The United Nations has declared 2013 the International Year of Water Cooperation. According to UN Secretary general Ban Ki Moon: 'Water is central to the well-being of people and the planet, we must work together to protect and carefully manage this fragile, finite resource.'
Writer Ian Armitage
Project manager: Sheridan Halls
Water. It is something we sometimes take for granted and it is often easy to forget its supply is finite.
One day it will run out.
So maintaining sustainable supplies for future generations is one of Africa and the world's biggest challenges.
And this fact makes water and wastewater treatment vital.
Enter South Africa's S.A.M.E Water, a "resourceful dynamic company which offers a wide range of services to the water industry".
The company was formed in September 1966 and has a "successful range" of wastewater treatment equipment "designed to fulfil an entire spectrum of needs from the most basic to the most sophisticated equipment available," according to managing director Frank Schulz.
"We have our own well-equipped manufacturing assembly workshops and skilled staff of approximately 80 people in our Johannesburg and Cape Town offices. Our technical skilled staff include: mechanical engineers, process engineers, environmental engineer, chemical engineers and auto-cad/solid worx drawing program operators and full time maintenance and installation crews," he says.
S.A.M.E. Water's aim is to offer a "full scope" of services, "a type of one stop shop".
"We do tender preparation, project planning, design, manufacturing, installation, commissioning, successful handover and aftersales of a full waste and water treatment plant. It is all planned under one roof," Schulz explains.
Just how important is its work? Well to give this some context, South Africa's Water and Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa recently claimed that there could be a shortage of clean water if South Africans do not work to up conservation efforts. "If we continue with this trend of using water as if it is an infinite resource, we may find ourselves in some form of trouble," she said at a New Age breakfast briefing.
"There have been many predictions and pronouncements in the past... that say South Africa will run out of [clean] water."
She said this was a possibility if South Africans did not help to prevent it.
"We are, however, confident... because our water strategy and our plans for the future are all geared towards sustainability and security of supply," Molewa said.
"We are not sitting back and we want to rely on you as South Africans to work hard. Every one of us must contribute to ensure this statement that is always made is not a reality."
It means business for S.A.M.E is booming.
"South Africa's wastewater infrastructure is under capacity for its population size, and most existing water treatment plants do not meet environmental standards," says Schulz. "We specialise in wastewater treatment solutions, from head of works equipment, sluice gates, grit removal, primary clarification, mixing, aeration, secondary clarification, sludge handling, pump stations, and pond/storage dam dredging. We have large manufacturing facilities, back-up on repairs, maintenance and equipment spares. Our repairs and maintenance of equipment is of high standard, so much so that it is very common for us to be called in to do repairs/maintenance on equipment we didn't originally design or install."
"If our client buys our head of works screening equipment, they can get a complete supply: Inlet sluice gate, screen, conveyor system, waste compaction, waste washing and waste container system," he adds.
What makes S.A.M.E different is that most of its competitors will specialise in certain areas and don't off er the one-stop shop for which it has become famous.
Over the past three financial years the business has seen turnover increase by 30-40 percent annum.
"One of the highs of the last 12 months was being awarded the first phase of the mechanical equipment for the Acid Mine Drainage contract (AMD)," says Schulz when asked to summarise the year. "That contract does represent a challenge in itself, with its sheer size. It is equal to a year's turnover and we also have to handle our normal yearly work."
The business has adapted to meet these new demands. New internal structures and processes have been put in place and dedicated managers have been appointed to handle "specific functions".
"Previously there was more multitasking. We've had to adapt," Schulz says.
Of course cash flow is always a challenge and S.A.M.E is no different to any other business in that respect. It is however in the fortunate position that its solutions meet almost every requirement. "With most of the government/municipal tenders that have been and are in process, our in-house technology will suit 70 to 80 percent of them," says Schultz. "We can really pick and choose the contracts that we want to bid at the moment. It's obviously another big task getting the award."
"As previously mentioned a large majority of our wastewater plants do not meet environmental standards, hence there is a definite increase in repairs and replacement of new equipment into existing plants."
Of course cheap imports continue to flood the market and S.A.M.E is quick to acknowledge that. "Like most manufacturing companies, one of our biggest challenges is cheap imports and our technology which is not suited for Africa conditions," Schulz says. S.A.M.E's advantage is that it was quick to realise how fast the industry would grow.
"Five years ago we realised that there was going to be a big growth in our industry, so we purchased adjoining property to our Johannesburg office and built additional workshops, stores and a complete new contracts/technical office block. We basically doubled our facilities. I'm hoping we are now okay for the next five to 10 years."
That though is difficult to predict. It is almost impossible to tell what contracts will pop up and when. Or what the demands of the market will be.
"That is the unpredictable nature of the industry," says Schulz. "The contracts definitely require equipment that is much bigger to say five or 10 years ago and at this stage we are going down the route of using sub-contractors to handle overload."
This allows S.A.M.E time to focus on innovation and new technology, he says.
"We will listen to our clients; reengineer existing equipment or try and find new technology in other counties. The U.S. has been very good over the last three or four years."
In terms of future potential, Schulz is optimistic about the fortunes of S.A.M.E's inland dredging equipment business.
"We started that new division four or five years back and it is basically a big submersible pump mounted on a floating barge, which is driven up and down a sludge waste pond. The sludge is pumped out of the pond to land for further processing. The big plus is that our client does not have to isolate the pond being dredged."
And opportunities exist all over Africa, not just for this part of the business – but all of its services.
"Our positioning is very good I believe, mainly because we have equipment experience that we know functions well in Africa. The equipment is simple to maintain and operate," Schulz says. "We have started supplying some big projects over our borders; mainly Namibia, Zambia and Botswana, I hoping it will grow from here. Zimbabwe / Mozambique should also be interesting in time."
"Our biggest stumbling block would be to find active partners in these and other countries in Africa."
Growing populations and the increasing shortage of water means there will always be a huge demand for the type of services S.A.M.E offers. Schulz feels African governments could do much more to secure our water future.
"Government decision makers must spend their finial allowances - which is generally not enough - wisely," he says. "They have to choose contracting companies that have history to do the work. Often enough, these government departments will award work to European/American companies that don't have Africa experience."
"I would also like to see companies in Africa have a financial advantage in local contracts. Our African nation is growing not only in population but also in wisdom and there is so much more we can do locally. I would like to see "In Africa" given the right opportunities."
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