BEML, an Indian manufacturing and engineering conglomerate, on Thursday opened a regional office for Africa in Johannesburg that will soon establish after-sales capacity.

While its beginnings are small, the state-allied group under the Indian defence ministry will use South Africa as a springboard into the rest of the continent.

"Johannesburg will be the hub of activities," said K Narayana Bhat, GM of BEML's international business division. "The reason we chose Johannesburg is (its) connectivity."

The company produces a range of heavy machinery and equipment, including multipurpose vehicles, railway trains and coaches, mining shovels, dump trucks, bulldozers, pontoon bridges, military vehicles, hydraulic excavators and road-building equipment.

The internationally certified group says it will provide products for regional mining, construction, defence, and rail and metro markets.

BEML, which exports to 58 countries, already trades in about 13 African markets, with distributorships in Zimbabwe, Botswana and Tanzania.

With South Africa about to undertake a massive overall infrastructure programme, and similar developments under way elsewhere in Africa, BEML joins hundreds of Indian companies already resident in the country or trading with it.

"Africa has huge infrastructure opportunities," Arvind Gupta, executive director of BEML's South African partner Arshan Capital, said on Thursday.

Mr Gupta said Arshan would be the exclusive BEML distributor in South Africa, with a view to cross-border markets.

Mr Bhat said 85% of BEML's products were manufactured in-house, at numerous divisional centres in India, which included the group's own engineering and metal smelting capacities.

Virendra Gupta, India's high commissioner in South Africa, said South Africa and India shared a close heritage, and along with being fellow members of the Brics economic group of nations that also includes Brazil, China and Russia, they had a "robust" commercial relationship.

"There is a natural willingness to partner with South Africa. Our leaders meet frequently," he said. "This is an important step taken by the Indian corporate sector."

allixm@bdfm.co.za