For those not following the news in Nigeria, a nationwide row has broken out about the cost of cement in the country. Two of the three main local producers have been forced to publicly defend their pricing. Alongside this, the Senate of Nigeria has implored the federal government to encourage further local investment in cement production with the goal of keeping the end price down.
The current debacle started to take form in the autumn of 2020 when the price of cement leapt up by 35%. Builders and those immediately affected started complaining then but the argument really heated up in April 2021 when the local press started comparing the price of cement in Nigeria unfavourably against neighbouring countries. Dangote Cement, one of Africa’s largest cement producing companies and a Nigerian-based one at that, immediately defended itself by pointing out that its ex-factory price was the same or lower than in other African countries. It added that it could not control the price of cement between its factory and the end-consumer with dealers and middlemen benefiting from the gap. A week later the Senate of Nigeria intervened with its members discussing the issue in relation to a bill intended to liberalise the sector. This week, BUA Cement said publicly that it had no plans to raise the ex-factory price of its cement at the present time or in the future, “…barring any material, unforeseen circumstances.”
The roots of the current crisis go back to the mid-2010s when Nigeria declared itself ‘self-sufficient’ in cement after building up its domestic production capacity. At the same time it discouraged imports and embraced exports. Today, the country’s cement production capacity is around 49Mt/yr and annual demand is around 21Mt. This self-sufficiency path reached one milestone for Dangote Cement in 2020 with clinker exports starting from its Apapa terminal and the commissioning of its Onne Export Terminal in Port Harcourt. Under the old narrative for the sector this was a moment for congratulation. Suddenly though, instead of being seen as the saviour of the industry, members of the legislature were asking whether it was a good thing for Dangote Cement to hold a 60% share of the local market with most of the rest shared between Lafarge Africa and BUA Cement.
The price row has seen Dangote Cement promptly suspend exports from those new terminals. It also said it had reactivated its 4.5Mt/yr Gboko plant in Benue State, which was reportedly mothballed in 2018. It is worth noting here that the Gboko plant was part of that national capacity total above despite being mothballed until fairly recently. Aside from the middleman argument, the producer said that its production costs had risen over the past 15 months due to negative currency effects but that it hadn’t increased its ex-factory prices since December 2019.
A survey by the News Agency of Nigeria in the north-east of the country revealed all sorts of speculation about why the price was so high but few facts. Some of the opinions expressed included: the coronavirus outbreak; low production rates at the plants; market middlemen; and transport costs. What is clearer is that the country’s cement production capacity is more than double that of its demand. On paper at least the nation should be able to satisfy its own needs and then export the same again with plenty spare. Yet somehow this isn’t happening. If the government really believes in self-sufficiency it may be time to take another look at the cement sector, the challenges it faces and the needs of the end consumers.