An East London-based green company, AET AFRICA, is developing innovative solutions to some of the Eastern Cape’s, South Africa’s and the world’s, prevalent challenges, especially around water conservation and energy-saving products for residential, commercial, government and industrial users.
“The company was registered in July 2012 as Ikusasa Eco Moulding by my two partners Tamsanqa Gxowa and Michael Romer,” explained entrepreneur, Sandiswa Qayi, who is the Managing Director and co-owner at AET AFRICA.
She said that the company was, however, inactive until 2013/2014 when they started working on their first research and development project for an energy-saving device called Heat Raider.
“Due to my partners jointly owning and managing Ikusasa Green with other shareholders, in 2015 we changed the name to Amahlathi Eco Tech (AET) in order to distinguish the two sister companies,” she described.
“The name Amahlathi Eco Tech was derived from the Amahlathi Local Municipal area we operated in since we were all based in Stutterheim town.”
Qayi said that it was after reviewing how they wanted to position themselves in the market, and being based in East London, that they decided to rename the company to AET AFRICA in 2017.
“This was to show that our roots are in Africa, but we target international markets and decided to use AET AFRICA as official name derived from Amahlathi Eco Tech instead of being Amahlathi Eco Tech.”
Every day challenge sparks idea for innovation
The Hotspot product idea is a team brainchild between Qayi, Tami and Mike.
“When I was staying in Stutterheim, I was switching my geyser on and off because I couldn’t afford to keep it on.
“One afternoon, I was traveling with my partners when I called my helper to switch the geyser on so I can bath when I get home,” Qayi recalled.
“They laughed at me and asked me why I switch off my geyser and I explained I’m saving electricity. After a long discussion about energy-saving myths and facts, we realized how many people are using this method to save electricity.
“The idea to design a device that can encourage more people to continue with this, but get the required savings and access to hot water without waiting an hour or more came up.”
She said that the idea was conceptualized to target people like her and those, who felt that existing energy-saving devices are not catering for their needs and any ordinary South Africans, who don’t understand the energy efficiency space.
“The idea was to design a simple device that is affordable, easy to use and easy to install with guaranteed savings. As a researcher, I checked all existing products and studied their limitations and my partners focused on technical design and manufacturing possibilities building on what is out there,” Qayi said.
“It is then when Mike, as technical director, designed the hotspot sleeve to make sure it meets all my specification and that it can be retrofitted on many geysers as possible.
“We had to make sure it is feasible to produce and Tami led this phase to assess production capabilities, which informed the machinery designs.”
AET AFRICA is still a youth and women-owned start-up
Qayi said that AET AFRICA is a 55 % youth and women-owned, Level 2 & 80% BEE start-up.
“We are innovators and manufacturers of energy efficiency products especially water heating space targeting residential, commercial and industrial users,” she described.
“Our main products and innovations are in the water heating space targeting conventional geysers and solar geysers.
“Our energy efficiency solutions include heat exchange systems harvesting waste heat from refrigeration system targeting commercial users and hotspot retrofit geyser sleeve targeting residential and small commercial users.”
Qayi added that the main focus of the innovations is to improve energy efficiency and savings for retrofit market.
“The clean technology includes filter bags for industrial users and components for fuel cell technology using existing innovations.”
AET AFRICA is not just another start-up
“The company is focusing on local innovation paying particular attention to how to conserve, reuse and improve water-heating mechanisms that consider the African climate and socioeconomic environment,” Qayi told RNEWS.
“Our products are customised for socioeconomic conditions of our target market primarily retrofit market for reuse the wasted heat, provide accessibility and affordable hot water to ordinary South Africans and further pasteurise the water.
“We focus on simplifying the product offering without compromising on quality yet remain affordable and reach the marginalised market. We aim to bring convenience to our users and reuse what they already have with guaranteed and short time frames for return on investment.”
She added that their focus is on innovation and manufacturing and create value chain development through skills development, market distribution, product installation and strategic partnership in the value chain.
“We are driven by passion for new innovations challenging status quo and make a difference in local economic development through strategic partnerships.”
Growing AET AFRICA into a multi-million Rand company
Qayi said that between 2013 and 2017, the partners managed to grow the company’s research and development division by securing investment of +/-R2.5million as seed funding for heat raider and hot spot innovation, with R1.8 million invested on Hotspot innovation.
“We secured strategic partners in the innovation and product development space from national and provincial government departments, economic development entities and state parastatals, universities and private sector in South Africa at large and internationally and plan to penetrate the African and international market,” she described.
“Our strategic partners include but not limited to Department of Science & Technology, CSIR, TIA, THE INNOVATION HUB, ELIDZ, IDC, ECDC, SASCE and other private sector partners.”
Qayi added that the company has since secured a R6.8m loan investment from IDC for commercialization of Hotspot product and aims to secure more funding for expansion and establishment of new manufacturing plants for Heat Raider and filter bags.
“Through international networks created in 2018 for hotspot in INDIA Festival Innovation and Entrepreneurship (FINE) by Department of Science and Technology (DST) & TIA; and selected as top 10 companies to represent South Africa in Switzerland through DST partnership with University of Basel and Swiss government, we aim to explore international market,” she explained.
“We are currently invited through UNIDO in Austria to apply for global energy award and feature on Australia women entrepreneurship magazine where Hotspot is currently undergoing GreenTag product certification as eco-friendly green product.”
Eastern Cape MEC for Finance and Economic Development, Oscar Mabuyane, at the opening of AET AFRICA’s Dimbaza factory.
AET AFRICA has since established a factory in Dimbaza, outside King Williams Town, where the Hotspot product is manufactured. The Hotspot product launch and ribbon-cutting was actually done by Eastern Cape MEC for Finance and Economic Development, Oscar Mabuyane, on the 18th of October.
The event was attended by industry players such as plumbing retailers, plumbers, electricians, insurance companies and end-users while AET AFRICA stakeholders, such as the IDC, officiated the commercialization of the product into the market.
Hotspot is currently being sold nationally via distributors, plumbers and through an online store while negotiations with big national plumbing retailers, who attended the launch, are on-going.
Job creation and skills development
While it is gaining recognition abroad, it is on the grassroots that AET AFRICA is making a real impact.
According to Qayi, the company is helping empower local youths with skills through an internship for graduates and in-service training for students.
“We work with various universities in the province and nationally,” she added.
“We also partner with local plumbers, electricians and plan to include TVET colleges for installation. For distribution channels, we work with independent distributors and sales agents to create sales and distribution businesses and we supply them.
She said the company is also Eastern Cape grassroots innovation ambassadors for promotion of scientific research, technology and innovation for entrepreneurship and economic development.
“We want to play key role in promoting industrialization and entrepreneurship in Dimbaza and Eastern Cape at large.”
For its efforts, AET AFRICA has also amassed several awards for innovation including the Global Cleantech Innovation Program (GCIP-SA); 2016 ‘Most Promising Youth Led business’; the EC Top Green Awards; 2016 for ‘Special innovation project’; Environmental Affairs Ecological awards; 2017 ‘Gold Award for energy efficiency category’ sponsored by Eskom and the Department of Energy women awards, 2017 ‘Young Women in Energy’ as well as the African Utility Week; 2018 ‘Nominee for an innovation of the year’ and the Mail & Guardian Greening the Future awards, 2018 ‘Current finalist for energy efficiency’.
Important for residents, companies and government to take green sector seriously
“We need to provide sustainable solutions that are not detrimental to the environment and that promote conservation, reuse and efficient use of resources to make sure resources are sustainable,” Qayi said.
“Electricity costs are continuously rising therefore we need to promote efficient use of electricity for retrofit market to reduce carbon emission from power stations and innovate new products in the renewable sector that are accessible and affordable to majority of people.
“This will not only improve quality of life but will promote economic development through job creation in the value chain and skills development.”
The road has not been without challenges
Qayi noted that there is a low level of investment in innovation-related research and product development, bureaucracy in policy implementation to take existing opportunities in the sector, limited understanding from (government) funders when it comes to financing innovation products due to low risk appetite.
“There are also barriers to market entry for new products because of existing industry structure therefore one needs to be innovative, patient, persistent, work hard and create strategic partnerships in order to survive,” she added.
“South Africa is behind compared to other countries therefore we end up prioritizing external innovations that are mostly expensive since they have been tried and tested at the detriment of our own local innovation products customised for our socioeconomic problems this kills local innovation.
“For example, for several years solar panels, solar geysers and related technologies were imported from other countries with just assembling in South Africa.”
AET AFRICA still needs support
Still Qayi is confident about South Africans finding solutions to South African problems.
“Starting a business is not easy it’s full of challenges however it is possible to succeed through strategic partnership, team work and support,” she said.
“We need help to penetrate the market through supplier and enterprise development programs to drive sales and generate revenue.
“We are also looking for business incentives as we invest in areas such as Dimbaza with dilapidating infrastructure and business support programs from government and corporates. As a company we are willing to work for it and earn it on merit not because we are BEE, youth and women-owned start up.
“We have experience and expertise in our space and willing to partner and learn where we fall short; we just need to be given a chance to grow.”
Main image: Left to right – entrepreneur, Sandiswa Qayi, who is the Managing Director and co-owner at AET AFRICA, with Eastern Cape MEC for Finance and Economic Development, Oscar Mabuyane, at the opening of AET AFRICA’s Dimbaza factory.