From backyard to one stop water engineering firm

December 2012 - January 2013
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Water Engineering Africa is the new kid on the block in the construction world. Established three years ago, the company has moved to the forefront as a company of choice in the northern regions of Namibia.

Water Engineering Africa to this date has been awarded twenty-five, multi-million dollar projects and most of them have already been successfully completed within time, while some are still ongoing but at an impressive rate.

Tangeni Nghiwewelekwa is the force behind this young and promising company. According to Tangeni, hard work, team work, communication and customer satisfaction are some of the levers which have propelled this business to where it is today. Despite this impressive record in such a short time, Tangeni feels he is still not there yet, there is still more to be done.

Prime Focus met the hands-on and entrepreneurial Tangeni and he shared with us some nuggets of business wisdom he has gleaned from his experience…enjoy!

PF: How did you find yourself in the water engineering business?

TN: My first job was at Eenhana Town Council and then I moved to Oshakati Town Council. While I was with the Oshakati Town Council, the idea to join the private sector came to me because I strongly believe that unemployment can only be reduced if many people embark on private business ventures.

I also believe that the government alone cannot reduce unemployment. So I went with the idea. Luckily, when I was about to resign from Oshakati Town Council I was approached by Helmut Geiger, the owner of a well-known pump company called ELWIWA, based in Windhoek. He had an idea of opening a branch in the north. We sat down and we came to an agreement that I would be running his business in the north.

That move strengthened my idea more, because when I joined ELWIWA I eventually got a good grasp of how the private sector operates. This includes issues around the business models, the market as well as identifying customers and meeting their expectations.

I was with ELWIWA for 3 years and then I decided to take the risk and enter the market on my own.

That was in 2009 between June and July. I registered my company with the Ministry of Industry and Trade. My wife and I had saved to buy office equipment as well as setting up my small office at the back of my house. I then started looking for work. It took me almost a year to secure my first project. I must tell you that this was difficult time of my life because as a family we were surviving on the income of my wife. But, because of my commitment to succeed I kept pushing until we had a breakthrough by securing the first and second project.

The year 2010 was very busy for me, especially towards the end. So that is how Water Engineering Africa came into existence.

PF: What specific portfolios were you holding in those town councils?

TN: I started at the bottom. Right after completing my vocational training at Valombola Vocational Training College in 1998, I had to look for a job to earn a living. In 1999, I was offered a job at Eenhana Town Council as a handyman and after a year I was promoted to the position of Artisan.

In June 2000 -this was a lucky year for me- I joined the Oshakati Town Council as an artisan. In September that year, I married my lovely wife, Noah. After three years at Oshakati Town Council, I was promoted to the position of wet services foreman.

PF: What would you say attributed to your sudden rise in all these portfolios?

TN: For you to be promoted it takes your superiors to recognise your capabilities, how you handle your job and how you carry yourself. First of all, I am a hardworking person, secondly I have always been a team player, and I have been always willing to take the lead.

When I joined Eenhana Town Council, it had just started, there were no technical people. We were the first people to be there and we had to start everything from scratch. I am sure the qualities of being a hard worker, leader and always thinking ahead worked in my favour for promotion.

PF: Back to your business; why water engineering per se?

TN: First of all, my entire career has been about water and engineering, and I realised that there is a gap in the water industry especially in the northern part of our country Let me use an example of our communal farmers. Many of the farms has boreholes and if the pump has a mechanical problem or needs to be replaced with a new one, they were forced to travel to Windhoek and if they want someone to do the installation, then again that person has to come from Windhoek.

One can imagine the costs involved in this whole process. We all know that water is life and without water we cannot survive. So when I decided to go into business, I named the business Water Engineering Africa because I am not only looking at Namibia as a country but also beyond borders. One would not want to have a business name that will limit you to a specific location or region.

PF: Do you have projects running out of the country?

TN: Yes, we’ve had projects in Angola, in the Kwando Kubango Province, in a town called Minogue we set up a portable water purification plant. As I mentioned earlier, our business is still very small but the idea is to operate all over Africa.

PF: Can you take us through some of the products and services you offer your clients?

TN: We are a construction company; we offer turnkey projects be it a water reticulation design, construction, sewer reticulation for urban areas, and we construct sewer pump stations for urban areas. We are also involved in the construction of buildings such as government offices and houses. We are also involved in the construction of water supplies for rural areas, which includes the rehabilitation and installation of boreholes. In addition, Water Engineering Africa is a supplier of water, sewer, boreholes and oil pumps. We further supply pipes, fittings and related accessories.

PF: Looking at your profiles you have 25 iprojects and most of them successfully completed, what is your model for success?

TN: I believe that for me to succeed in anything, I need to pass over the information to people who I think will need my services as a company. So, I believe in continuous marketing and networking with others entrepreneurs, so that I am always well informed of all happenings within the industry and beyond.

I believe in team work; my wife is also involved in the business, she is at the helm of the Finance, Human Resources and Administration. At the beginning, she was working for the company part time and I decided that the business needed her on a full time basis, hence, she resigned from her job in November 2011.

The moment somebody close to you is involved (this is something I have just learnt) you are planning every minute, hence bringing this business to the level at which it is. My wife’s involvement and understanding of the business has also allowed me to concentrate on the technical side of the business, as well as lobbying for more work, because I am sure the rest is taken care of.

I believe that team work is always the key if you want to succeed, I believe alone I will not be able to do everything at the same time. I am the managing member of the company and I have the project engineer. Both of us run projects but we divide these projects among ourselves. We are not yet there but I see something coming, and I see something happening.

PF: Working with your wife, how do you manage to separate the domestic issues and business- something that most people fail to do?

TN: Both me and my wife understand the difference between our private lives and the business. Of course, whenever people are working together, there will be misunderstandings. We deal with them accordingly and then move on.

These issues are dealt with separately, if there is a misunderstanding in the office we deal with it at the office and if it’s at home we deal with it at home. I know at times it is challenging but it is worth the effort. The fact that both of us had served in various capacities at bigger institutions has enable us to craft a conducive working environment for ourselves and all employees.

PF: Engineering is a highly competitive industry. What would you say are your key selling points to stay ahead of the pack?

TN: According to my research, most of the dominant engineering companies are based in Windhoek. We are sitting about 750km from them. At the moment, because of our proximity we operate without much competition. So far we are the only one-stop engineering firm based in the north.

We operate in such a way that we give our clients a package. If for example a client wants a pump, we supply and them with the pump, the switchboard, as well as all other accessories and lastly, the installation thereof.

We have workshops where we do our repairs, preventing situations where you buy a pump at a building supplies shop and tomorrow when you have problems, repairing it takes years. Or even worse, you are told that they don’t take sold items back. The approach we have taken so far has given us very good leverage in keeping us close to both our new and old clients.

PF: Money issues aside, what socio-economic development has Water Engineering Africa brought to this part of the country?

TN: We have done our part in improving the quality of life for our countrymen through employment creation. We currently employ one hundred and forty people both contractual and permanent. We have been able to keep this staff base over the past three years, something I consider an achievement. I believe that it is up to the government to look at such businesses that create employment for our people, by actively engaging upcoming entrepreneurs in order for them to team up with foreign investors. I believe the economy of our country will only grow if we are able to manufacture our own products, rather than depending on other countries.

PF: On that note, how involved is your company with job attachments to tertiary students?

TN: We do provide opportunities for students from the Polytechnic of Namibia and Vocational Colleges with job attachments for their trainees. As a company we understand the many challenges students face in accessing internships-some of us came from that background.

Hence, we have a very clear policy on job attachments: to facilitate that important part of education and training so that when students eventually graduate they have sound knowledge and skills on how to apply themselves in the work environment.

PF: There has been an outcry on the tendering process, how has the system worked for, or against you?

TN: I believe in competition; I make sure that our prices are competitive and I also ensure that at the end of the day the company survives by making sure that all salaries and overheads are fully covered. That’s how we do our tenders- very simple and straight forward. Based on that, we find the process working for us in many respects.

PF: What is your take on the Chinese ‘hijacking’ the tender process and the construction industry?

TN: I believe that the issue of the Chinese should be handled in such a way that they focus more on skills transfer. I don’t want the Chinese to build bridges and put up sewer networks while there are no Namibian nationals involved in the whole process.

What I would suggest is, yes, they have the knowledge, skills and technical know-how; they know how to tender and plan for the work. All this knowledge should be transferred to the locals in the industry. Equally, when we Namibians go out to do major projects abroad, we should transfer our knowledge and skills to nationals of that respective country.

The government has created a playing field for us; but the policies regarding skills transfer are either not enforced or are not well understood by those at the helm of implementing them. What I have seen happening is that Chinese companies teams up with dormant companies which are owned by a certain group of Namibian elites. The Chinese company will execute the project without any involvement of the other local company and at the end they share the profit and both parties are happy. This vicious cycle will repeat itself over and over again and this will never take our country anywhere in terms of economic development.

PF: What has been the most difficult challenge in your business?

TN: Finance has always been the most difficult thing, at times you want to do something but the finance is not there. This is a typical challenge for most of the entrepreneurs and we are constantly trying to weathers this storm by ensuring that we invest in the business in terms of equipments and tools as well as human resources development.

The other challenge we had been having, especially with our first few projects is when we had to redo part of our work after the consulting engineers final inspections. Imagine, you thought you were finished, and at times you have already moved the employees to another site, then you are obliged to start the whole process from the beginning, this exercise is costly.

However, as a company we have realised that we needed to come up with our own internal quality control mechanism in order to ensure that these occurrences are eliminated. So, the Project Engineer developed the Quality Control Manuals that are being used by all Site Foremen at various sites and I can tell you it is working and we are already reaping the results.

PF: How about banks, we have all the four commercial banks well represented in the north?

TN: If you go the commercial banks and say you want N$ 2million, in return they want a surety or guarantee of the same amount. If I want two million and you want a guarantee of two million, where do I get it? However they have helped us with overdrafts transactions from time to time but this is a short term solution and one is always looking for long term ones.

PF: How about the Development Bank of Namibia?

TN: Yes, the Development Bank of Namibia has helped us so far. The financial issue has been a major problem because the money you require is not what the banks give you. Then you are forced to operate within a very limited budget

PF: Let’s touch on managing success. Some people lose their sanity when they win a tender, spending on big cars, holidays and all the trappings of a million dollar tag. How did you escape this temptation?

TN: As I mentioned earlier, we are not yet there, we have not succeeded as yet, we are still moving to that stage. But I must tell you that I understand that the business or the tenders which have been awarded to us, if I can give you an example of somebody who has been awarded a tender of say three million Namibian dollars. What one must understand is that the three million dollars is not theirs, because you need to pay your suppliers for materiral used, as well as the business overheads and the salaries.

There is therefore no need to buy a big car or go on holiday, but of course I do have a car -but not an expensive one (laughs). I also go for holidays- not expensive ones, just to relax and have quality time with the family after the long, hard year of being out there in the field. One should look take into consideration that there may be times when business will be slow, so one need to put something aside for those periods.

PF: How do you motivate your teams to move in one direction?

TN: Information sharing and communication are two important tools. When it comes to leadership, people must stay informed at all times and communication should always be clear.To be a leader, you need to be able to inspire others to learn and achieve more at work and in their personal lives. One also needs to be a role model. For example, when I am around at the office, my colleagues will find me at the office and will leave me there. So, this have created a positive attitude within our staff and sometimes you will see them also knocking of an hour later and it is regarded as normal.

I am also constantly encouraging the employees to take ownership of the business because if the business go down the drain, it is not only Tangeni who will lose an income but all of us and remember at one point unemployment was said to be standing at 50%.

PF: How important is health and safety for your company?

TN: Safety should be mandated at all times, if safety measures and procedures are not in place someone can easily die in the work place and as a result we take this as into very serious considerations.

We conduct staff trainings on health and safety on a regular basis, so that they are aware of the importance of health and safety at the workplace. We also pursuing the idea of awarding those who we think have been actively promoting health and safety at workplace in order to motivate others to follow suit.

PF: How do you contribute to society, small as you may be?

TN: For the past three years of existence we have invested close to N$60 000 in our corporate social responsibility as a business. We sponsored the Kapuka tournament, in 2011 and we have also sponsored prize-giving ceremonies of which my father (Heita Nghiwewelekwa) is a patron in Ohangwena Education Circuit, where we even went out and lobbied other companies to join in our effort to make a difference in the community around us. We are planning to do more as we believe that socio economic development can only be achieved if all stakeholders are supporting government’s efforts in this regard.

PF: Where do you see Water Engineering Africa in next five years?

TN: We are a construction company and a supplier at the same time, I am aware that there will be a lot of construction going on in the county with especially the government’s TIPEEG program. It is a well known fact that these initiatives will come to an end and where will that leave us as enterprenuers in the construction industry? With that in mind, I personally believe in diversification. So we are exploring other business avenues to undertake while the time is right. These are our future plans but we cannot divulge much more at the moment.

PF: Thank you Mr. Nghiwewelekwa, we wish you all the best in your endeavors. PF

PROFILE: Who is Tangeni Nghiwewelekwa?

Tangeni Nghiwewelekwa was born on the 09 June 1974 at Engela in the Ohangwena Region and was raised by his parents, Heita and Ndapewa Nghiwewelekwa, together with his two siblings and cousins. He attended his primary school at Engela Primary School.

In 1979, his father, a School Principal by then, went to join the liberation struggle of this country. In 1987, her mother decided to resign from her nursing profession to join the husband in exile, it also meant that she would take her children along, he was 13 years at the time.

In 1988, Tangeni was selected to go and study to Germany where he was trained as a Rohrleitungsbau (Technician for Pipe Construction), at Chemie AG in Halle, Germany. In 1991, he came back to Namibia to unite with his family. Upon his return he took up employment at TCL Mine in Tsumeb for a year after which he decided to further his studies at Valombola Vocational Training Centre, where he obtained a Vocational Trade Diploma in Plumbing and Pipe Fitting in 1998.

In June 1999, he started working as a Handyman at Eenhana Town Council and 6 months later he was promoted to the position of an Artisan. In June 2000, he joined Oshakati Town Council as an Artisan and after 3 years, he was elevated to the position of Foreman – Wet Services. His key responsibilities was to ensure that the water and sewer reticulation in the town was running effectively and well maintained in order to avoid disruption of services.

Given this huge responsibility he took it upon himself to put in place and also enforced some mechanisms to ensure that preventative maintenance were in place. While in this position he took the initiative the design of the Wet Services Master plan for Oshakati Town. The master plan was aimed at stipulating the existing wet services infrastructures, so as to enable the council to make informed decisions when it comes to future extension of the town.

In 2006, a Windhoek based engineering company specializing in pump, identified a gap in the industry and decided to open a branch in Ondangwa and as such was looking for a dynamic person who is well conversant with the water industry in the north as well as the ability to market products and services that the company offers, especially to the Local and Regional government.

It was on that basis that he was appointed as a Projects Manager due to the fact that he was at the helm of the wet services at one of the biggest Town Council in the north. He had to start this branch from scratch, with limited resources.

His key responsibilities were to market products and services; design, managing and commissioning of civil, mechanical and electrical projects within his area of operation; just to mention but a few. His new job was very challenging as he was expected to meet monthly sales targets. But, because of his hard work and dedication to what he does, one numerous occasions he exceeded his targets.

However three years later he decided to start his own company as it has always been his dream to work for myself. His father had always insisted that he needed to work for at least 10 years, in order to gather enough experience before starting a business.

Tangeni is a family man, married to Noah, his wife of 12 years, who is also serving as a Finance Executive of Water Engineering Africa. Tangeni is a proud father of three adorable children, a daughter, Ndalilashiwa (11 years) and two sons Tuhanganeni (7 years) and Tunombili (2 years). PF