There have been rumours in the press this week that LafargeHolcim is weighing up its options in South Africa. Reports in the local press allege that the building materials company has tasked Credit Suisse Group with finding a buyer for its business. This may or may not be true, only time will tell, but South Africa certainly feels like a market where LafargeHolcim should be considering its future.
As a prominent but smaller producer in the country, Lafarge South Africa is behind PPC and AfriSam in terms of clinker production capacity. InterCement’s subsidiary Natal Portland Cement and Dangote’s subsidiary Sephaku Cement have a similar production base with an integrated plant each and one or two grinding plants. Halfway through 2019 LafargeHolcim was describing market conditions as ‘difficult’ in the country with it being the sole Sub-Saharan market holding back regional growth for the group. By the third quarter the situation had reportedly improved but net sales and cement sales volumes were flat for the year to date. A clearer picture should emerge when LafargeHolcim publishes its fourth quarter results at the end of February 2020.
PPC provided its view of the market in its half-year results to 30 September 2019. Its estimate was that the South African cement industry declined by 10 - 15% for the period, creating a competitive environment. It added that the situation had been, ‘exacerbated by imports and blender activity.’ Both its revenue and earnings fell year-on-year, although a 30% rise in fuel costs didn’t help either. Sephaku Cement suffered a similar time of it, with a 19% fall in cement sales volumes during the first half, although it reported improvement in the subsequent quarter. Overall, it blamed falling infrastructure investment for pressurising the market and allowing blending activity to mount. Sephaku Cement was also wary of the local carbon tax that started in June 2019 warning of a potential US$2.8m/yr bill.
PPC noted that cement imports had risen by 5% to 0.85Mt in the year to August 2019. This followed a lobbying effort by The Concrete Institute (TCI) in mid-2019 to implore the International Trade Administration Commission (ITAC) to look into rising imports levels. At the time the TCI’s managing director Brian Perrie expressed incomprehension that a country with six different cement production companies with an over-capacity rate of 30% could be facing this problem. This latest broadside tails South Africa’s previous attempt to fend off imports when it instituted anti-dumping duties of 17 – 70% against importers from Pakistan in 2015. Imports duly fell in 2016 but rose again in 2017 and 2018, mainly from Vietnam and China.
All of this sounds familiar following LafargeHolcim’s departure from the ‘hyper-competitive’ South-East Asian countries in 2019. Those countries also suffered from competition and raging imports. Bloomberg pointed out in a report on the local industry in 2016 that PPC’s, AfriSam’s and LafargeHolcim’s kilns had an average age of 32 years, suggesting that efficiency and maintenance were going to be concerns in the future. Also of note is LargeHolcim’s decision to move its South African operations from one subsidiary, Lafarge Africa, to another, Caricement, in mid-2019.
Some level of market consolidation would certainly help local overcapacity. Plus, surely, LafargeHolcim’s mix of inland integrated capacity and a grinding plant near the coast could prove enticing to some of the Asian companies pumping out all of those imports. The thought on the minds of potential buyers everywhere must be, if LafargeHolcim chief Jan Jenisch was bold enough to sell up in South-East Asia, how can he not in South Africa?!”