In Kenya, raw unprocessed steel is the third main import behind oil and industrial machinery. A housing boom has led to a sharp demand for steel; in particular, corrugated steel. The iron sheets that cover many houses in Kenya and across the African continent is light, strong and when coated is resistant to corrosion.
Manu Chandaria is the founder and chairman of the Safal Group, Africa’s largest steel roofing provider, operating in 11 countries on the continent. Mabati Rolling Mills, founded in 1961 is the company’s flagship business.
Founder Mr. Chandaria explains the origin’s of the company steel production; “We went to Japan, we started looking at the plants over there. And then we decided we will take a small unit galvanising line. And as soon we started to manufacture we felt wow, this can be replicated, duplicated, so we decided let’s put it in more countries. So we put it Tanzania, Ugandan, Zambia, in West Africa. So we knew that things were multiplying. And the requirements for every society was almost the same.”
Kenya does not produce its own raw steel, so Mabati Rolling Mills imports it in coils mainly from Japan, one of the biggest producers in the world. It is then put through a process that turns the raw steel into iron sheets, which are then cut and moulded into the desired lengths and shapes.
Still in an interview on CNN’s Marketplace Africa, Stephen Oundo, a practising architect and chairman of the National Construction Authority, a new state corporation that was formed to regulate the industry in Kenya, Says; “The use of corrugated iron sheets is widely used in this country, in rural houses, in schools. The advantage is because they are lighter it means the roof structure does not have to be as heavy, so there will be an overall cost saving on the building.”
Mabati rolling mills began with twenty thousand tons and today the company manufactures 140 tonnes a year In the last few years, Mabati Rolling Mills have changed the methods of processing their iron sheets. Chandaria tells ‘Marketplace Africa’: “We found out that the galvanising business that we have done, it’s already archive now, it’s already 30 or 40 years now. We need something new now. And at that time we found out that the aluminium galvanized sheets out of zinc – with zinc and aluminium, gives four times the life of an ordinary sheet. So we decided to move from galvanizing, into alu-zinc. And once we got into alu-zinc, we also decided simultaneously, colour coated.”
Colour coating sheets is one of the main reasons Chandaria attributes to their growth since many countries do not manufacture coloured sheets making the company a major distributor across boarders. The company is however still going through growth with plans to quadruple the capacity. With the industry going rapidly across continents, Chandaria acknowledges competition is important since it keeps business on its toes.
“Competition makes you think twice how you will continue with that market share. It’s not that easy. But if there is no competition you will be lazy and lousy. To be lazy and lousy is the easiest way to be, but to be on the top, on your toes all the time, is most difficult.”
As the need for corrugated iron in Kenya remains strong, Chandaria believes innovation is important to remain at the forefront of the steel roofing industry. In the future, he wants clients to customise orders according to their needs: “They will come and say they want 11 feet and 3 inches. And they will get 11 feet and 3 inches. They don’t have to only take 10 feet, or take 5 and 6 and overlap it. If they want exact, they will get exact. They like the colour, they see for themselves, I like this, and they will get. And then a little more job creation at that level.”