We have a tendency to underplay our skills, and let other countries grow in spaces where we should challenge them

By Ivor Ichikowitz

If I were an ambitious 30-year-old black South African, say a junior manager in a Johannesburg corporation, trying to fulfil my dreams, I’d ignore the naysayers, anyone who says you can’t do it – you can’t be intimidated by those who say you can’t make a difference.

We at Paramount were told we could never succeed but we did – and success means finding your strengths and believing in yourself but also having a strong belief in those around you.

Africa’s greatest asset is its unique people, and partnership and collaboration are the keys to SA’s future prosperity. The individuals who realise this most clearly are those best placed for greatness.

Dreaming big is the key to our future.

Towards the end of last year, just outside Pretoria, a significant event for our country and the rest of the continent went by mostly unnoticed. It was the official opening of SA’s Aerospace Innovation and Technology Centre – an industrial area adjacent to the Aerospace Village destined to be a centre of excellence and innovation for the continent’s aerospace industry.

I was privileged to be part of the event as it signalled a new vision for the country’s defence and aerospace industries, both of which are important contributors to SA’s knowledge economy.

It also signalled a new era of co-operation between the private and public sector. It confirmed the government’s acceptance of the strategic importance of hi-tech sectors to ensure SA remains at the forefront of the global industry.

A few months earlier, not far from where the Aerospace Village is today, I was fortunate to launch an iconic project that has the potential to become an important milestone of the continent’s knowledge-based economy.

This is a first for Africa, the first time that an aircraft will be fully conceived, developed and built in Africa. But it is also a global first. It’s no ordinary aircraft; nothing like it exists. An advanced, high-performance light reconnaissance and surveillance aircraft (AHRLAC), it is unique in meeting both military and civilian demands, whether border security monitoring, anti-poaching patrols or emergency aid distribution.

It was a huge achievement for the young engineers who designed it, and it has huge symbolic value because with this project we are showing the rest of the world that Africa still has the capacity to surprise, the capacity to be world leaders.

With the right collaboration between the government and industry, it is possible to preserve high-level skills and enhance these skills that are critical in the global economy. It is a symbol of what can be done when you dream on a global scale — and are prepared to back your vision and dream with self-belief and hard work.

And I fervently believe it can be a metaphor for what Africa can achieve if we make full use of our skills and potential. Yes, there is a global financial crisis, fierce international competition and continued social challenges, but one of the biggest challenges our continent faces is a lack of self-belief.

Yet our continent has already overcome so many challenges. Look at what SA has achieved in the past 18 years. Our successes have by far outweighed our challenges. We should be inspired, not despairing.

Even today – 20 years after I first became involved in business – I am astounded by the richness of talent that our country possesses. Yet we have a tendency, unnecessarily, to underplay our skills and abilities, and let other countries and other businesses grow in spaces where we should be challenging them in their back gardens, not them in ours.

I formed Paramount Group in 1994 when the South African defence industry was on its knees, even though just 10 years earlier it had been a world leader.

Back then, Paramount Group was an equipment reseller. It was a promising business – then our supplier, a major global manufacturer, pulled out. They simply didn’t want to do business in Africa. For them, Africa was too much hard work. Without its technology and products, we simply couldn’t do business either. We were at a crossroads – should we walk away or try to go it alone and build our own products?

We knew the industry, we knew our customers and we had one crucial asset: the belief in ourselves to build a world-class company. It was dreaming on a grand scale.

We placed our faith and belief in the skills, knowledge and ‘can-do’ attitude of our engineers. Creating ground-breaking designs from a blank sheet allowed us to be innovative in our methods and materials, in ways other companies struggled to follow.

Today we have many technologies in the defence and aerospace industry, not least our range of world-beating armoured vehicles, which we sell to governments around the world. Although we have been in the business for only 17 years, we are today competing successfully against global businesses that have been around for more than 100 years. And it is skills and expertise that are in demand as much as our products, with clients buying that as much as the hardware. These are home-grown African skills. These are all technologies bred in Africa.

So, dreaming big, having a global vision, instilling self-belief in people, and lots of blood, sweat and tears, have turned us into an African success story, today competing against and beating the best in the world.

With AHRLAC and the Aerospace Innovation and Technology Centre we are continuing to dream big.

With AHRLAC we are demonstrating that we can be global innovators. With the Aerospace Innovation & Technology Centre, and other innovation and technology centres that we are developing in the land forces sector, we are demonstrating our commitment to develop and grow the valuable skills that are required to sustain our hi-tech sector, led by aerospace and defence. These centres of innovation will perpetuate the ‘can-do’ mentality that is part of the DNA of South Africans and which helped us to excel and make our mark internationally.

But finding the right talent to develop world-class technologies is becoming more difficult. As a continent we cannot afford to stop developing the future generation of engineers, designers and innovators. Without them there will be no global firsts.

So my dream, together with the government and other industry leaders, is to safeguard a vibrant and dynamic hi-tech industry for future generations.

Let’s not underestimate the value of our hi-tech industry to bolster Africa’s economic role on the global stage.

I am extremely excited by the recent matriculation results. After many challenging years we are turning the corner. But we will have to invest much more in science and mathematics, and encourage young people to believe in themselves. To believe that they can be engineers – designing and building the most sophisticated and ground-breaking technologies of the future.

This my dream, this is my calling. This is my life-long commitment to Africa.

Ichikowitz is the executive chairman of Paramount Group and founded the Umoja Foundation.