Regional Director, Saint-Gobain, Westtar Kapito, spoke with Raheem Akingbolu on the recent boom in the Nigerian market as well as its importance to Africa. Excerpts:
What are your thoughts about the Nigerian building and construction market in Nigeria?
If you look at the last five years, Nigeria’s construction market has boomed. People have come to understand what it means to build. We know that the economy is big, even going to be bigger than South Africa once again. People have confidence in the Nigerian market it’s the reason why we are here. We believe in it and that construction will continue to grow bigger. I remember when I got to Nigeria 10 years ago, in Epe area; there wasn’t a lot of development. But if you look at it now, things have changed. Look at Lekki phase 1 and 2, down to Eko Atlantic, construction have boomed. I also believe that Lagos Island where you have the aging buildings will be renovated. And as people say, in 20 years’ time, Lagos is going to be one of the top cities to live in. We want to be part of that success and to help make it happen.
Can you give an overview of your recent workshop for stakeholders in the building industry and your reason for the event?
The success of the workshop was due to an excellent combined effort together with our partners and our marketing agents. We decided to bring the event to Lagos to really showcase our innovative products and solutions to the Nigerian market. Saint-Gobain is not a new name in the Nigerian market; we’ve been here before, providing solutions for many years. But this is the first time we’ve decided to leverage on our activities through some communication channels. Like I said, the products have been around, but for us, it is important to let the Nigerian market know that we are here to stay and be part of the construction market. Our determination is to offer innovative ideas with local people in terms of introducing global construction methodology into the Nigerian market.
Don’t you think the timing of your coming is odd, considering the recession the country has just experienced?
For us, we have always believed in the Nigerian market despite the recession. We believe in the economy, the people and resurgence of the Nigerian market. That’s why we have decided to make substantial investment in the Nigerian market. We’ve been working with partners because we believe in what we can bring into this market. More importantly, I think the timing couldn’t have been any better. For us, we have a positive appetite for Africa, and Nigeria seems to be one of those countries where we want to be present. Should we have done this five, ten years ago? Perhaps… but this is the right time. Saint-Gobain wants to bring solutions for the emerging middle class: Nigeria being the most populous country in Africa we believe there are opportunities for Saint-Gobain both in residential and tertiary sector.
While the workshop was going on, it was mentioned that the company had, in the past, involved in putting some structures in place. Can you tell us about the flagship projects?
Incidentally, we are conducting this interview in one of our flagship projects; the Renaissance Hotel in Ikeja Lagos. We started engaging with the owner five years ago when they approached us for unique solution in terms of providing ceiling and wall partitions using our methods and products. And we were able to provide solutions in terms of products, value addition. As you can see, it’s a beautiful hotel. The walls and ceilings are done with Saint-Gobain plasterboard. We’ve also done acoustic installation for the walls and ceilings; you can hear from the sound that it’s not a noisy place. And I believe from what we hear from customers’ testimony that they are happy with the solutions that we provide for the building. Not just this, we were able to provide the green glass for the Civic Centre Tower. We provided the acoustic solution for The Fountain of Life Church in Ilupeju, Lagos as well. We are currently providing the plasterboard for the renovation of the Oriental Hotel, also in Lagos. We just finished the event centre of First Baptist Church in Yaba. We’ve done more than 50 residential buildings on the Island. We’ve also done some projects outside Lagos. The new Grand Spare Departmental Shop in Abuja is being done with Gyproc products.
Going back to history, how old is the company and what’s the spread globally?
The company is 352 years old. It’s one of the oldest companies in the world. It’s a public listed company on the French stock exchange. It started with the production and supply of mirror and glass to the King Louis XIV for his palace in Versailles. All over the world, glass is still a big part of our business. What’s important in the history of the company is that we have grown through different phases. When you deal with companies with big long history, one thing is that the company has the experience. We have developed new businesses. Today, 35% of the company’s activities and employees are in the distribution of construction materials, which wasn’t the case 20 years ago. We are not yet involved in distribution in Africa. For the moment, our focus in Africa is to provide innovative solutions. We are not only talking about finished walls and ceilings; we’re talking about providing well being. These walls have characteristics that make them fit in a living space. We want to emphasise that we are not providing products only, but solutions in all aspects of construction. We are not pretending that we are going to make everybody’s life better, but we think that through those innovations, we can provide more comfort in terms of fire protection, aesthetics, acoustics and air quality. These things improve lives. This is why we are partnering with Tormek Global Services Limited because we can’t understand the market needs if we don’t have input from local partners with knowledge of the market.
Can you please take us through the product range?
Saint-Gobain started with glass and it is still part of our activities. In the construction sector, we have the walls, ceiling and installation business which is around plasterboard, finishing solutions, acoustics, flooring solutions, plastering mortars. We also provide pipes for water, water treatment and sewage. We provide Abrasive tools; cutting and grinding wheels as well as involving in making roofing.
What are the unique selling points of products from your stable?
The unique thing is their combination in a solution. If you knock on Saint-Gobain’s door, you would be able to build a good piece of your house. It would be a one stop shop. When we don’t have the solutions, we partner with those who have them. We are looking for solutions for affordable housing in Nigeria not necessarily from our factories in Europe, but adoption of local practices using local materials to come up with something affordable. We believe that when people have decent houses, it has direct impact on life. When we talk about house, we are talking about any living space; school, hospital and so on. When kids have good acoustics in school, their attention is better than when the acoustic is crap. You improve the learning process and when they come back home into an environment of normal temperature, good sound, it changes their life. When we talk about hospital, we have a department which study what we can do to contribute to well being. When you are in a hospital staying in a room with the right acoustics, the time you spend is reduced significantly. You recover quicker. It comes from using the right materials and putting them together. So Saint-Gobain is different because of the experience gathered over the years. We are present in 67 countries with people in the field. We are sharing information among over 100 nationalities, meaning we have experience in various countries of the world. What works in Brazil doesn’t necessarily work in Europe but it might be similar to what the needs will be in one of the countries in Africa or Asia. We are strong in innovation, 1 product out of 4 sold by Saint-Gobain did not exist 5 years ago. We are constantly bringing innovation into the market and talking customer intimacy because we cannot innovate if we don’t understand what the market needs. We believe that the answers are in the country, not about bringing solutions from one country to another.
Beyond workshop, what other platforms are you riding on to reach other stakeholders in the building sector to let them know of your presence in the market?
This is the first of many communication strategies we want to push in the Nigerian market. Saint-Gobain wants to be part of the fabric of the Nigerian construction sector. That means we must have people on ground working with the local partners, train people, do more of demonstration type of presentation to inform and educate people of our innovations. Over the coming years, it is my wish that when people talk about construction, they immediately think about Saint-Gobain because they know that they are not getting just the quality but also getting services from our local partners and getting innovation in terms of comfort and well being.
How did you get the experts that fix the materials for the job you did earlier?
We invited technical people from our business in South Africa to help train and direct our people on site on what to do. That’s why we are moving to the next stage, bringing people to train Nigerians, we want to train installers and they can train others. So Saint-Gobain is not just going to provide plasterboard, it will also provide technical skills and employment. The beauty of it is that people don’t need capital to start the business of installing plasterboard, glass, and tiles. The whole idea of Saint -Gobain coming to Nigeria is not just to make profit, but empower youths and create jobs. With 352 years of existence of a company, it is a huge opportunity for Nigeria and the construction industry.
There was a mention about training installers in South Africa, when is that going to take place?
We have heard from our installer customers saying when can we have this training? Together with our partners, we are putting plans in place to identify the people we would be sending through and before the end of the year; we can actually have them back in Nigeria. So when the New Year begins, we can start having part of the training here locally. We are also looking at establishing a showroom here in Nigeria. The entire value chain is about putting the customers’ needs first and from the time we design the product to when we deliver and install, there’s value across the entire chain.