The spacious and beautiful office of Raman Dhawan, the quiet and unassuming MD of Tata Africa Holdings, has a lot of greenery with a mini-golf course on the terrace; quaintly characteristic of the continent his company operates in. Starting with Zambia in 1977, Dhawan has carefully nurtured the Tata endeavour in Africa.
His well thought-out strategy of crafting partnerships with Tata Group companies has created a footprint for the Group over several business verticals in nine African countries. He has also strictly followed the Tata Code of Conduct while doing business in a faraway land; so much so that it has become a Tata imprint in the continent.
Dhawan has contributed greatly to changing African perceptions about the ‘Made in India’ tag. He spoke to Christabelle Noronha about his vision for the Tata Group in Africa and particularly for South Africa, which has been his home for more than 20 years. Excerpts from the interview:
What has been the broad strategy for doing business in Africa?
In the past few years we have evolved a three-phased approach. The first phase was settling down in South Africa, examining the challenges, evaluating the businesses we could get into and evolving the business model.
In the second phase we began operations, starting with the motors business — first commercial vehicles, then passenger vehicles, and finally bus body building. Now we are looking at an assembly line. The cost of power in South Africa is very low and, therefore, Tata Steel got interested in ferrochrome smelting, which uses a huge amount of power. Here, the challenge was to get environmental clearances, because it’s a shore-based plant.
Tata Africa presented the Neotel opportunity to the Group. VSNL showed an interest, and it fitted like a glove, as VSNL had the international network in place. It took us three years, but now Neotel is an operational project. The third phase will start now, when we get into new projects and expand existing ones. We are looking at hotels, we have done some ground work for TCE Consulting Engineers and we are talking to Tata Chemicals
for opportunities in South Africa and other countries.
Are there any new areas of business that Tata Africa is exploring?
Yes, there is energy and mining, hydel and thermal power generation. We are looking for acquisitions, but that is probably a few years away. In the meanwhile, we are doing a lot of research in mining with Tata Steel.
In every field, we bring in Group companies. We have received tremendous help from two key people: Group Chairman Ratan Tata and Tata International Chairman Syamal Gupta. You can be strong here only if you have strong people guiding you.
By year-end, Tata Africa will have a firm footprint in 11 countries. Not even South African companies will have such a diverse business profile.Last year, Tata Africa gave scholarships to 10 postgraduate students. Are there any other CSR initiatives being taken up?
We will provide scholarships to students from several universities and groom entrepreneurs; by imparting the requisite managerial and other skills to equip a person to own and manage his or her own small business. We want to formalise this training with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS). We also send trainees from here to various Group companies in India.
What is your vision for the Tatas in Africa?
I think that Tata Africa should become as strong as the Group is in India, and stand out as a company that is widely respected. In the next 10 years, Tata Africa and the Group companies will establish and expand the Tatas
on the map of Africa. The South African government has already realised that the Tatas are very different from other companies. Tata brand building is now the most important task. We must ensure that whatever we do stands the test of time.