GRW: A New Narrative

It was with more than a pinch of sarcasm that award-winning Kenyan journalist Binyavanga Wainaina suggested to always use keywords such as darkness or safari in the title when reporting on the African continent. His 2005 essay, How to Write about Africa, openly criticised the repeated use of stereotypes in mainstream media when dealing with Africa and inspired a widely acclaimed 2009 TED talk by Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Adichie, which has since accumulated some 11 million views.

In her speech at the famed Oxford Playhouse, Adichie pointed out that clichés about poverty, famine and disasters dominated mainstream reporting and, as a result, the public understanding of Africa. There was rarely a rounded, balanced or nuanced approach, she said, laying bare a conflict that is still impacting almost every aspect of life on the 54-nation continent today – including trailer manufacturing.

“We find a lot of negativity towards Africa when dealing with foreign people,” says Gerhard van der Merwe, CEO of GRW, a 1.25 billion rand (€84 million) trailer manufacturing company headquartered in Worcester, some 120km northeast of Cape Town. “While we are a proudly African business, we are often perceived as a third world company, which we are certainly not. People often don’t realise how professional we are until they come and visit us and see what we are all about.”

According to Suzanne Franks, a Professor of Journalism at the University of London and former BBC current affairs producer who has published extensively on the impact of stereotypes on cultural identity, GRW’s situation is symptomatic for a continent trying to overcome the “old Afro-pessimism stereotype”, as she puts it. “Simple binaries are not sufficient anymore to tell the [story] of such a vast and multifaceted area.”

Agrees van der Merwe, who has been working hard to change the continent’s economic narrative ever since he founded GRW in 1996. “We see ourselves as a global competitor manufacturing in Africa,” he explains. “We compete with the very best in the world, which in turn gives us an advantage in the local and African market – not the other way around.”

After dedicating 20 years to growing the local trailer-making industry, van der Merwe says he doesn’t want to allow an out-dated cultural stereotype to decide on the fate of the business – and the industry – he helped build, especially now that a slowing South African economy is putting pressure on local businesses to find new growth opportunities overseas. “GRW is on the forefront of automation and we will continue to automate as much as possible if there’s a business case for it,” he says – noting that hardly anything about the company’s key manufacturing hub in Worcester is typically African. “The factory could be anywhere in the developed world and is able to compete with the best in the industry. I can’t see a difference that would be relatable to our country of origin.”

Despite that distinct global edge, GRW started out locally as the in-house tanker-manufacturing arm of Wynland Vervoer, a Worcester-based transport business owned by his father. “At the time, local manufacturers were complacent about tanker design,” he says. “They simply didn’t meet the quality standards Wynland expected, so I took the opportunity and started GRW with my business associate, Rossouw van Eeden. Neither of us had any experience in trailer manufacturing, but the first series we introduced to the market already proved game changing with view to design and payload. We well and truly hit the ground running.”

The rest, van der Merwe says, is history. “Benefitting from having such a direct link to the end customer, we quickly learned what a successful product had to look like – so much so that we now see ourselves well ahead of local OEMs in terms of design, quality and production facilities – not only in the tanker field.”

Only recently, he shares, GRW ventured into the High Productivity Freight Vehicle (HPFV) field with the manufacture of the company’s first Performance-Based Standards (PBS) range. “We see a lot of potential in PBS, which is an up-and-coming market segment here in South Africa and highly popular in Australia and Canada, too,” van der Merwe explains. “It’s a cutting edge field and therefore the perfect fit for an innovative organisation like GRW.”

GRW’s first PBS project was a 55,000-litre quad-axle fuel tanker that provided the client with a seven-tonne payload advantage over the model it replaced. The second one was a 30m A-double curtain-sider with a GVM of 85 tonnes that could carry a payload of 54 tonnes – a substantial increase over the conventional 38-tonne payload limit, as van der Merwe points out. “PBS is a global phenomenon and really helped push our understanding of modern trailer design. It also showed us just how much growth potential GRW has as a business, so we knew the next logical step had to be expanding our global footprint.”

Van der Merwe says the successful excursion into the PBS field only strengthened his original vision for the 800-people company, which was always centred on going global. “We started exporting tankers to the UK in 2006 and we always knew that our equipment was able to compete on the global stage, and especially now that we have also mastered PBS, we’re confident enough to say it out loud,” he says. “It’s that kind of confidence that has led us to become the only South African trailer manufacturer that is servicing the African continent and has already ventured abroad. At the moment, we are present in the UK, mainland Europe, Australia and the Middle East – but we plan on further growing that footprint in the future as we overcome the stigma that comes with being an African brand.”

Van der Merwe doesn’t get tired of stressing that GRW’s quality standards and production techniques are “in line or superior to any European OEM” – revealing just how deeply the age-old, reductionist stereotype is affecting himself and the GRW brand. “We are ISO accredited and follow international standards, and we are continuously investing in our manufacturing facilities to increase our productivity and throughput, thus lowering our manufacturing costs and improving the quality of our products – much in line with the best in the industry.”

Adding additional firing power to the Worcester plant is not just self-serving, though – van der Merwe is well aware that the company’s global expansion may not be carried by the famed tanker range alone. “Until 2010 we only focused on tanker design, but we now have a more diverse portfolio serving various markets and applications. We learned that we need to be flexible to be competitive,” he explains. “We see some potential in the curtain-sider market, for example, even though competition in that area is stiff globally.”

On the quest to gaining global recognition – and circumnavigating South Africa’s pressing economic woes – van der Merwe banks on quality and delivering on time as unique selling points, something he says is still unusual for an African business. “People don’t associate African design with high quality, but we want to turn that cliché around. We don’t build a high number of standard products – almost every order is custom made. While that does complicate our systems, it also ensures our equipment is of a competitive standard.”

Vertical integration is core ingredient of van der Merwe’s growth plan, especially for the Africa market, where roadside assistance, rental and second hand sales are all available under one roof. “We prefer to be a one-stop-shop for our African clientele. It is very important that we control the Total Cost of Ownership cycle from new to used trailers, including after sales service,” he says – unable to hide the fact that many local suppliers have not yet managed to follow GRW’s example and mature to a point where they can compete on the global stage. “In South Africa, there are still many third party component suppliers who don’t have the technical expertise to back up the product they sell. If we cannot control the quality of the aftersales service they provide, we refuse to do business with them and go straight to the OE supplier.”

Van der Merwe is quick to point out that even though there is room to improve for the local component industry, it doesn’t contradict his core message. “There is a lot of Asian low-cost gear flowing into the country that doesn’t reflect what we do, and of course we also have to continue learning and evolving as a local manufacturing industry. But we can’t keep generalising, it’s not good for Africa.”

The real problem, he adds, is not linked to processes or education, but a lack of law enforcement. “We don’t have a lack of standards, we have a lack of standard enforcement,” he explains. “This means that many manufacturers get away with improper certification and operators get away with non- compliant vehicles – which in turn makes for a bad reputation of the entire industry. GRW and its clientele would benefit from a well-enforced system as we are already committed to comply 100 per cent. I believe a lot would change if we tackled this issue.”

While GRW’s on-going lobbying work may contribute to the economic emancipation of the African continent, another, very different issue could emerge from hyping up the local market too quickly, warns Suzanne Franks. “In more recent years it looks as if the story [is shifting] gear. Instead of the relentless negative image of suffering and impoverished victims there is a new narrative, Africa Rising. Suddenly the continent is brimming with mobile phones and energetic businesses,” she says. “In a part of the world still facing staggering levels of inequality it brings the danger of tying Africa too close to a neo-liberal agenda and objectives … We do not want to fall into a binary trap and adopt another unfortunate stereotype in its place.”

Once more, GRW is facing the issue head-on by putting an industry-leading Corporate Social Responsibility agenda in place, says van der Merwe. “We are fully aware that we play an important role in the local community – both in employment and social upliftment – and we take it seriously. We believe there is a business case for building sustainable and safe products, especially in the Dangerous Goods sector. Most of our big customers are responsible, safety driven companies and we pride ourselves on complying with or even exceeding their standards on more than one level. Together, we might actually be able to tell the African story in the way it should be told.”

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