Transformers supplier banks on tech to power region

Zahir Saleh, Group Chief Executive Officer Tanelec Ltd during a presentation at the company's main office in Arusha, Tanzania. [File, Standard]

There is a certain level of seriousness associated with individuals who pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

This could explain the demeanour of outgoing Education Cabinet Secretary Prof George Magoha.

But the same cannot be said of Tanelec Group Chief Executive Zahir Saleh, an electrical engineer by profession.

For an engineer, Mr Saleh has a good sense of humour.

“Leave your belongings here; they are safe,” he said as we got ready to tour the firm’s main manufacturing plant in Arusha, Tanzania.

“If you have dollars, leave those with me. I will keep them for you,” he added, cracking up the room.

He, however, appreciates how technical his field is.

“This is a bit technical, so I will not go into details. Not that you do not understand technicalities; it’s only that I do not want to make you tired,” he said at one point during his presentation.

Mr Saleh is a believer in innovation. He says in the power sector, this must be at the centre of the business. The company is the largest manufacturer of distribution transformers and electrical switch gears in the region.

The company set up operations in Kenya in 2019, the same year it came up with a metering unit.

It looks similar to a transformer, but its work is to measure the amount of electricity consumed by big manufacturing companies.

It can also be used to tell if power is being stolen. For example, if Kenya Power employs this method, it can detect power theft by its customers if the amount of electricity transmitted does not match the amount paid. This would be a clear sign of an illegal connection.

“We are in discussion with Kenya Power, which uses completely different technology to meter their customers,” said Mr Saleh.

“Our unit is almost five times cheaper than the solution being used in Kenya.”

The company can manufacture 8,000 units annually. So far this year, it has distributed 400 such units.

The other innovative product earlier this year is a special transformer used in farms, particularly those engaged in large-scale irrigation.

They use air as a coolant instead of transformer oil.

He says it is an innovation that has been there since the existence of electricity but may prove unsustainable in the long run.

“It is a very niche technology,” says Mr Saleh.

One of the reasons, he said, is that they are very bulky and are mainly used in hospitals and airports.

Apart from Kenya Power, the 41-year-old company also has business partnerships with  Rural Electrification and Renewable Energy Corporation (Rerec).

Tanelec Ltd is owned majorly (70 per cent) by TransCentury, a Kenyan investment company. The rest of the shareholding is owned by the Tanzanian government.

He says Kenya is not an easy market to crack.

“Kenyan economy is almost 10 times the size of Tanzania’s. Utility companies [in Kenya] could be tough to crack, but the private market is huge,” he said. “While we are still trying to smoothen our way through utility companies because it takes long-term relation, on the side of the private market we are doing quite well.”

Tanelec Ltd has footprints also in Zambia and Uganda, with its products being distributed to as far as Nigeria, Mozambique and Eritrea.