Innovation, quality and capability are hallmarks of a Pan-Africa trailblazer, and therefore no surprise that Macsteel, a leading manufacturer, merchandiser and distributor of steel and value-added steel products was first in line to take up the highly sought-after Pan-African Trailblazer sponsorship opportunity at the 2023 South African Institute of Steel Construction (SAISC) Steel Awards.
Trailblazing innovation was also the mainstay of one of the Steel Awards’ most exciting category winners. The Azmet Reactors project – which won the Mining and Industrial as well as the Best Export Project categories – comprised a combination of six colossal reactors in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
This distinctive project was recognised for its precision engineering, use of steel and overcoming seemingly insurmountable logistical challenges. It also represents the innovation, tenacity and foresight – which
Macsteel’s CEO Mike Benfield believes reflects the spirit and essence of what it means to be a pan-African trailblazer.
In addition, the project is closely aligned with Macsteel’s operational ethos of ‘Pursuing Reinvention’ which, in turn, reflects and supports the Pan-African Trailblazer sponsorship concept.
Benfield believes it is important to support organisations such as the SAISC, which provide a platform for members of the steel value chain to drive a common agenda in the sector, while also fostering a ‘Team Africa’ approach to quality and collaboration across the continent. This is increasingly important, as the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) agreement becomes a reality.
“The SAISC Steel Awards also encourage innovation, which is the ethos and mantra we live by. We are role players in a very old field, and so we need to continuously innovate and improve the way in which we do things. The whole steel sector needs to reinvent itself. We need to make people think about steel in different ways,” Benfield points out.
Not reinventing the wheel, reinventing steel
In the Macsteel ethos, steel touches every aspect of people’s lives and indeed society as a whole. The best feature of the Steel Awards, according to Benfield, is that the entire steel supply chain is recognised: not just suppliers, but also the architects, fabricators and contractors involved in projects.
“Furthermore, in pursuing reinvention, Macsteel advocates for the entire steel value chain – including clients – to consider steel in ways which are different, unusual and more cost-effective. We have to begin thinking of steel as more than a material of construction: rather, as a construction innovation, or an architectural feature, emphasising safety and aesthetics. Any construction – from the mining to the residential sector – can showcase the innovative use of steel, elevating and reinforcing its relevance throughout a broad spectrum of sectors,” he continues.
“There are several examples in our own operations where we have successfully combined innovation and reinvention. A recent high-profile example is the Pick ‘n Pay Distribution Centre East Port project, joint winner of the 2023 Steel Awards Factory and Warehouse category, the Innovation and Sustainability category and recipient of the Best Project Gauteng award.
One of the stand-out features of this project was the need for extremely long roofing sheets, and a unique roof curvature. Both of these factors or challenges were easily overcome through the application of Macsteel’s innovative ‘sky-forming’ method to roll and shape the roofing sheets accurately and cost-effectively. A crowning achievement was that this earned the project a place in the Guinness World Records for the longest continuous roof sheet.
Another innovation example is a product we produce, cellular steel beams, a modern version of the traditional castellated beam, made from a patented double-cut profiling process to achieve greater load carrying capacity and stiffness. Cellular beams offer a far wider range of applications to achieve long clear spans, service integration and shallow floor depths. The product is also aesthetically pleasing – an appealing trait for architects! These are the kinds of solutions we can provide while steel projects are still in the design stage,” he explains.
Africa ‘under construction’
Another key factor in Macsteel’s eagerness to be the Pan-African Trailblazer sponsor is the fact that it focuses on Africa, and the capabilities of the South African steel sector in completing excellent Pan-African steel projects. Benfield emphasises that with a vast amount of infrastructure required, Africa is still ‘under construction’ – which creates massive opportunities for local steel companies.
“In Africa, the fundamental building blocks are there, but further beneficiation must be targeted for Africa to achieve its fullest potential. Only basic commodities are currently being produced – however beneficiation is now almost a requirement for viable Pan-African economic growth. Therefore, innovation and reinvention are needed more than ever before! Beneficiation will grow the economy and, when this happens, it drives the demand for steel. This then becomes a self-fulfilling cycle of demand.
African economies depend on commodities, and steel has a crucial role to play in driving further beneficiation, downstream of the basic commodity. The use of steel is integral to mining, and the lives of mines can be extended when costs reduce. Through the use of steel and innovating around it, this can also be achieved. The ore body becomes more viable when a mine becomes more efficient. In this way, the entire future of the mine is extended, along with the entire mining community which it supports,” Benfield points out.
However, he concedes that in Africa, the greatest challenge is that cost remains a determining factor:
“The prevailing view seems to be that ‘tomorrow will be better, but today there is only so much to spend’. As a result, from the South African steel sector perspective, we should be fabricating and supplying innovatively, highlighting the benefits of steel as a material of construction. We need to focus on the pain points our clients will encounter during design and construction – and set about finding creative new ways to use steel to meet those challenges.”
Steel challenges and opportunities
As Benfield notes, most African governments tend to be vague and contradictory when it comes to economic policy and the consistent application thereof, which can be a grave impediment to the contribution of steel in growing the economy. On this point, although the evolution of a buoyant steel industry can create jobs, stimulate manufacturing and localisation, a stable local economy is definitely a prerequisite.
There is also a pervasive distrust of the private sector, which often prevents governments working together with companies to constructively address pressing infrastructural and developmental issues.
“Governments need to collaborate with the private sector to build Pan-African economies. The private sector has capital, can secure financing, absorb a certain amount of risk and has the relevant experience and skills to invest in a discernible trajectory. However, when economic growth is predicated on state-owned enterprises (SEOs) which are hamstrung by corruption, progress stalls. Governments need to change the way they think,” he advises.
This brings him back to the importance of the Steel Awards, which celebrate the role of steel in the economy and showcase excellence and reinvention.
“When excellence and high standards become the baseline of a project, opportunities abound as the demand for quality grows, and the cost of quality reduces due to economies of scale. This needs to start right at project inception, with the architects, specifiers, designers and fabricators. By setting high standards from the outset, and investing in lowering the total cost of the project, over its entire duration, a far higher value is achieved for its owners and stakeholders,” he emphasises.
He furthermore acknowledges that local steel sector companies cannot compete with their Asian counterparts when it comes to the price of steel. This requires Africa to fix its internal issues to become more competitive and build an export footprint. Here, the ‘Team Africa’ concept will play an important role.
“By working together, we can pool our skills and resources, build relationships and improve competitiveness. South African-based steel value chain participants must also remember that their greatest asset is that they are resilient, resourceful – and that they know and understand Africa. As Macsteel, we always pursue reinvention. It is our core ethos and value proposition, and we will wholeheartedly support any project which reflects this. Given this, we view our Steel Awards Pan-African Trailblazer sponsorship as more than just an event sponsorship – but as the embodiment of our support for South African steel sector innovation and excellence across the Africa,” Benfield concludes.