Bernard Cannon is a founder and Managing Director of the Malutsa Group of Companies which includes Malutsa Water and Bernali Designs.
He is an entrepreneur who diversified the business to secure collateral for expansion of the group with the view to the creation of employment and opportunities. An analytical chemist by profession, he was part of the pioneering team that introduced tubular membrane systems into the water and wastewater treatment market in South Africa.
How did you get started in this business?
My business partner Nathan Herbert and I have been in the water purification business for the past 30 years, being involved since the advent of membrane technology in South Africa. Support and research by the Institute of Polymer Science at Stellenbosch University was formatively critical at this stage. Ground-breaking work on tubular reverse osmosis and ultrafiltration membranes led to pilot plant construction and work being conducted in the ‘80s. This led to accelerated industrialising of the novel technologies with the help of facilitating organisations like the CSIR and WRC.
What is the ownership structure of Malutsa?
The ownership has changed over the years. After the democratic elections, we had investment from a Scottish company, which took 30% in 1997. In 2005 that shareholding was sold to Veolia Water but we bought out the whole company in 2016.
Nathan is a mechanical engineer and I have the chemical engineering background, so we complement each other well.
Why is empowerment so important for you?
Historically, chemical engineering was a no-go for our people. We are very aware of the injustices of the past, and so empowerment is at the core of what we do. In everything we have done, it has been to grow people and expand their skills base. We have always done things for ourselves; we empower ourselves and others by this ethos.
Please give us an example.
Even in construction of this building (Malutsa House, pictured above), we took people and helped them learn the skills to go into construction. After this building was finished, that group went on to form a construction company, and that has formed part our enterprise development drive. We have helped them financially, and with business skills. This is enterprise development in real terms.
We are exposing young people to opportunities and giving them choices. Studies are paid for and are actively encouraged and suppported.
Tell us about your expansion across the road.
Construction of the new factory and offices across the road (about 4 000 sqm) began in 2015 and was completed in 2017. We realised we need more space for the Blesbok Project. We needed to manufacture 60 mobile purification plants, quickly. We needed to make a plan.
We have also developed the idea of a continuous production line for mobile purifiers, the first of its kind in the world. We developed this entirely with our own in-house architects and engineers.
How up-to-date is the technology you are using?
We were part of the team that pioneered tubular membrane technology in South Africa, so we have been aware of all the changes along the way. This has allowed us to stay current. We can say with pride that we have been part of this technology journey all the way.
Has your business journey been interesting?
There have been many challenges along the way, but it has been exciting! The Blesbok Project was really delivered against all odds. We have been the developers and designers of these very unique mobile purification units, mobile bottling and sachet plants.
Does the unit have wider applications?
The military option is obviously quite expensive because of the very high specifications for the military. If we produce something that is less robust, then it will cost less. It can have multiple applications, in remote areas, for flood relief, etc. The list goes on. We are certainly looking at developing it further.
Please comment on the South African water sector.
It was intimated 20 years ago that South Africa was on the way to being an arid country. People ridiculed the idea, but now water is being talked about as “liquid gold”. For us it is not just about business, it is about keeping our people-centred approach. We really want to be the change in other people’s lives.
We believe that water re-use is the key. The only thing holding back the development of this strategy is the psychological block. We are helping developers and building owners who want to make their buildings “green” or get off the grid. The hotel sector is another important sector. We also specialise in bespoke plant construction.