x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

One man's dream made in the UAE

Yacine Zernouh wasted no time in initiating manufacturing projects that he hopes will pave the way for a world-class electronics industry.

Yacine Zernouh hopes that within five years his Musaffah factories will be making or sourcing all their components locally.
Yacine Zernouh hopes that within five years his Musaffah factories will be making or sourcing all their components locally.

ABU DHABI // These days, when Yacine Zernouh tours his three factories in Musaffah, which produce television sets, liquid crystal display screens for outdoor advertising, memory sticks and mp3 players, among other things, he is often trailed by two or three eager young Emiratis.

It is obviously something he enjoys. Despite the fact the country is gadget-mad - video games are more popular than books and many young men change their mobile phones every six months - Mr Zernouh, an Algerian, found that when he arrived here two years ago there was a perception people were happy to accept foreign imports and not really interested in building things and learning what was under the flashy covers.

That perception, he says, is incorrect. "How to catch the attention of the young generation anywhere these days, is to teach them skills in the electronics field. That is especially true for here. "It is not a big deal for me to convince them that one guy can have a personal touch. He can customise his technology as he sees fit because he will know how to. I can teach that. They will know what is behind it instead of just seeing something on display."

Mr Zernouh, 35, who has spent the past decade working in Hong Kong where he has factories producing various electronic items, including a super-lightweight outdoor screen for advertising, is now bent on creating mass-market electronic products locally, and is confident local companies would be able to compete with imported brands. "Today it has come to be that technology is not that different between countries," he says. "It is only in the branding."

Nationally made products, he adds, are very important since they reflect "the confidence of the people of the country". "I want to teach them to make a business for themselves, from home-grown technology. And I want to teach them everything, even how one must first cross hurdles in terms of licensing." Ideally, he would like at least 15 per cent of his own workforce to be Emirati, preferably young and enterprising, eager to learn more hands-on skills in the factories or offices.

He is looking into summer courses and internships where he might set up partnerships with local colleges. "We are not just hiring them, but teaching them to make components so that someday they can start their own company. This will help expand the entire entrepreneur base of the country," he says. "If I give a good chance to even one, maybe he will pass that on. That will be my legacy." He compared the transfer of knowledge and skills to fertilising a plant.

"A flower smells nice only if the plant has been looked after well," he says. "Similarly, if you show them a way, and another gives him a chance to learn marketing and yet another person gives him training in banking, can you imagine what the next generation of businessmen will look like?" At his factories in Musaffah, production lines are already using locally sourced products such as glass, plastic and cabling to make basic components, such as silicon chips. For the time being, more sophisticated technology will be imported from Mr Zernouh's factories in Hong Kong.

"Thirty-five per cent of the material, we are still unable to build. Processors, hard disks, these will take time. Inshallah, in five years, we will be 100 per cent self-reliant." Prototypes are being produced at the moment, but after Ramadan Mr Zernouh hopes to start full production - in time for returning students to take tours, so he can gauge their interest. The entrepreneur's own story is also one of adaptation and evolution.

About two years ago, curious about the growing number of orders he had been receiving from the UAE, he thought he would get in touch with local companies to explore the possibility of selling them some of his technology on a grander scale. Instead, when he arrived in Abu Dhabi, Mr Zernouh discovered to his surprise that there were no factories willing to work with him or that met his standards. He approached some Emirati friends, who were delighted by the idea of starting their own manufacturing units.

"Abu Dhabi is a transit hub for Europe, Africa and Asia, they explained to me. If I could bring over the know-how of how to actually build the body, the technology transfer would fall into place." His wife and two children followed him and have settled in Abu Dhabi. He chuckles as he speaks of his daughter Anfel, four, who can already dismantle some of his products. "She will soon learn to put them together also," he says proudly.

Friends of Mr Zernouh, such as Sultan al Otibi, 28, a businessman, have encouraged him to create jobs and products that reduce the country's dependency on imports. "This is a future with endless possibilities," says Mr al Otibi, a self-confessed computer enthusiast. "The idea to manufacture over here, to take control of who makes it and who sells it and who buys it gives us greater control of our own market. It's leverage."

Technology means money that in turn means the ability to influence policy. "If you look at some of the most influential lobbyists in Washington, they are from the media," he says. "It is not just about software, but about the makers of hardware too. Anyone who can create their own technology has a lot of influence in the world." Regarding Mr Zernouh's project, Mr al Otibi agrees that "it is important to start with something small".

"Then we can give it to the next generation and ask them to upgrade it. And they can continue doing that." "Some people like the idea that we can be an industrialised nation. I like to feel like that we will be a modern, industrialised nation of today, which is basically a knowledge-based economy as well." "I like to feel like we are catching the first wave," he adds. "We are the pioneers." sbhattacharya@thenational.ae