Necessity is the mother of invention1 August 2019
Sheer dogged determination keeps South Africa’s textile care businesses above the ever-challenging problems of water shortages, burgeoning utility costs and a wildly fluctuating exchange rate. Penny Wilson reports.
HOSPITAL CORNERS: Kannegeisser has installed seven full ironing lines at Government hospital laundries in the past year – all in the Gauteng province and replacing very old equipment (main picture)
You’ve got to admire the South Africans. Weekly, sometimes daily, they literally wait for the lights to go out as the country powers down and the national provider, Eskom, practices what it calls ‘LS’. This is jargon for scheduled blackouts and a last-resort measure to prevent total collapse of the national grid. South Africans also now count every drop of water following the worst droughts in living memory, and which continue in some parts. Add to these challenges the Rand (ZAR), whose value ping-pongs mercilessly against world currencies. At last count it hovered around ZAR 16.40 to Euro 1.00, severely hampering the industry’s ability to import Europe’s machinery on which it is so reliant.
‘Load Shedding’ (LS) is the biggest blight on South Africa’s economy. While bigger companies can afford to fall back on generator power, smaller companies (SMEs) are crippled by it. When Eskom judges that power is insufficient, it either increases or decreases supply to reduce demand and rebalance the grid (see panel) and production of anything simply stops – unless you have a good Plan B.
Operators in action
Take Cape Town-based Texcare, part of the Parsons Group for example. It is an industrial laundry, and drycleaning company started in 2004 with five 7kg washing machines and one 12kg drycleaning machine in a 150sqm shop in Cape Town and today processes over a tonne of linen per hour in a 4,000sqm plant. Focusing primarily on hotel contract work for the likes of Radisson, Hilton, Marriott and many others, Texcare is a proud member of The Parsons Group, an umbrella company that covers other brands like Texchem, a manufacturing company of specialised and general chemicals; Africale, offering design, installation and training of laundries to hotels across English-speaking Africa, and i-Laundry, a laundry management software suite. Group chief, Chris Parsons, says the company has invested around R4.5m (€285,000.00) in solar power and generators and a further R3m (€185,000.00) developing a water recycling system that will soon render an 80% water recovery rate; this is enormous, considering the plant uses 9,000 litres of water per hour.
Then there is the innovative Charl de Beer, who founded a laundry company aiming to rent out freshly laundered linens to mainly 18,000 Airbnb hosts and boutique hotels in Cape Town, only to find his water costs quadrupled in a year when a chronic water shortage crisis hit. Then he came across polymer bead technology in washer-extractors developed by British tech firm Xeros’s commercial laundry division, Hydrofinity. De Beer offered to distribute the machines in South Africa, so he could buy them for his own business. “A single industrial sized 25kg machine running 14 cycles a day can save 2million litres of water each year,” he says. In US dollar terms, that means US$12,000. The machines use 80% less water and power than traditional machines and take-up is increasing.
“Our near-waterless technology will bring huge sustainability benefits as climate change and a rapidly growing population place enormous stress on South Africa’s water resources,” notes Mike Ferrand, managing director, Hydrofinity.
Witness also HyGivit Cleaning Services, in Cape Town. It specialises in the supply of eco-friendly cleaning products and services and provides industrial and commercial laundry services, with ‘saturated dry steam’ cleaning services and a 5% moisture content, at its core. It is also a distributor for Greenman International and Delphis Eco cleaning chemical products. It recently embraced RFID linen management systems.
Company director, Gerard du Merwe, says he battles frequent power cuts by scheduling additional shifts and staff around LS and workloads. “We are a large consumption user and the costs for a generator will not be affordable. Our overhead costs are around 20% more under LS circumstances.”
He adds the Rand’s performance has a “huge” impact on his business. “All laundry equipment in South Africa is from abroad. Due to the expensive nature of equipment, one cannot change to the latest and greatest available. You make use of equipment until it is falling apart and can no longer be fixed.” Du Merwe says the biggest trends among laundries is the use of alternative water sources, like boreholes, rainwater harvesting and recycling. “We drilled a borehole last year and were only able to implement a filtration system in December 2018 due to the costs. Our investment will be paid off within 12 months.”
Tony Soares, managing director of the Green Planet Laundry (GPL) in Cape Town tells LCNi: “Although there were other (more) profitable businesses that we could have sunk our life savings in to, we chose to open a large scale commercial laundry operation the proper way, i.e., using ground water and ground water only!
“Ozone technology at Green Planet Laundry (GPL) is an integral part of the process. We use it not only for all the reported properties of ozone on fabrics, but in order to sanitise our water. Using only ground water, and GPL being located in an area that houses informal settlements, the ground water is often filled with bacteria and so on that need killing before this water is used to clean laundry. In achieving this, we do not employ the standard stand-alone ozone unit that feeds ozinated water to individual washers, but rather ozinate our 2 x 5000Ltr holding tanks. This is a constant closed-loop system. In employing this method we guarantee that water in all parts of the system is bacteria free.”
As for LS, he says: “ I have personally seen three laundries close since January citing LS as the proverbial final straw in an already very competitive market. How have we been personally affected? Loss of up to 33% (8 hours) worth of daily production time is a killer. Not being able to make laundry deadlines is often not understood by our clients even though they face the same frequency of LS. It has therefore cost us a few clients and it has cost a few clients their businesses, thereby costing us their business. Clients often ask ‘Don’t you have a diesel generator?’ Yes. But running the generator costs about three times what electricity would have cost and no client to date has offered to cover the shortfall.”
As for the Rand weakness he says it is part of doing business in South Africa. “We use mainly Grandimpianti for their documented energy and water efficient equipment.”
The industry make-up
David Wollants, South Africa sales manager at Lapauw International neatly divides it three ways: public, private, and mining. In the public arena, BEE (Black Economic Empowerment) plays an enormous role. BEE is a government regulation to help counter high unemployment and support race equality. Any company participating in public tenders has to demonstrate that it conforms to BEE regulation, but Wollants says there aren’t enough South African dealers of laundry equipment doing that. He warns: “It’s key for an exporting company of high-quality laundry equipment to have contact with a trustworthy BEE certified company.” Lapauw itself works with numerous hospital laundries.
The private market is ruled by a handful of increasingly larger laundries taking the majority of market share. Some focus on tourism, contributing around 2.9% to South Africa’s GDP. But the majority find rich pickings in servicing industry workwear.
Mining is a gigantic market, with massive and remote camps hosting thousands of people and reliant on independent laundry services and specialist dealers.
Machines, Wollants explains, get a rough ride with the heat, lack of technical staff and sometimes chaotic working conditions so they must be simple to maintain. “I have seen many public laundries in South Africa where most of the machines were simply not working. If a frequency inverter breaks, that usually means the end of the use of the machine…it is in these conditions that designs with open spare parts carry advantages over other more complex machinery with protected parts,” he says.
Kannegiesser reports the weak and volatile Rand notably affects orders from private laundries and that many Government hospital laundries still use equipment over 20 years old. “They are also struggling to get the money to purchase new equipment,” says Husret Koyun, sales engineer. Kannegiesser says it hasn’t carried out any major installations in South Africa for five years, although it did kit out a 16-compartment tunnel washing lane at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital laundry in Soweto, near Johannesburg, last year.
“We have also installed seven full ironing lines at Government hospital laundries in the past year – all in the Gauteng province and replacing very old equipment,” Koyun says. But few private laundries can afford such luxuries, and opt for second hand. equipment
Nevertheless, Kannegiesser highlights its sprinkler device, developed for countries experiencing frequent power failures. As for water saving equipment, Kannegiesser’s points its PowerTrans batch washer, concentrating on batch separation, with each batch receiving necessary water amounts. It comes complete with an internal water recycling system - up to two large cockpit tanks storing between 500 and 2000 litres can be integrated. Another option is the external SpecialTank Reservoir, storing up to 4,000 litres of water, and able to distribute reusable water among different washing equipment.
Plenty of potential
Renzacci is adamant SA hasn’t yet fulfilled its true potential. “Electricity cuts, water shortages and the weakness of the SA Rand mean machine renewals are hampered and although we have many associations with large corporations there, they have their constraints,” says general sales director, Marco Niccolini. But, he says, the drycleaning and coin-op markets remain under-exploited. While the drycleaning market worldwide has been revived by solvent-free chemicals, South Africa is still heavily reliant on perc, and its aggressive makeup cannot cope with the new-style textiles. “It’s a matter of education and economy in South Africa,” says Niccolini. As the country boasts no major exhibitions or platforms to preach from, Renzacci says it relies on ‘open houses’ and sales people to trumpet its messages and products.
One way Renzacci sees it can help South Africa’s textile care industry is with its new generation of compact yet large capacity washer/extractors. Renzacci’s Ecocare system, for example, reclaims water during rinsing which can then be used for the following wash.
“The advantage of this system is that it will cost 30% less than a machine you put in and then have to build on things like water storage devices, draining, storage tanks, draining, and specialist plumbing,” says Niccolini. “It is built exactly for places like SA suffering electricity and water shortage problems.”
Apartheid, South Africa’s race segregation policy, was officially banned in 1994. It is a young democracy still struggling to meet power demands. But the textile care industry burgeons amid the chaos, through sheer doggedness and ingenuity.