An African Experience

Forewarned is Forearmed

“Bulk Handling Today” speaks to Brent Weller, Area Manager – Africa, Riaan Rynders, Technical and CAD Manager and Craig Abbey, Field Service Manager who fill us in on the details. Says Brent, “Right now, about 40 percent of our business is generated by doing business over our borders. The foresight to enter the African market has paid off handsomely, but it was not as easy as it sounds. Taking steps into Africa is time consuming and expensive.

“Although much of the business was generated by ‘following’ our clients into the continent, there is still a lot of groundwork to do. Initially, we did a lot of cold calling and attended many trade shows in order to identify potential agents suitable to sell and service our brand. The mines also helped by recommending suitable candidates.”

Local knowledge

One of the first lessons learnt was that it’s best to select an agent who is respected by the industry and is knowledgeable about the product. “These guys know their way around the mines, the language and the customs of the country,” Brent advises. “Although many mines bring stock in direct, it’s important to have an agent in the country as, without a footprint, it’s hard to get in.”

On the question of language, the company had little joy sourcing translators from the embassy nor the translation bureaus in many countries and ended up using an international translation bureau, based in the UK, who they use to this day. As products change and installation instructions, specs etc, are altered, so these professionals keep clients and users abreast with new manuals, product specs etc.

Says technical manager, Craig, “You can’t expect to appoint any old translator on technical products like ours or you spend the first hour explaining the difference between a green ‘belt’, trouser ‘belt’ and a conveyor belt. By the same token, we have made it our business to select agents who have a technical track record.”

Servicing and maintenance

He is also quick to point out that selling a product is one thing but servicing and maintaining another. “It’s imperative that the agent understand the ethos of fully servicing the client and keeping their operations up and running.”

In South Africa, the company has 38 service teams. Customers’ staff are trained up at Brelko’s premises in Booysens, Johannesburg. A 4-6 week training course covers all the basics, both theoretical and practical. In Africa, the Brelko team goes out to site to train up the various personnel responsible for operating and maintaining equipment. Although not directly responsible for servicing on African installations, the company makes recommendations through routine visual inspections and monthly shutdowns on work to be carried out and keeps a close eye to ensure standards are being upheld.

Says Craig, “An ongoing problem, much like in South Africa, is retaining staff. Poaching is rife, so we work hard to keep up standards especially in light of the fact that French, Portuguese and German are often their first language, rather than English.”

Safe as houses

When asked which countries they most like to visit, both Brent and Craig cite Namibia but they add that most travel and accommodation requirements are more than adequate, especially as these arrangements are usually made by the mine in question. They’re not so keen on Gabon, Mali and Sierra Leone purely because logistics can be fraught but all say that they have never felt threatened or unsafe in any of these countries.

With agents in all the SADC countries as well as Mauritius, Madagascar, Ghana and Tanzania, Brelko is now targeting Mali, Mauritania and a few more central African countries such as Rwanda and Burkina Faso where precious metals are on the up.


On the thorny question of corruption, all three men are strong on the fact that bribery and corruption won’t be tolerated. The company’s stance has occasionally lost it business but they hold firm. Brent adds, “This is not the case with all South African concerns – I can assure you that as a country we no longer hold the moral high ground but at Brelko, we will not enter the bribery fray. We do have to grant some pretty hefty discounts at times, sometimes even when the client is paying over a year late, but this situation is not unique to us and is part of the territory.”

Another part of the territory is the infamous African time. Says Brent, “I don’t have to tell anybody how expensive it is to fly in Africa. The price of one ticket often equates to the same as flying to London, so it’s quite an eyeopener when you arrive punctually for a meeting or a golf day only to have it start literally hours late. But it doesn’t work the other way round, it’s not considered good form at all if you happen to be late for the meeting!”

Another idiosyncrasy is a truck being turned back at a mine because there was no passenger seatbelt despite there being no passenger in the truck – at a cost of R100 000. Then there’s the wrong product that ended up on the wrong ship and was delivered to the wrong mine and duly installed, or a flight booked to Walvis Bay that no one had ever heard of! “It’s also wise to call an air cannon an air blaster or things can get interesting at the border,” Riaan quips.

All on board

We ask whether being a South African company is an advantage or a disadvantage when working in Africa. All three men are definite on the point that it makes no difference either way. The international companies are into Africa boots and all, especially China which differentiates itself by not just building a mine but also contributing significantly to local infrastructure in the way of roads, clinics etc. Kenya and Walvis Bay are successfully positioning themselves as hubs which could pose a threat to South Africa’s ‘gateway to Africa’ status.

So Brelko is operating in a truly global arena. Competition is fierce from all quarters but having made their name in many countries, the company has a firm foothold. As all their products are 100% locally manufactured, lead times are comparatively short which is a distinct advantage. Says Brent, “Our Managing Director, Kenny Padayachee, has over the last couple of years concentrated on not only building up significant stocks but the right mix of products”. In addition, the company has close control over costing and deliveries. With its world class manufacturing facility and a no compromise work ethic, Brelko has given itself a distinct advantage.

Says Riaan, “Our products are excellent as is our backup service. In fact, I would go so far to say we are the acknowledged international leaders in spillage control. Technical challenges spice up my day too like having to supply to various international standards.”

Beautiful continent

Having been ‘on the road’ for over fifteen years we ask Brent to say a final word. “I spend an average of three weeks out of four over our borders and I still enjoy every minute of it. The only sticking point is the time wasted at airports with delays and having to deal with rude and corrupt airport personnel.

“But this niggle aside, it’s exciting cementing our relationships with local SOE’s, mining and project houses, while piggybacking with these clients into Africa and forging new international relationships across the board. Put in the time and the effort and the clients will support you,” he concludes.

Materials Handling
Bulk Handling Today – AUGUST 2016

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