By Babington Maravanyika
Pretoria - Nissan is determined to expand into sub-Saharan Africa, from its firm footprint in Rosslyn; it’s one of several the manufacturers based in the capital city, making it one of the country’s automotive hubs.
The Pretoria News was taken on a tour of the Nissan plant by production manager Michael McEnaney, from the start with robots and humans working together to the point when the car is ready for a road test.
McEnaney said although their South African plant was well equipped, it was lagging behind countries such as Britain, the United States and Japan in terms of the latest technology.
The complexity of car manufacturing requires highly skilled manpower, and it’s no surprise that Nissan has begun construction of a multi-million rand incubation centre at its Rosslyn plant.
The centre will train not only Nissan employees, but also employees of companies that will Nissan with services under the Black Economic Empowerment scheme.
Nissan managing director Mike Whitfield, who is also the president of the National Automotive Manufacturers Association of South Africa, said the automotive industry in the country was set to be among the best in a few years because of the unwavering support it was getting from the government.
He said the Department of Trade and Industry had a sound automotive policy that had led to the creation of a vibrant industry through the Automotive Production and Development Programme which is set to continue post 2020.
“Continuity of policy is key to decision-making in an industry such as ours, in which we have to think many years ahead,” Whitfield said. “We‘re confident the automotive sector will remain at the forefront of the minds of government policymakers in South Africa as they chart the growth of our country’s economy.”
He said although the motor industry had experienced challenges in the form of high interest rates, a weak rand and high debt levels, there was still light at the end of the tunnel. He said in 2015 the automotive industry managed to sell more than 600 000 cars in spite of all these challenges, contributing 7.5 percent of the country’s GDP.
For every job the automotive industry created, said Whitfield, eight other jobs were created in the supply industry.
Nissan builds about 40 000 NP200 and NP300 pick-ups a year at Rosslyn, of which 15 000 are exported.
Both models have done well locally and are set to make inroads into sub-Saharan Africa as Nissan expands its operations. Plans are afoot to raise this number to 75 000 a year during Phase One of expansion, and 100 000 a year during Phase Two.
Nissan has a manufacturing plant in Nigeria but the major challenge there is second-hand cars because, unlike South Africa where the importation of second-hand cars is banned, that is not the case in Nigeria.
Whitfield said the company was in talks with the Nigerian government on the need to regulate the importation of used cars so that the new vehicle market could grow. Most of the imported vehicles were being dumped in Africa although they were not manufactured for African conditions.
Prohibitive interest rates in the rest of Africa - as high as 24 percent - were among the major stumbling blocks for the new car industry on the continent, he said, but the African Association of Automotive Manufacturers was engaging African governments to find a way of resolving these obstacles.
Whitfield said in spite of all these challenges Nissan’s strategy of playing a significant role in Africa would not be derailed.
“We believe strongly in Africa’s potential,” he said. “Ours is a long-term strategy, and we realise the road ahead won’t always be smooth.
“We will continue to strongly chase our Africa strategy in pursuit of becoming one of the top brands on the continent,” he said.
Despite its challenges, Africa remained the last economic frontier and still presented much opportunity, he added.
Whitfield said with APDP support, Nissan’s goal was to expand the capability and capacity of its local plant as it prepared for future growth in Africa.
Whitfield said the tough economic conditions had resulted in cash-strapped consumers opting for affordable cars, hence Nissan’s decision to launch the Datsun Go.
This car was doing well in the country as well as across Africa, he said.
One of Nissan’s key global goals, he said, was to offer affordable, alternative energy vehicles.
“This is part of our commitment to reducing or eliminating carbon dioxide emissions in the face of global warming.
In line with such thinking, Nissan had introduced the Nissan Leaf, the world’s first mass-produced electric vehicle and still the top seller at almost 200 000 globally.
Launched in South Africa in 2013, the Leaf still faces challenges in establishing a stable, countrywide battery-charging network.
Whitfield said Nissan was working in a strategic partnership with BMW in establishing charging points compatible with both BMW and Nissan electric vehicles.
With a current range of 150km when fully charged, the Leaf was an ideal vehicle for going to and from work as the distance travelled by most people was well below the Leaf’s range.
Whitfield said despite economic and other challenges the motor industry faced, he was optimistic that the industry would overcome, given the steadfast support they were receiving from the government.
“We look forward to continued support from the government to open the doors for the South African auto industry across the continent. And we are confident the government of South Africa will play a leading role in bringing down some of the trade barriers that still make doing business in Africa a tough task even for the most determined,” Whitfield said.
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