Thursday, June 13, 2024

Simbi Phiri emerges as King as detractors eat a humble pie

Last week Wednesday at an event to mark succesful completion of the 100km pipeline project from Masama to Mmasia near Gaborone, Simbi Phiri was the centre of attraction.

The completion of the project has come two months ahead of schedule; ahead of schedule and within budget.

And that is a big deal.

When the project started, Phiri left his home in Johannesburg so that he could come and personally supervise the project. He was worried by the outsized attention that his company had attracted by winning the project.

If the company failed, that would lay credence to detractors – and there was no shortage of them.

“I must accept that was an austere obsession with Simbi Phiri. Nobody believed we could do it. But here we are,” said Phiri as an opening shot.

At his company grounds in Mmamasia where he says he wants to build the headquarters, he starts by showing journalists around his machinery and equipment.

He says early on that journalists must learn engineering basics to avoid writing “outlandish things.”

The statement is made as a genuine concern.

He is obviously hurt that the media treated him as an outsider.

“I am from here. My father was from Malawi. But my mother was from Tonota,” he says as a matter of fact.

The Technical Director at Water Utilities Corporation, Ntshambiwa Moathodi says WUC who are the client in the project could consider using the timeline under which it was completed as gold standard to be used to measure assess their future projects.

As he shows journalists around, there is one piece of equipment to which he reserves all his admiration – the trencher.

“The trencher was a game changer,” he says.

“Without it we couldn’t have made it,” he adds.

During his presentation to the media he makes mention of how honesty by managers is crucial because dishonesty leads him to make wrong decisions. He has had to fire managers who he found were not honest with him, he says.

It almost did not happen.

A defining moment happened when a local supplier who was supplied to manufacture close to twenty thousand pieces that go into construction of valves failed last minute.

Phiri’s presentation in front of camera’s is show-like; every word chosen and calculated for maximum impact.

He speaks rapid English with a flowing fluency that sometimes even surprises the actor himself.

His wit is like that of a politician.

“Don’t blame me for speaking Canadian English,” he says amid a bout of laughter.

His oratorical skills must have been honed in his early career as an insurance broker in Gaborone before he proceeded to Johannesburg.

In Gaborone he met people like Patrick Chivese and Toro Motiki. Both of them are now working as senior executives in the pipeline project.

Motiki describes Phiri as an immensely generous soul who takes care of family.

The pipeline project was not an easy fit with thousands of pipes ferried from Johannesburg and thousands more of other pieces procured at the last minute from Johannesburg because a Palapye-based supplier “spectacularly failed to honour” the contract.

Realising that the project was in danger, Phiri moved back to Johannesburg where again he personally coordinated with manufacturers to see to it that the bits and pieces were made.

“The good engineering people in Johannesburg came to my rescue. They know me very well. I am within their circle. They take as one of them,” he says, before adding his favorite line, “I am not boasting.”

Having completed the Masama project, Phiri says his next stop will be Malawi, where an even bigger projects awaits Khato Civils.

He acknowledges it is not easy to win a contract in Botswana. His company had made several bids but lost them all before it could win this one as its first.

“We bring speed and quality,” he says.

Motiki says if Phiri had not relocated from Johannesburg, the projected would not be completed by now.

“With him there is no room for error. He is versatile disciplinarian.”

But he says Phiri has a thought process that is consistent and could repeat the same for ten years if he has to.

“He harps on issues that he believes in. He has tremendous energy and wisdom. I have never met such a smart person. And I count myself lucky to have worked so closely with him. He is not greedy. But he says what he believes in.”

He says Phiri has been more than a mentor to him.

“But he has certain values that are not negotiable and not debatable. A family means a lot to him – paternal and maternal. And he does everything to support them,” says Motiki.

He says Motiki has always been business minded.

He ran an insurance business in Gaborone in the early 1990s when insurance business was all white, says Motiki.

Motiki sentiments are almost verbally repeated by another associate MacD Peloetletse.

For Motiki, the man is self-taught.

“He has an eye for opportunity. When I look at him her has natural intelligence. He is practical. And loves detail.

“Phiri ruins a well established company with a great profile. He is a Motswana like me and you. It doesn’t matter which citizenship he holds. His mother is from Tonota. A lot of negative stories that were written about him and his campaign were smear campaign.”

Phiri has had long simmering grievances with the media. And he telegraphs that early on before the media tour of the pipeline could even start.

He has not been treated fairly, he says. And this becomes a recurring theme throughout the day; from 0700am to 1700hrs in the evening, repeating it with a frequency that reduces it to9 a mantra.

“I am just like all of you – black and African, he says. I went to a public [government] school. My mother is from here. She was from Tonota. It means you guys are bad uncles,” 

Phiri is Executive Chairman of Khato Holdings which owns Khato Civils.

In 2016 Khato Civils was awarded an P800 million contract to build a pipeline from Masama fields to Gaborone.

After the award Khato was thrown into turmoil, first because the project had to be deferred and unrelated news surfaced from South Africa that the company had left a big project unfinished, an allegation Phiri strenuously denied.

Now with the project all but done, Phiri is still nursing grievances.

He is clearly happy with his company success, but still does not pads an opportunity to take a jab at a segment of the media that

His networth is not known, but he clearly takes pride in his success.

“I have no intention to be arrogant. I am not boisterous. I am not conceited,” he adds with a beaming smile.

He says the biggest problem why in Botswana projects are never finished on time and within budgets is because of their owners.

“Owners are not there. They choose to stay in their posh houses rather than manage projects – not that I don’t a posh house. I have a posh house,” says Phiri.

He says he wants to be on the ground.

Phiri is clearly hands-on. He takes pride in the fact that he is a self-taught engineer who now employs scores of professionally trained engineers.

He marvels in engineering talk.

With his thick voice, he talks endlessly of how he and his company have now reached “quintessential engineering levels.”

Although he goes at length to point out that he does not like boasting, Phiri is nothing if not boastful.

“Call me boisterous if you want, but I take pride in this machinery. They are not hired. We own every piece here,” he says.

We arrived at 0700hrs. It is now 1700hrs and after eating it’s time to leave.  

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