Martina Biene, Chairperson and Managing Director, Volkswagen South Africa

Even though the world of cars is often considered to be dominated by men, there have been an equal number of women who have contributed to the development of the vehicles that are in use today. Two examples are Simona de Silvestro, a Swiss-Italian racing driver who is currently working as a factory driver for Porsche, and Bertha Benz, the wife of automobile inventor Carl Benz.

Martina Biene, the Chairperson and Managing Director of Volkswagen Group in South Africa and the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa, became the first woman to lead the carmaker in Sub-Saharan Africa, where there’s an ongoing expansion strategy integral to the future success of the organization.

With an abiding passion for the Volkswagen brand, Biene is now in charge of making them in Africa. And she hopes to leave quite a legacy by playing a significant role in the development of the automotive industry on the African continent.

On August 31, 1951, South Africa produced its first Volkswagen Beetle. This year marks the German automaker’s 72nd year in South Africa. VW’s factory in South Africa has since built the capacity to produce 162,000 vehicles per year. Currently, 75% of the vehicles produced in South Africa are exported to global markets such as Germany, the UK, and Japan.

Sub-Saharan Africa also officially became a part of the VW story in March 2017, three months after Volkswagen opened its vehicle assembly facility in Kenya. Since then, the brand has established assembly facilities in Rwanda (2018) and Ghana (2020).

Arguably, there has never been a more innovative time in the car business than now. Hybrid vehicles have been on the road for some time, and electric vehicles are becoming more prevalent on the road globally. Even though Biene believes that the current EV market in South Africa is characterized by more luxury vehicles, electric mobility is part of Volkswagen’s vision for Africa.

Africa, in her opinion, will not electrify as quickly as Europe or China, but she sees opportunities for growth. And she anticipates that beginning any local EV production will necessitate extensive planning. She tells Africa Executive in this interview, “Moving forward, Africa must find its role in the electric vehicle (EV) space.”

As the first female MD of VWSA, what is your take on the much-discussed topic of women in the automotive industry?

Women are still very much underrepresented in the auto industry. I underestimated the gravity of my appointment and soon realized that I needed to be a role model for many more women in the industry. As a woman in leadership in a predominantly male dominated industry, my desire is to demonstrate that it is possible for women to lead large corporations. Volkswagen Group South Africa (VWSA) is committed to transformation, diversity, and inclusion and constantly provides opportunities for women to develop and advance in their careers.

The underrepresentation of women is reflected in most industries, and there is much work to be done to ensure we create an environment for female leaders to occupy and excel in senior leadership positions.

In the many years you’ve spent in VW I’m sure you’ve had some wonderful memories there. Can you tell us about the most notable ones?

My first day at work was one of those memorable moments. I came to work in Sales and Marketing at an automotive company after graduating with a degree in Theology. I never looked back since that day, and the Volkswagen brand’s crawled deeper into my heart. I fell in love with Volkswagen products, and while there are many beautiful memories, the launch of the stylish Golf 7 is a notable one.

Furthermore, my assignment in Africa (South Africa) for the first time offered an amazing experience. South Africa captured my heart, and so did the rest of Africa. I was sad to leave at the end of my assignment in 2020, but there were better plans for me in the pipeline. Last year, I was entrusted with the role of Chairperson and Managing Director of the Board of Management, becoming the first ever woman to be the MD of an original equipment manufacturer in South Africa.

Your second home has been described as South Africa. What do you appreciate best about that country’s culture? 

I love South Africa’s diversity. From the people to the food to the social and cultural activities. I have experienced this diversity by eating mopani worms and sheep heads alongside Asian, Indian, and Cape Malay flavors. Everyone contributes to the diversity of the country. In addition to the culture, I enjoy the diverse and breath-taking landscapes, from the semi-arid Karoo to the undulating Kalahari Desert to the vast coastline, where I enjoy whale watching expeditions and the view of dolphins frolicking cheerfully. 

Prior to becoming the MD of VWSA, you were the Head of Volkswagen Brand Sales and Marketing in South Africa. What are your thoughts on the market there? 

The Volkswagen brand in South Africa is still a beloved brand. For the past 70 years, the brand has grown in the hearts of South Africans. Globally, the brand is undergoing a spree to become a love brand again. In South Africa, the brand equity is amazing, and this is evident by the brand’s performance over the years. Volkswagen in South Africa enjoys one of the highest market shares in the world.  There are so many Volkswagen brand icons in the country, from the beloved Beetle to the Golf Mk 1, which enjoyed a long history and is still popular on the roads despite the end of its lifecycle more than a decade ago. The Polo Vivo is currently the most popular hatchback in its segment on South African roads.

Also, the GTI brand in South Africa holds among the highest market shares in the world.

What type of response have you seen from VW’s different marketing and branding operations in Africa?

While we are aware of the size of the continent and the differences that exist from country to country, we realize there is no one size fits all solution. However, we are piloting mobility solutions in Rwanda and will soon replicate the model in other countries. Another pilot project is the Genfarm (electric tractor) solution for Africa’s large agricultural sector. The pilot project is currently underway in Rwanda. We want to tailor-make our various solutions for every market, and we are doing this with great awareness of cultural sensitivity and market needs.

How did you manage to maintain VWSA’s excellent position in the South African market during that time? 

We build and sell the right products in the right segments. The market was also different at the time. The vehicle market has become highly competitive, and consumers enjoy a variety of brands to choose from.

What plans does VWSA have to expand the brand’s presence even more in Sub-Saharan Africa?

South Africa remains the main automotive hub with full manufacturing. In 2016, we revived the brand in Kenya and established an assembly facility and distribution in East Africa. In 2018, we established an assembly facility and mobility solutions in Rwanda, and in 2019, we established an assembly facility in Ghana. Earlier this year, we took full ownership of the assembly facility in Ghana to support the West African region. Moving forward, we are looking at establishing a North African hub.

The above supports our future strategy, which focuses on providing sustainable mobility and energy solutions for generations to come. We commend countries on the continent for working on policies that make it possible for Volkswagen to grow. We are working with the African Association of Automotive Manufacturers (AAAM) on policies to industrialize the markets. Countries such as Senegal, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Mozambique are making good strides in policy implementation.

We are working on a future strategy with a strong focus on Africa. Our vision is to create sustainable Mobility and energy solutions for generations to come.

How is the market for Volkswagen automobiles doing in Africa?

When the Volkswagen brand moved to China in the 1980s, it started on a low base. Today, China is an important market for Volkswagen. Africa is the last development frontier for the automotive industry, and I believe that Volkswagen has the potential to succeed on the continent.

We, however, need to develop a new car market. Currently, the continent has the lowest car density market for new cars, with most cars on the roads being used cars imported from other continents.

Our brand performance is not bad, considering the size of the market.  VW has a good brand image on the continent, and we want to continue winning the hearts of our Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) customers.

Which of the Volkswagen models is your personal favorite?

Golf GTI—if I were to buy one, I would buy an old Beetle or the T2 bus.

What is VW’s distribution network in Africa?

We have 111 dealers in South Africa, one in Botswana, and one in Namibia, and we have licensed retail importers in our SSA markets.

How important is workforce development to VWSA?

At VWSA we are committed to the training and development of our people. We have a fully-fledged training academy that ensures ongoing skills development and training in various aspects of the business. From an aftersales point of view, we ensure training and development of our service technicians who support customers through the dealer network.

We also work closely with the local university to develop curricula that are aligned to the needs of industry, and together we define the skills set required for future automotive needs.

Furthermore, we run extensive programs for youth that provide an opportunity for in-service training and internships, allowing youth to gain work experience and become employable.

We extend the learning and development opportunities into the community, investing in early learning development so that children can learn to read with understanding at a young age.

How would you summarize the influence you’ve had thus far on VWSA’s in one sentence? 

Don’t marry the problem, but hug the solution!

My other personal favorite adage is from Verna Myers, renowned culture expert: Diversity is being invited to the party, and inclusion is being asked to dance.

The international automobile sector is said to be undergoing innovative changes.  What are your thoughts on the changes that are taking place right now?

South Africa is not moving fast enough on its automotive policy regarding future mobility and motoring trends, while other markets are making significant strides in creating their policies.

The demand for internal combustion engines in Europe is fast declining, and by 2030 there will no longer be demand as these markets are fast moving to electric vehicles (EV).  And this is the market where the majority of our exports go. From my point of view, Africa will not electrify as swiftly as Europe and China, but there is opportunity for growth at this pace. Hence, the African continent presents an opportunity. There is an emerging middle class and a fairly young population that are following world trends.

Moving forward, Africa has to find its role in the electric vehicle (EV) space. This entails the affordability of EVs and the production of renewable energy. There is opportunity for battery manufacturing too, considering that all the raw materials are actually in Africa.

Volkswagen is a brand that has done well for itself. What do you believe is the most important aspect of branding?

Volkswagen focuses on the customer and strives to deliver on its promise. We look at the customer infinity and take an interest in their ownership journey, not just the ‘fireworks’ at the time of sale. Also, the Volkswagen brand has been consistent and the products are rather emotive having produced a number of timeless classics over the years.

Could you kindly enlighten us about Volkswagen’s latest “brand concept”?

Volkswagen is a love brand, known to be the people’s car. We want to be customer-centric and want them to fall in love with our cars. We listen to what customers want and deliver on it.

Most major corporations have expressed their support for sustainability, with the objective of reaching carbon neutrality by 2050. And, as one of these businesses, how does Volkswagen view “Sustainability”?

Sustainable operational practices will secure our future. We have made significant progress on the sustainability front.

Over a ten-year period, our production plant in Kariega has reduced its energy consumption and carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions by almost half. The water usage and waste reduction declined by 65% and 66% respectively, while solvent emissions reduced by 31%. In total our environmental impact has reduced by over 50% since 2010.

Decarbonisation is one of the company’s key objectives. We are determined to become 100% carbon-neutral in our production operations by 2030.

VWSA’s zero impact factory strategy includes a broad spectrum of initiatives such as the installation of 3 136 solar photovoltaic panels and a wastewater recycling facility.  We installed rainwater harvesting tanks and a reverse osmosis system.

We also planted indigenous trees around our facilities which consume much less water. The South African spekboom plant is especially known for its ability to absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide. 

The corporation’s goal is to minimize its carbon footprint and achieve zero impact status across all passenger and light commercial vehicle production sites by 2050.

How significant is Africa in VW’s worldwide aspirations?

Africa is our roadmap. Many African countries are on a growth trajectory and their automotive policies are geared towards supporting new vehicles and locally produced vehicles.

Africa gives Volkswagen the opportunity to have a complete global presence.

What is VW’s long-term goal for Africa?

We have a plan. We have broadened our understanding of the products and services needs in Africa. We have learnt that Africa has a growing need for affordable mobility. Transportation and unique products for the African consumer are important aspects of our plans ahead.

Aligned to Volkswagen Group’s strategy, we will focus on renewable energy and charging. Also, Africa has a young and dynamic population with a growing online presence which creates an opportunity for us to tap into software development and alternative revenue streams.


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