protect indigenous companies. What can be done to maintain a healthy balance between attracting foreign capital while developing local businesses?
Simbi Phiri: Local content policies are very important because someone will need to maintain the infrastructure that has been built by foreign firms who left upon completion. Local companies also can’t remain in their infancy forever, so some set-asides must be there to help them grow. The state has to intervene by pairing foreign companies with local firms that knowledge can be passed down to. The balance is only possible if we embrace mutually beneficial collaboration. There are reputable and credible companies out there that are willing and able to collaborate with us and pass down skills and knowledge. We have to keep our eyes open for such companies by doing our due diligence.
AfricaLive: What would a truly sustainable future for engineering, construction and infrastructure development look like in Africa?
Simbi Phiri: I believe our future in this industry as far as sustainability will largely depend on solar energy. Solar research and development is a point of focus in many parts of the world. I have a farm myself in Malawi where I have set up a 1-Megawatt plant. For the past year, the farm has only run on solar and things are going well.
Solar is a very viable alternative form of energy and is even cleaner than what we are trying to spread into our villages and cities. Solar plants are coming up in many rural areas and even urban areas all over Africa. If governments can help the solar industry and make it a big part of their energy offering, we can solve a lot of the power-related problems in Africa.
AfricaLive: Is a focus on solar energy the future of Khato Civils as well?
Simbi Phiri: We want to be recognised in this space and we are moving ahead with sealing important partnerships with Canadian firms to get the right competencies. We see this as an emerging sector that will boom some years from now.
AfricaLive: An article on your company from 2017 said that you had plans to have 80% of your operations spread out across Africa by 2022 with only 20% remaining in South Africa; how far are you on this?
Simbi Phiri: We are well on our way in regard to this. We have projects running in Ghana, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Botswana and we have plans to spread out even further. 85 per cent of our staff is based locally, and we have noticed that the continent does not have a problem with South Africans working in their countries.
AfricaLive: How do you see the future of Khato Civils and the future of the continent in your area of specialisation?
Simbi Phiri: The future of Africa lies in our youth who make up the majority of the population. Our company is also energised and vibrant enough to move this continent forward for generations to come. We want to make our mark on the continent’s infrastructure and we believe we have very capable young men and women in our ranks. Problems like food shortages are not occasioned by a lack of food on the continent necessarily, it’s about our underdeveloped land and waterways. If we can step up the infrastructure, we will solve a lot of other problems as well. It is indeed an exciting time for us and we are ready for the work that lies ahead.