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Mara, ‘truly’ SA-made smartphone, wants its mojo back

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 06 Jul 2022

The management buyout (MBO) team of Mara Phones SA says it’s moving swiftly to restart operations and retrain staff, following the successful acquisition of the embattled smartphone manufacturer.

The MBO team announced in a statement yesterday it had successfully acquired Mara Phones SA after a purchase agreement was concluded and signed on 29 June.

The acquisition, it says, was made possible through a strategic partnership between the MBO team and Lebashe Investment Group, a 100% black-owned unlisted investment holding company.

In terms of the deal, Lebashe Investment Group takes up a significant shareholding in the business, which consists of a portfolio of smartphones, tablets and other smart devices.

Furthermore, through the partnership, the MBO team indicates it’s looking to save jobs, retain critical skills and keep the manufacturing facilities of Mara Phones South Africa in Durban.

The MBO team’s Sylvester Taku says: “It has been an arduous year working on this transaction and we persisted even when it looked like failure was the only obvious outcome, because we understand it is more than a company we were trying to rescue but also the aspirations of many Africans who will like to see a thriving smart devices manufacturing industry in South Africa and the continent. We could not have found a better partner than Lebashe Investment Group to recreate this business with.”

Mara Phones SA was considered a symbol of “true” African smartphone manufacturing and a labour market boost when it opened the smartphone manufacturing facility at the Dube Trade Port Special Economic Zone in KwaZulu-Natal.

At the time, founder and CEO Ashish Thakkar highlighted that while a few smartphones are assembled in Africa, nothing is truly being manufactured on the continent.

However, reports emerged in February that the Mara Phones smartphone manufacturing plant was “empty and on auction”, with the sale mandated by Standard Bank and the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) – financiers of the smartphone facility.

Standard Bank and the IDC provided around R100 million and R238 million, respectively, to fund the Mara Phones factory.

National development finance institution IDC blamed the COVID-19 pandemic and the hard lockdown for the company’s woes, saying production was disrupted as a result.

Following this news, it was later revealed that a buyout effort was in the works, co-led by former Mara Phones SA MD Taku and Mabuti Radebe.

The Mara Phones SA management buyout team’s Sylvester Taku.
The Mara Phones SA management buyout team’s Sylvester Taku.

Now that the deal has been signed and sealed, the MBO says in addition to restarting operations, it will focus on rebranding and marketing, creation of sustainable channels and establishing a healthy working environment that protects the dignity of employees.

The aim, it states, is to position Africa as a world-class manufacturing hub of high-tech products and to locally manufacture affordable, high-quality mobile smart devices.

Radebe adds: “After having worked with Tshepo Mahloele, chairman and founder of Lebashe Investment Group, and his team to save jobs and create new employment, build out and expand the smart products business, we are committed to be an integral part of rebuilding in Durban and surrounding areas after the floods and the July unrest. Lebashe is a perfect fit for our vision as they understand the challenges faced by African South African entrepreneurs.”

Under the new leadership, Taku is responsible for the overall management of Mara Phones SA. At Mara, he developed the growth strategy and led its effective execution, notes the statement.

A chartered accountant by profession, Taku holds an MBA from the UCT Graduate School of Business. His previous work experience includes key roles at Deloitte and Ernst & Young.

He brings with him over 20 years of professional experience – mostly in technology, media and technology − to accelerate the growth of Mara Phones, according to the statement.

Radebe is founder of Virlolite, which specialises in distribution, franchising and retailing of telecoms value-added solutions. Virlolite holds the master franchisor and distribution rights for Mara Phones SA.

Radebe’s experience includes sitting on investment boards, with experience in establishing comprehensive entrepreneurship training programmes, project finance, deal structuring, project development, and sales and marketing. He also sat on the venture capital investment committee of Lion Pride Investment Holdings, while holding the position of head of telecoms.

He is co-founder of Plaxedes Management Company and served as an executive director of Beryl Holdings Investment, where he established the Investment Thesis of a fund.

Having studied to PhD level in nuclear physics, Radebe has also worked in multinational teams in nuclear physics, including the International Atomic Energy Agency division of the United Nations.