Foton, a brand until now seen in South Africa only on minibus taxis and panel vans, is set to expand its SA line-up with a range of single and double-cab bakkies in variants aimed at both commercial and leisure-market customers.

Vice-president for overseas operations, Dong Haiyang, said at the brand launch in Cape Town on Tuesday: "South Africa is very important to us as a stepping stone into Africa, for distribution, sales and service of our vehicles."

A state-owned company founded in 1996, Beiqi Foton Motors is now China's biggest truck bus and bakkie manufacturer - and the second largest in the world after Daimler, with which it signed a cooperation agreement in January 2009.

It was introduced locally in July 2007 by the McCarthy Group but is now distributed by Amalgamated Automobile Distributors (AAD), a joint venture between McCarthy and Imperial Holdings.

From 1996, when it built 26 030 vehicles, Foton has grown to 11 manufacturing and assembly plants in China and a further six in Russia, Iran, Pakistan, Vietnam, Indonesia and Mexico, with another five factories under construction outside China. It employs more than 26 000 people and produced more than 600 000 vehicles in 2009.

It has also recently signed an agreement with American engine maker Cummins to produce as many as 400 000 light-duty diesel engines a year for the Chinese and international markets.

Foton is targeting production of a million vehicles a year, with at least 20 percent going to export markets.