Mara Group to open South Africa’s first smartphone plant in Durban

Within ten days of opening its first Mara Phone factory in Rwanda’s capital Kigali last week, the Mara Group is set to open a second smartphone manufacturing plant at Durban’s Dube TradePort Special Economic Zone (SEZ) on Thursday.

Mara Group CEO Ashish Thakkar confirmed to Moneyweb that President Cyril Ramaphosa together with other dignitaries will officially open the factory.

Mara Group founder and CEO Ashish Thakkar (right) together with Akinwumi Adesina President of the African Development Bank (AfDB) holding replicas of the new smartphones to be produced in SA during a AfDB event last year. Image: AfDB

The opening comes within a year of Thakkar committing to invest $100 million (around R1.5 billion) into SA’s first fully-fledged smartphone factory during President Ramaphosa’s SA Investment Conference in Sandton last October.

Moneyweb broke the news in February that Dube TradePort, next to the King Shaka International Airport north of Durban, had secured the Mara Phone manufacturing plant, to be based at the SEZ.

The Dubai-based Mara Group opened its first Mara Phone factory at Kigali SEZ on Monday last week, which was attended by Rwandan President Paul Kagame.

Speaking exclusively to Moneyweb this week, Thakkar said the group is investing around $200 million in the setup of both factories in Kigali and Durban, which will manufacture “made-in-Africa” smartphones for the first time. There are other mobile phone facilities in Africa, but these operate as assembly plants.

“Most importantly our high-quality but affordable smartphones will be manufactured at our Mara Phone plants in Rwanda and South Africa…. We’ve already invested $50 million in the Kigali plant and more than $50 million in the Durban plant,” he says, adding that the plants are the same size.

Thakkar says each plant will employ 200 people at the onset, of whom over 60% are women and over 90% youth. This will increase as production rises and the full $200 million investment is rolled out.

The Mara Phone plant at Dube TradePort will ultimately “generate over 1 500 direct jobs and thousands of indirect jobs” when it gets to full capacity over time.

The Rwanda operations will target the east and central Africa markets, while the SA plant will largely target the local market and export to Southern Africa.

“We currently have two smartphone models – the Mara X and Mara Z. In the future we will have more models such as the Mara X1, Mara Z1.

“Our capacity [at our plants) is a few million smartphones a year,” he adds.

On why he decided to invest in SA and to finalise the plan within a year, Thakkar says: “We strongly believe in the South African fundamentals and the leadership…. KwaZulu-Natal and Dube TradePort have been amazing and it’s the perfect location for Mara Phones in South Africa. Literally everyone, from the Department of Trade and Industry to Trade and Investment KZN, InvestDurban, Proudly SA, the Industrial Development Corporation and the presidential envoys for investment came together to make this investment happen.”

SA’s cellphone market is dominated by Asian and US brands, including the likes of South Korea’s Samsung, China’s Huawei and US-giant Apple’s iPhone. The rest of the continent is dominated by Chinese brands and Samsung.

Thakkar believes Mara Phone will make an impact on the SA market and the rest of Africa.

“We believe South Africans are very passionate about Proudly SA, especially if the quality is of global standards… However, we are also creating jobs in SA hence we are very confident that telcos, retailers and banks will appreciate and promote this [the Mara Phone) as they share the common vision of creating employment in SA.”

Pan-African investment conglomerate Mara Group was founded by Thakkar, a Ugandan-born self-made billionaire.

Mara Group‘s investment into Dube TradePort is within the first phase of the SEZ, which has already attracted investments to the tune of around R4 billion.