By Richard Swart
The public launch of a new United Kingdom/South Africa joint venture energy management business in Newcastle, South Africa last week saw yet another milestone reached in the burgeoning relationship between the North East of England and South Africa.
February saw a record number of business people join the UK's "Northern Powerhouse" trade mission to Durban and Johannesburg, making it the largest ever trade mission from the UK to South Africa
Significantly, arising from this visit, it is now planned for KwaZulu-Natal to send a trade mission to the North East in September, the first ever of its kind
Smart Grid Networks (Pty) Ltd will work with the private and public sector throughout the country using a high tech energy management system - currently used in London's square mile and other parts of the UK - which could be seamlessly applied to cities, towns, small households and all business sizes and has been warmly received by SALGA, Eskom and other leading authorities.
"The system helps to manage the electricity grid by turning off non essential loads at times of peak demand,thus preventing power cuts", explained SGN's company spokesmen former Vodacom supremo Mthobi Tyamzashe and local north east entrepreneur, Tim Cantle-Jones.
Cantle-Jones recently formed Northumbria Energy, which will be the UK partner of SGN.
In February last year Durban and Johannesburg hosted an incoming trade mission comprising a range of businesses, leaders of the North East Chamber of Commerce, leaders of Newcastle UK City Council, UK Trade and Investment, UK High Commissioner to South Africa, Dame Judith Macgregor and Baroness Patricia Scotland, the UK's PM's Special Envoy to South Africa (and now Commonwealth Secretary General).
Memorandum of Understandings (MOU's) were signed between Ethekwini Municipality and Newcastle City Council as well as the Durban Chamber and the North East Chamber. The order pipeline generated for the visiting businesses was in the region of £4m.
Prior to the Springboks playing Scotland in their World Cup group match at St James Park, Newcastle UK reciprocated the hospitality, by hosting a high powered UKSA business focus day, which included Durban City, Newcastle SA and Durban Chamber leaderships, the High Commissioners and trade and investment officials and business representatives from both countries. A keynote address to several hundred people was given by Kuseni Dlamini, Chairman of Aspen Pharmacare and Massmart, who flew over specially for the trade-boosting few days.
Durban City have now proposed a sector MOU with Northumbria Energy and SGN, following the example of Newcastle SA, which concluded an MOU with both last week, as well as agreeing on pilot programmes to start within the next few months.
Letters of support and partnership from the Leeds City Council Leader and Newcastle's Lord Mayor, were handed over to their counterparts during this recent visit. Leeds is the sister city to Durban while Newcastle UK and Durban have the MOU.
The links between SA and North East England have been long and varied, with both Newcastles part of the global "Newcastles of the World" global network. There will be a trade mission each year until 2020 from the "Northern Powerhouse" to South Africa
Nelson Mandela was given the Freedom of the City of Newcastle UK in 1986 and Ruth First was a lecturer at Durham University at the time of her assassination in Mozambique.
Former Stellenbosch Vice Chancellor Chris Brink is now in the same position at Newcastle University, while top transplant specialists divide their time between the world class hospitals in the North East and in SA, and on the sports front Hershelle Gibbs and Dale Benkenstein played first class cricket for Durham, and Durban's former Springbok star, Mark Andrews along with fellow Springbok Marius Hurter, both did their bit for the Newcastle Falcons as Mouritz Botha is currently doing.
Newcastle is also the adopted home of Archie Sibeko (alias Zola Zembe), former Umkontho we Sizwe commander, 1956 Treason Trialist along with Nelson Mandela, and now a passionate croquet player in the North East of England.
The demise of ship-building and coal-mining, for so long the bedrocks of the north east economy, forced economic and social regeneration on a massive scale.
Ironically - and rather uncomfortably - not so long ago Newcastle SA was exporting coal to the mother Newcastle.
However -though the battle is ongoing - the North East has been radically transformed from what it was, and is now a centre of excellence for automotive manufacturing with Nissan's global flagship European HQ located in Sunderland along with the global supply chain that goes with it, has several ever developing ports and a vibrant (but now challenged) oil and gas sector, is the new location for Hitachi trains as well as global pharmaceutical and chemical companies, and is now a major IT hub, including the global HQ of Sage Software, not to mention its various world class universities and schools.
It remains nevertheless plagued by a skills shortage and a relatively high unemployment rate and related social deprivation challenges. However, it has world class companies, private and public, to help the region conquer these.
As a region, it has much in common with Durban with its ports and massive Toyota plant and the opportunities to share best practice and develop business opportunities are unlimited.
Already, the Durban and North East Chambers of Commerce have agreed to exchange key managers to share best practice and further consolidate links.
Following recent visits by South African government representatives to a North East waste to energy company, plans are now afoot for Durban to have the first of its kind in SA and for other municipalities throughout the country to follow.
Behind the often challenging headlines dealing with events in South Africa, there remains huge opportunities for those willing to navigate their way around this wonderful Southern African region.
And it is these which businesses in the North East of England have recognised. It is hugely significant that this is the second consecutive year that such a trade mission has taken place with tangible results evident and this is a tribute to all parties in the UK and South Africa, who have worked so hard to make this possible.
Lets hope better decisions and news headlines in 2016 will make this rising trickle become a flood to the benefit of both these great countries with more and more investors and business people on both sides engaging in reciprocal trade and investments.
Both the beloved countries will then be the winners!
Photo Caption: With Rokeya Valli, Durban Chamber International Trade Manager, Emma Wade-Smith, Julie Underwood, North EastChamber of Commerce International trade manager, Dumile Cele, Durban Chamber CEO, Claude Pretorious KZN T&I