Recently we had an interview with Lovemore Mukono, the co-founder and CEO of Mukonitronics. Mukonitronics is one of Africa’s leading power technology companies in terms of design and manufacturing industrial power electronic products for the local and export market. The range of Mukonitronics products include power electronics for mining, power generation and transmission, electricity distribution, telecommunications, railway and industrial automation.
In summary who is Lovemore Mukono?
Lovemore Mukono was born in Tanda, Makoni District in Eastern Zimbabwe. I am a technologist and entrepreneur, the only boy in a family of three children. My late mother is the inspiration behind most of what I do.
What drives you as an entrepreneur?
Competition drives my adrenalin. Looking back to my youthful days at Murindashaka, Dewerwi and Mount Maienje Primary Schools in Tanda and near Odzi respectively we used to go to school for one reason only; the get the number one spot. Today, that sense of competitiveness drives me. At first I was driven by the desire to surpass the achievements of my parents. The vision later changed to include everyone else in the Mukono dynasty. That too quickly changed to want to be the highest achieving wealth creator in Zimbabwe. Now, I am challenged by the achievements of the late Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and similar entrepreneurs in their class.
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Can you tell us the story around the Mukonitronics founding? When and with whom?
The death of my mother Mrs Lucia (nee Samanyanga) Mukonho in 1986 was devastating to me. I had made a promise to my parents. That promise had to be fulfilled. After college and attachment at ZESA, Hwange Power Station, I decided to resign from a very comfortable job to enter the private sector. There, I excelled too and soon I realised I possessed greater qualities. In 1990, together with Gift Mujeni at his house we decided to partner in the incorporation of Mukonitronics.
What was your vision founding Mukonitronics?
Strange as it may appear, my vision was clearly visible in my mind. I saw, in full colour a Mukonitronics that was the leading innovation centre in a post commodity based Zimbabwean economy. I saw the rise of a giant manufacturing company, producing many different products for local and export. I saw aeroplanes landing and taking off at Harare Airport every minute transporting foreign buyers of Mukonitronics products. I saw a Mukonitronics that was the first hope for jobs for Zimbabwean innovative engineers. I saw the birth of Africa’s technology renaissance.
What are the challenges you faced going into entrepreneurship in the relatively new Zimbabwe?
Getting the new company accepted in the market, just ten years after independence was no walk in the park. At one point in 1991, I thought the decision to start the company was a bad one. Despite the innovative product, despite the foreign currency problems faced by industry, many clients still preferred to import their industrial automation components. This was so because we did not have a track record. No one was willing to have a locally designed and manufactured device with no big name track record or reference fitted onto their machinery. At that time it was much like producing a jet, park it at the airport and then ask passengers to board for a flight to London. But, we successfully persuaded one client to try our product and soon, everyone wanted the M-Tron.
Mukonitronics has won awards locally for best exporter. Please shed more light?
Yes, we won the ZNCC Zimbabwe Exporter of the Year in 1998. We followed that up with a second runner-up spot in the Zimtrade, Zimbabwe Exporter of the year 1999. These developments were a culmination of a very successful export drive initiated in 1995 and with the cooperation of Zimtrade.
Tell us about popular M-Tron surge protectors.
Southern Africa has some of the most vicious lightning densities in the world. We commissioned a professional study and the results showed that the Southern Africa region, from Rwanda and DRC to South Africa were home to intense lightning incidents. The development of the personal computer and the incorporation of microprocessors in electronic design placed a demand for stable power. Unfortunately, stable power is not part of what you find on most the grids in Africa. We therefore designed the M-Tron Surge Protector as a solution. The device protects sensitive electronic equipment from the devastation caused by lightning and induced power surges within the electrical transmission and distribution system.
Which products have done well for the company (both locally and internationally)?
Our power back up products – M-Tron Inverters and UPSs, our M-Tron Energy Savers (High Efficiency Compact Fluorescent Bulbs “CFL”) and our High Efficiency Fluorescent Light Fittings and Emergency Lights have proved to be most popular. The need for a strong back up power solution, using strong design to withstand the harsh African conditions cannot be over emphasized. Most clients have come to know that the gasoline generator is no panacea to the load-shedding prevalent in Africa today. Besides damaging sensitive equipment owing to unstable power, the generator has proved a dangerous and costly operation in the long term.
Noise pollution, environmental carbon pollution, risk of fire and theft of fuel are just some of the negatives. Savvy clients are now finding solace in our heavy duty inverters. These can power loads as large as 250kilowatts. The M-Tron CFL is unique. Besides being a natural energy cost saving device, the M-Tron CFL is also uniquely interchangeable. This unique interchanging property means that clients can exchange damaged or expired M-Tron CFL tubes or ballasts with new ones at a cost that is less than buying a 100watt light bulb. We have achieved this by making the CFL component parts detachable from each other so that each can be replaced individually.
How did the economic chaos in Zimbabwe’s hyperinflationary decade affect Mukonitronics?
The period covering year 2000 to 2009 was a decade of blood baths for commerce, industry and the public in Zimbabwe. The lessons learnt are those we could never have studied for in any university. Fortunately, Mukonitronics remained focused on core business. We used this time to bolster our technology capacity, redesigning and upgrading our products and technologies.
We cut down on exports as we constantly incurred penalties on payments arriving after the 90day threshold. Local currency became so difficult to handle as a means to preserve value. We therefore resorted to barter trade wherever possible. Today, Mukonitronics emerges stronger and more agile to handle complex business and export transactions like never before. Thanks to the experiences of the tough times of the decade of blood baths.
Tell us about the new M-Tron florescent lighting innnovation that results in 80% energy savings.
We developed the M-Tron High Efficiency Fluorescent Lights in 1999 as it became clear that Zimbabwe and Southern Africa Power Pool (SAPP) would run out of surplus power in the interconnected grid. It became paramount therefore that efficient means of conserving the power available be made available as investment in power generation was not taking place.
The M-Tron High Efficiency Fluorescent Light Fitting is available in 2foot, 4foot and 5foot single and double tubes. It uses high efficiency electronic ballast to switch on and control power to the fluorescent tubes. The process results in the saving 80% power when contrasted with old technology magnetic ballast lamps. The new technology prolongs lamp life too.
Looking at the 21 years Mukonitronics has been in operation, what has made the journey so worthwhile for you as an entrepreneur?
The realisation that we belonged to the world and that the world was willing to reward any one that came forward to create value was most satisfying to us. Just travelling out there and seeing clients using your products and expressing satisfaction for having received value for money is truly a wonderful experience. This kept us going, realising that we were appreciated by those who consumed our products. The friendships made, the value and wealth created for shareholders and clients across borders is everything to die for.
You have been known to champion the need for Africans to not wait on the West for answers to our problems. To not wait on Aid. What opportunity do you think is there for Zimbabweans, Africans to look internally for answers?
Africa is the cradle of mankind. We gave birth to humanity. We designed and gave birth to civilization, language, science, mathematics… Africa is the origin of most of the technologies in use today. Something went wrong somewhere and I have not found out exactly when and what happened. But Africa has lost its leadership of the world, bequeathed to us by creation. Today Africa is at the tail end, the majority of its populations living miserable lives.
Africa can rise again, to lead mankind. We have wonderful people, wonderful culture and we need to think beyond the solicitation of aid. Africa is home to all the raw materials that build the first economies of the world. We need to share knowledge among us, to change our education into production oriented. We need to make things. Move away from aristocratic education models into technopreneurship education. Technopreneurship education model equips the population with technical skills as well as managerial skills. They have skills to produce technology products and to place a price on them. Aristocratic education models equips the population with managerial theory without technical skills. They must buy from technopreneurs and resell, and hence become predominantly consumer communities whose role is to be a market for technopreneurs.
What part do you think technology innovation and entrepreneurship will play in Africa’s success story?
Africa has no choice. The game has been defined already. Commodities and raw materials fetch less on the open market. In fact, the buyer determines the price. The only way out is to rise and take the bull by the horns. Africa must value add its raw materials and natural resources, because continued trade in these will never bring progress at home. Soon, these cheaply traded materials will run out, stock piled in Europe, Asia and Americas. By the time we wake up to compete, there will be no raw materials to use.
What deliberate steps need to be taken locally to foster a culture of technology innovation and entrepreneurship?
We need to redesign our education system to make it mandatory for all schools to teach technology, productivity, promote and reward innovation.
Our education system. Do you think there’s enough STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) training?
No, not at all. A lot still needs to be done to create the rise of a sophisticated Africa
You sit on the board of the Scientific and Industrial Research and Development Centre. What role has SIRDC played in encouraging innovation technology locally?
SIRDC is the premium technology and innovation centre in Zimbabwe. If Zimbabwe is ever going to plant its flag on Mars, SIRDC will have something to do with that. SIRDC has developed technologies in support of food security, biofuels, renewable energies and a host of others. Under TIPS, SIRDC is training new technopreneurs to proliferate the technology enterprise in Zimbabwe.
Tell us about the Seta foundation.
SETA stands for Society for Engineering and Technology in Africa. We work to bring productive skills to schools, colleges, universities and organized youth groups.
Seta is the integration of theoretical science and mathematics education in colleges and schools into Practical Science education infused with the production of Scientific Equipment and the mentorship of technopreneurship to pupils and students at schools, colleges, universities and organized communities. The project attempts to thrust upon students and youths, live business issues where solutions must emanate from each one of them under supervision by seasoned Captains of Industry and Commerce. Students are exposed to all facets of engineering production and must innovate further in the production of Powerful Brands for sale in the local and export markets.
You will notice that the education system in Africa has remained a chalk and talk affair. It has no relevance to the application of knowledge in a practical and productive society. Africa produces consumer populations completely isolated from the production of goods and services. Thus, generational legacies of consumerism is rampant in Africa, hence the continent is seriously lagging in human development.
Seta Foundation seeks to reverse this and is providing practical productivity focused training in order to usher into the next generation, a sophisticated African capable of competing in technology productivity with the rest of mankind. Seta Foundation has established a team of specialist Trainers who have acquired the skills to teach the manufacture of high tech technology equipment and utilize the experience acquired at Mukonitronics. The Trainers provide mentorship to the students in design technologies, draughtsmanship, precision metal processing, plastics, electronics and business management.