By Leslie Dwight MENSAH

Panasonic — Japan?s largest consumer electronics maker — will open 100 new service centres in the Middle East and Africa within two years in a bid to boost sales by making its products more accessible to the region?s population.

Speaking to the B&FT at GITEX (Gulf Information Technology Exhibition) 2013 in Dubai, Masao Motoki, Managing Director of Panasonic Marketing, Middle East and Africa, the company?s regional headquarters, said the move is intended to expand Panasonic?s footprint across the region.

At present, the company has 23 service centres in the region providing after-sales product support for customers. The centres also ensure that Panasonic is able to provide warranties for its products.

Economic growth in the Middle East and Africa has been robust during the past decade, averaging around 5 percent annually. This year, says the International Monetary Fund (IMF), GDP will grow by 2.1 percent in the Middle East, and 5 percent in sub-Saharan Africa. Next year, it will improve to 3.8 percent and 6 percent respectively.

This growth, which has lifted millions into the ranks of the region?s middle class — described as the number of people who spend between US$2-20 a day — has inspired brands such as Korea?s Samsung, Dutch conglomerate Philips, and Sony — also from Japan, to pay renewed attention to the region, especially as economies in the developed world face recession and slow growth.
Panasonic may seem a laggard in the race to win the loyalties of African consumers, but Mr. Motoki stressed that the company has woken up to the opportunities in Africa and will focus more on business-to-business (B2B) than business-to-consumer (B2C) sales to grow its revenues and market share in the region.

In the first half of Panasonic?s current fiscal year — April to September 2013 — sales grew by more than 150 percent in the Middle East and Africa; and Panasonic wants to boost the region?s share of its total revenues from 15 percent to 30 percent in three years, according to Mr. Motoki.

This will be achieved by boosting sales of items ranging from light-bulbs and air-conditioners for households to communication and audio-visual equipment for businesses.

?The Middle East and Africa is a key market for us because of its potential. Our products and solutions are ideal for a variety of customers, both residential, non-residential as well as corporate,? said Mr. Motoki.

He added that Panasonic has commissioned staff working in the region to learn about the lifestyle and tastes of African consumers, which often forms the basis for the introduction of a product to the market.

At GITEX 2013, Panasonic unveiled a new 20-inch tablet with 4K resolution (3,840 x 2,560 pixels, more than four times better than HD) specifically targetted at the Middle East and Africa market. Mr. Motoki said the tablet, known as Toughpad 4K UT-MB5, can also be used as a desktop and is ideal for architects, designers, engineers, as well as sales, marketing and media professionals.

The company also showcased lamp-free projectors, the first in the industry, which instead of the conventional lamp or bulb uses a combination of LED and laser diodes to produce light — giving the projector a longer lifespan.
Panasonic expects to sell 20,000 projectors in the region during the current fiscal year ending March 2014, more than 20 percent higher than last year.

Mr. Motoki said the company?s mission is not just to make profits in Africa, which despite its strong growth battles high youth unemployment and one of the highest rates of poverty in the world.

?We have to create employment opportunities, and we have to support the creation of future human capital for the region. That?s why we plan to establish partnerships with African universities to provide internships and industrial job opportunities,? he told the B&FT.

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