More potential for polystyrene in Namibia

By Sibangani Dube
February 2013
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Forget about Otjiwarongo being just another average sleepy town. However, do not be surprised to find out that your Jaguar, Land Rover or Volkswagen car brand has some of its production process starting in Namibia.

This is but one piece of the puzzle. In the small town lies the Global Polymer Industries. It is a proudly Namibian manufacturing company bent on delivering local and international brands from a humble town.

Global Polymer Industries was founded from scratch by Gerd Sohrada back in 2000. It only had seven employees at inception but 12 years later, the company now has 130 employees on its payroll.

Born and bred in Otjiwarongo, Gerd has had a deep interest in community development. During his tenure at the town as a business development manager he marketed it as a favourable investment destination.

While going about his businesses, he realised that he could also contribute more to the economic development of the country and there came the conception of his Global Polymer Industries.

“The land on which the company stands today, was barren, so we developed it from scratch. We cleared the bush and put up the structures in 1998. In 1999, we constructed the building. In 2000, we started producing,” relates Gerd.

Global Polymer Industries consists of two companies; NapaCon, which is a paper-converting company and the recent soft-drink manufacturing company - both under the same roof.

Global Polymer Industries

The company manufactures polystyrene under its trade name, ‘Styrotex’. This material was developed in Germany by a company called BASF which is one of the better known insulation materials. However , over time, Styrotex developed into a lot of different products.

Gerd explains that for one to relate better to the insulation properties of polystyrene, a look at the domestically used plastic foam cups is evidence enough.

“You can carry hot coffee inside a plastic foam cup because it is insulated. However, if you poured hot coffee into a metal cup, you would not touch the cup because it would be too hot,” says Gerd.

The construction industry and potential

The construction industry uses expanded polystyrene as insulation material, void fillers and decorative finishes

“If you were on a concrete construction site, you would notice that sometimes the constructed structures are designed depending on the density of the concretes.

Architects have to design the structures in such a way that they can carry the load of concretes so that they look like double designed structures. They have to carry something plus the load. The polystyrene is, thus, used to reduce the weight of the concrete structures,” elaborates Gerd.

According to him, since they are the only manufacturers of Styrotex in Namibia, he knows it has a huge potential in the local market.

In addition, polystyrene also has good stabilisation properties, hence it is used on bridge and highway constructions as a filling material.

Gerd stresses: “In general, insulation in the construction industry is very important, as it provides a pleasant working and living environment and conserves energy.

In Europe, the United States of America and the northern hemisphere, polystyrene is one of the products used to insulate buildings against cold temperatures. What insulates against extreme cold temperatures can also insulate against heat, so it goes both ways.”

Here in Africa (and particularly in South Africa, due to constant power shortages), it is important to insulate buildings as temperatures can be unpredictable. Hence, a regulation which mandate all new buildings to be insulated has been passed. Should the similar regulation be passed in Namibia there lies huge potentials.

How about old buildings?

Gerd explains, the renovation industry will be a voluntary market provided that customers or homeowners are convinced that the insulation of a structure is energy and cost-efficient at the end of the day.

Thus, the challenge lies in getting people to use the product. In the mean time, efforts are on track to supply a complete solution to insulate existing buildings.

Styroblocks

Despite its slow up-take by the market, Styroblock is an interlocking block, which can be filled up with concrete. The walls can be plastered with 15 to 18 sand-cement plasters. The Styroblock is especially suitable for housing projects, boundary walls, cold storage facilities, commercial, industrial and institutional buildings.

Specialised automotive packages

Global Polymer Industries designs specialised packaging for automotive parts used in every part of Europe (mainly in Great Britain), in the USA, Russia and Far East China. It additionally supplies companies such as VW, Ford, Opel and Jaguar, to name but a few.

“The big Jaguars driven here in Namibia have chrome window trimmings which were handled in packaging that are made by us, here in Namibia,” Gerd beams, adding; “We currently do packaging for approximately 50 000 cars monthly.”

Fresh food packaging

The product feature of polystyrene is an ideal material for insulation. Thus, this fledging Namibian company manufactures cooler boxes as well as insulation packages for fruits, vegetables and meat products (mostly for the beef and fishing industries).

Seedling trays

As a result of the growing agriculture industry, Global Polymer Industries has started the manufacture of polystyrene seedling trays for the northern green scheme projects.

NapaCon

NapaCon is the arm of the company which manufactures different ranges of toilet papers for local supermarkets. Gerd indicates that there are a few more related products in the pipeline.

At the beginning of the year, Global Polymer Industries began the manufacture of soft drinks whose product ranges are still in their infancy.

“We will soon launch our brand; ‘Vibe Sparkling’ soft drinks,” says Gerd.

Skills

Gerd reveals that getting skilled staff during the initial stages of the company was a huge challenge. They currently use an on-job training programme based on the personality traits of whomever comes through. When the company began, it used the German SES (senior expert service) programme of hiring retired professionals.

Lately, the company has been enrolling its interns from the Polytechnic of Namibia (PoN) since its recent road show. According to Gerd, this is the right approach to education in terms of exposure.

“There are too many “qualified people” who cannot do the job. They come here with zero experience, yet they have high salary expectations that do not tally with their job performance. A salary has to be earned before it can be paid,” advises Gerd.

Government Support

The company boss bemoans the lack of Government support to the Namibian manufactures. “The intention and the framework exist but they are sometimes misused by greedy Government officials,” he says, adding that initially, the company used to supply the Government with toilet paper.

The company has since grown and become financially sound now that it has bought new machinery. However, Gerd feels they are sometimes punished for not paying kick-backs, giving reference to the tender the company lost in August 2011 as a result flimsy excuses.

Sad to note though, the toilet paper used in Government offices are imported from South Africa, yet they can be found locally.

“I am sure this is not the Government’s intention but some greedy officials’. They say it is a get-rich-quick scheme, which we obviously do not want to be part of,” he submits.

And the NMA?

Gerd is unhappy with the “lack of teeth” of the Namibia Manufacturing Association (NMA), which serves as the lobby group that should influence the Government’s decision-making process as far as the local manufacturing industry is concerned.

“I don’t know whether it is an issue of someone not doing their job right or just an issue of capacity. I achieve more on my own,” he fumes.

He thus blames the NMA for failing to deal with the issue around the delays in value added tax (VAT) refunds from the Ministry of Finance, which often take up to eight months. “Our money lies with the Government. All this is cash-flow that sucks companies dry. We are a small entity but what we hear from the members of the NMA about money lying at the Government tax coffers, yet to be refunded, would mean that there is a huge unexplored potential in helping businesses grow,” he asserts.

The future

Be it as it may, Gerd looks to the future with great optimism. He urges other upcoming manufacturers, “not to see Namibia as your only market, rather aim for the global market. Be innovative and then your opportunity doors shall be opened,” he concludes. PF