The lighting business has been quite predictable over a long period of time. Technical changes were introduced slowly, dominated by a handful of leading companies, and mostly due to new, but not disruptive light sources. The introduction of LEDs as a light source was a disruptive occurrence.
The Inspired Africa (TIA) spoke to Grandstage Trading’s Founder, Christine Masaiti (CM), about the company’s technological developments and the future of LED’S.
Growing up, Christine always wanted to run her own business where she would work with ambitious experts. She is a strategist par excellence, she also boasts of the ability to motivate her staff into implementing strategies at every level. She is the founder and CEO of Grandstage Trading and believes her company’s efforts supported by the policies in Africa, could be the right formula to ridding Africa of darkness at night through sustainable energy savers that they produce.
TIA: Several women have ventured into business and have chosen varied sectors, why did you choose lights?
CM: The big draw of LED bulbs, of course, is efficiency. They use up to 75% less energy than incandescent ones and last 25 times longer. Around the time LEDs started to catch on, I attended one of the biggest lighting trade shows in China and I basically saw a solution to Africa’s lighting challenges. I knew that the possibilities had just become infinite and the world had forever changed.
TIA: Do you think Africa has afforded female business people; especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, a conducive environment for success?
CM: Many countries in Africa do not have appropriate legal and policy frameworks to protect and nurture the informal economy and to protect women as is the case in the formal sector. The generally low level of education and lack of business literacy among women contributes to this significantly. It also means they cannot have the same level of access to finance as their male counterparts. Most women use their own sources of income, which are frequently meagre, to raise capital for their business. This may be supplemented through borrowing from their neighbours and families as well as their own savings. The requirements for bank credit, tends to be cumbersome and women are consequently side-lined. Women are also at times categorised as a high-risk group for credit. The lack of assets and capital required for collateral limit their potential to grow their business. These issues appear to validate the perception that women are non-bankable. This is a critical factor that limits opportunities for women to grow their businesses and exacerbates the inequality between men and women in the informal economy.
Many trade policies in Africa are gender neutral and what presents a challenge is that they do not contain provisions to address informal trade, let alone women in the sector. If women in the informal economy are to be promoted, there is a need to develop policies that specifically target them.
Governments should formulate national informal economy policies to address the needs of the sector and as a way of recognising the sector as an equally important player in the national economy. However, this should involve informal economy workers themselves as the main participants in the policy formulation.
TIA: Do you think it is best for women to get preferential treatment in the marketplace?
CM: Hahaha! We all wish things we want in life can come easy but in most cases that is only a dream. Women entrepreneurs are starting to be recognised in the marketplace especially in fields where men dominate like industries and manufacturing. The Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) and Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) have joined forces to boost women entrepreneurship by improving access to business funding for women; this is great news to most of us.
TIA: How big is your organisation and how significant is your market share as compared to the big brothers of the trade?
CM: Despite Grandstage Trading’s main competitors with an established customer base in the market, Grandstage believes its competitive advantage over these organisations is that the company has a philosophy for trade that suits the South African and African markets as much as possible without being too far removed from the global structures of trade in the industry. This ensures that the company maintains relevance with its immediate sphere of influence as well as keep pace with current methods of conducting business in the lighting industry worldwide. For example, the economy places a premium on job creation with a particular emphasis on the manufacturing industry as per several industry policies and major trade trend makers including the National Development Plan. South Africa’s manufacturing industry consistently contributes a respectable portion to the country’s growth on a yearly basis and this presents a lot of potential for Grandstage’s contribution to growth in the lighting industry of South Africa. By sticking to the expansion plan countrywide and continued alignment with state utilities (for example) where its services are concerned, the company is confident that it will maintain and enhance its competitive advantage. For as much as the business is a profit driven enterprise, the economy’s immediate needs (such as local production) are woven into our business philosophy.
Furthermore, the company’s pricing policy is tailored into the consumer’s budget as the products provided are solution-based and value-adding to the customer. What makes the business to stand out from competition is the initiative where the company is partnering with schools around the country, and ensuring that every student has proper lighting methods for studying, and getting rid of candle sticks and kerosene lamps which have hazardous effects to health. Additionally, for every bulb purchased by learners at their school, Grandstage will donate a percentage of the sales towards the school library or other school requirements. Grandstage is working on a documentary that would show-case the experiences of students before and after using the Grandstage products, and testify of the benefits. The objective is that Grandstage would use the documentary as a motivation to the Department of Education for the purposes of getting the government on board, to subsidize the bulbs for all students. Our mission is to make sure that all students in South Africa have safe and proper lighting for studying purposes by 2020.
TIA: Countries like Zimbabwe have imposed bans on the traditional light bulbs opting for LEDs, how do you think such laws can benefit countries in light of Sustainable Development Goals?
CM: Much of Africa is in the dark at night, what lighting they do have is costing the country and its people dearly, while the developed world including China converts to LED lighting. A tipping point has been reached in the development of LED lighting that can now be used for general high-quality lighting in almost all applications. A switch to LED lighting will help combat climate change, save energy and improve people’s lives through increased well-being, safety and productivity where they live and work. LED lighting offers both dramatic savings in energy use and maintenance costs, while at the same time enhancing the feeling of safety, security and comfort of people on streets and public spaces, in buildings and at home. We at Grandstage challenge all African countries to follow on Zimbabwe’s footsteps.
TIA: Given that you are Zimbabwean, do you hope to one day go back home and set up a business to assist your country’s employment challenges?
CM: When we attended the 2017 Africa Energy Indaba in South Africa early this year, we met with delegates from The Zimbabwean Electricity Supply Authority and that’s when we discussed the phasing out of traditional lights to LEDs. We are currently sourcing funding to open a warehouse in Zimbabwe to uplift the employment opportunities and maybe the economy as well.
TIA: You are in the manufacturing business, several women that need start-ups venture into retail, what is your advice to them in terms of viability and longevity?
CM: To start, they’ll need to ask themselves some serious strategic questions about their product’s potential. Are their ideas practical? What obstacles lie ahead? They will need to have a good concept and focus on the product first. Even if the concept is good, but the product is bad, people will just avail at the start to try it out, but they will not be coming back.
You need to have an efficient operating system and should not bank on debt to bankroll your business. Obtaining the needed capital for your business is a necessary step, but it would be wise to use your own money, so in case the business doesn’t do well, no one will come after you. The rule is: you only invest what you are prepared to lose. Then the last thing is you have to maintain a good customer service level.