Tough Boats – Built in Africa, for Africa

There’s something to be said about creating a product that’s too good. Upon realizing that his product was too efficient, Rod Bateman of Aliboats decided he would have to go outside of Botswana in order to grow the company.

“When the business had originally started, we supplied boats to the Okavango Delta in Botswana,” says Bateman, Managing Director of Aliboats. “But aluminium doesn’t deteriorate. It doesn’t fall apart or rust and we basically flooded the market in Botswana.

“The only way out of that was to start exporting and to start looking into neighbouring countries like Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa. Once we started exporting, the demand grew in those countries. At the moment, 85 percent of what we build is exported from Botswana.”

Boats for Africa

Started in 1986, Aliboats manufactures aluminium boats, built and designed to the customer’s specification. From canoes and longboats, to Jon boats, landing crafts, ferries, patrol boats, to aluminium trailers, jet boats and swamp cruisers, Aliboats does it all.

While 10 years ago it was only selling 23 boats a year, the business has now exploded. Today Aliboats manufactures between 150-250 boats a year.

Adding to the success, Aliboats has built ferries for the government of Botswana which currently accounts for 60 percent of the business. To accommodate this growth, the company has opened two branches in Zambia; one in the country’s capital, Lusaka and the other in Livingstone.

“Our hope is that Zambia will be a stepping stone to go further north,” says Bateman. “If you look at a map of Africa, Botswana’s got the Okavango Delta it’s got a miniscule amount of water compared to the further north you go. Zambia’s probably got three times the amount of water that Botswana’s got.

“Then you go to Uganda and that’s got 10 times the amount of water that Zambia’s got, and the more water there is the more people who need boats. And people are starting to realize that in the developing countries as you go north…it’s quite economical to use boats as transport for freight or people rather than vehicles.”

Built to Last

Bateman says that because aluminium is so durable, boats made out of it are long-lasting and robust.

“It doesn’t matter if it gets scratched, it doesn’t matter if it gets dented, and people are looking at those kinds of work boats to use as transport on the rivers,” he says. “It seems to have taken off in the last four or five years…Governments have realized that there’s so much water in those countries that boats are the obvious ways to get around. So the reason we opened in Zambia was to establish that idea which we’ve now done.”

Because of a government tax on imported aluminium, Aliboats doesn’t presently manufacture boats in Zambia. Bateman hopes to eventually be able to in order to cut the company’s transportation costs, a challenge which the company also faces in Botswana.

Leading the Industry

“The biggest challenge for us here in Botswana is transport and transportation of material or materials that we need,” says Bateman. “Botswana is very reliant on South Africa and about 90 percent of goods in Botswana are imported from South Africa…You order aluminium and it arrives in 17 days or so. It’s not as if you can go around the corner and buy a sheet of aluminium if you needed it.

“So we have to carry a lot of stock which tires up your cash. The other part of the transport problem is getting boats out of Botswana to their destination. We’re basically limited to the size of the boat that we can build. We are limited to what size a boat we can carry. We would like to build bigger boats but we can’t put them onto a truck.”

In a short period of time, Aliboats has flourished to become a leader in its industry. With five branches in two different countries, the company’s growth is limitless.

Aliboats has also been an authorized Yamaha dealer since 1986 in Botswana and when the company established a presence in Zambia, they became the Yamaha dealership for that country as well. As an out-port dealer, Aliboats provides all Yamaha products from motorbikes, quad bikes, generators, water pump, lawn mowers and music equipment. Recently, Aliboats became a retailer for Suzuki in Zambia.

“Botswana is a good country to do business in. It’s economically stable. It’s a good country. We’ve been open in Zambia for two and a half years now and it’s going really well. Zambia has been great so far,” concludes Bateman.

“It’s a sense of self achievement being able to come up with things that work. Obviously the aim at the end of the day is to make money but I think self-satisfaction has a lot to do with it as well.”