“My father would be proud”, says service provider from Atteridgeville

Kennedy Makua explodes with laughter so suddenly he almost falls off his stool.  He is thinking about what his late father would say if he could see him now, a boy from Atteridgeville outside Pretoria, marketing a start-up engineering services company at the Cape Town International Boat Show. “He would be saying, Kennedy, you are broke again!” laughs Makua through a crescent grin. “But, yes, he would be proud too.”

Makua’s journey from dusty Atteridgeville to an exhibition stand at the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront marina is one of the more remarkable stories from this year’s Boat Show. He is the first to admit he feels somewhat out of place, a rare black face looking out across a sea of paler complexion, a small pile of pamphlets and business cards his only tools to coax potential clients away from more eye-catching outboard engine demonstrations across the aisle. Makua knows it is not easy competing for attention in a sector he knows little about, having worked most of his years in the food processing industry. But that doesn’t stop him trying.

“It has been very tough,” he says. “I still call myself an infant in this market – I’m still a baby needing to be grown.”

However it would be a mistake to underestimate Makua and other new-entrant players struggling to be noticed on the fringes of the Show.  Just like the shiny new hulls on the water a few metres away from his stool, Makua represents the future direction of the blue economy, a future slowly drifting into focus.  In Makua’s story are clues as to how others might follow in his footsteps.

The son of a school teacher mom and an oil industry father, Makua was fortunate enough to finish school and graduate from Cape Peninsula Tech with a degree in mechanical engineering. Why mechanical engineering?  Makua suspects it may have been family pressure to enter a known profession: “I wanted to study medicine, which was a common ambition for youngsters at that time.”

However he followed the advice of his father, who worked many years for Engen (formerly Mobil), and studied at Peninsula Tech, followed by in-service training at SA Breweries in Newlands.

It was during this time that Makua had occasion to admire vessels berthed inside the Port of Cape Town, a sight that made a lasting impression: “Being a mechanical engineer I would stop and watch ships being sandblasted. I might not have been in the marine sector yet, but I was fascinated.”

Makua believes these early visits to the Waterfront planted a maritime seed that might help explain his presence at this year’s Boat Show.

But it was by no means easy: 18 years making cans for Nampac in Paarl; three years for Tongaat in Kliprivier; then on to Pioneer Foods in Epping as Engineering Maintenance Manager. From there Makua decided to go it alone and formed Buntu Mbande Investments (BMI) in 2013, based in Johannesburg. He says he now enjoys the thrill of being his own boss, no matter the roller-coaster ride. “I do basically what I have been doing all my life: zooming in and providing services, supplying spare parts, doing maintenance, both mechanical and electrical, for various sectors. When you are working for yourself it is like you are fulfilling your vision. When you earn R1 you celebrate like nobody’s business.”

Makua uses a cooking analogy to explain his business philosophy: you can dish up any old stuff, or you learn to offer something special: “What differentiates a company like mine is the kind of cooking I must do.”
Makua doesn’t settle for ordinary cooking.

Ordinary is also not a word you hear much from Alfred Maneveld from Mega Marine, another new addition to the maritime landscape, although Maneveld himself is no stranger to the trade. A veteran with over 30 years in the industry, Maneveld learned his trade in yards like Sterling and Southern Wind, before moving on to Veecraft. His passion for maritime saw him leapfrog paler-faced colleagues into a management position before he was 30, at a time when the colour bar was still commonplace in the labour market.  If he is bitter about anything it is the lack of financial support for start-up businesses like his own which lack the means to build spec boats to compete for lucrative new build contracts, such as those on offer under Phakisa. “To get to that (spec) stage, you need money,” says Maneveld, whose boatyard narrative is as stocky as his nuggety physique. “We need a programme that could do something like work with new companies to develop a new product – and not just develop specs around existing yards.”

Maneveld also stresses the need for sustained skills training, something he tries to do within his company at his 400 m2   facility in Tokai. “I’m an old school guy and I want to give back. I’ve taken a lot of youngsters and developed them into good artisans – I grew among those okes,” he says. “The environment I’m in is my passion. Not my job, it is my life. There are a lot of guys who are talented but they need somebody to develop them.”

Is there space for new turnkey boat builders in the current market? Most definitely yes, says Maneveld, who also sees market resurgence from 2019. Mega Marine is currently busy with several projects with good future potential, including a tie-up with Gemini who distribute the NZ-developed SeaLegs amphibian technology. “We work with various naval architects, with small boats and larger vessels. We adapt to suit the local market,” he says.

Maneveld says some advice years ago from a legendary boat builder has stood him in good stead: “He told me, ‘Alfred, think clearly and keep it simple.’”

“That’s what I’m trying to do.”

Another new entrant trailblazer is Timothy Jacobs from Bayside Marine, also a debutant exhibitor at this year’s Cape Town Boat Show. For Jacobs the financial pediments for newcomers like himself urgently need to be addressed: “All of us (new entrants) face the same challenges when it comes to access to funding,” Jacobs says. “We were approved two years ago through the national industrial programme, but nothing came from it, so we are still where we were then.”

“If we want to compete with the big companies then we need that assistance from government,” says Jacobs, who is stuck in an infuriating Catch 22 like so many emerging entrepreneurs: to qualify for tenders they need a track record; for a track record they need tenders.

But Jacobs believes there is at least a positive momentum with regard to transformation in the maritime sector, exemplified by broader participation in the Boat Show: “We see it as an opportunity to market ourselves and to get some leads,” he says.

Jacobs also sees value in SABBEX and the recently-launched Western Cape maritime cluster with its promise of work partnerships. “It seems the big guys are willing to help the little guys,” Jacobs concludes.

With the right support, Jacobs sees no reason why the next generation of learner boat builders should not be admiring a Mega Marine or Bayside Boat in the drydock at the V&A Waterfront.

Add in some meaningful investment and Kennedy Makua’s father can rest peacefully in his grave after all.

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