Cement in a time of Ebola – the economic implications in West Africa

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It won't surprise anyone to know that cement sales have fallen in the west African countries that are suffering from the on-going Ebola outbreak. However the scale may yet be instructive for this and other crises that may affect the cement industry in the future. The local data that follows mostly comes from a report by the World Bank published in early October 2014 looking at short and medium term economic impacts, as well as Global Cement research conducted towards the Global Cement Directory 2015.

All three of the principal countries involved – Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea – have low gross domestic products (GDP). They do not have cement kilns but they do have grinding plants and cement import infrastructure run by both local and international firms. They also lack readily accessible limestone deposits. In the short term (in 2014) a health crisis is expected to hit manufacturing through transportation and market disruptions stemming from both direct health implications and behavioural responses.

Liberia's cement sales fell by 60% in the third quarter of 2014, a drop the World Bank attributed to causes other than the rainy season. Quarterly cement sales more than tripled in 2013 from around 10,000t to over 25,000t marking the commissioning of a new mill at the Liberia Cement Corporation (HeidelbergCement) grinding plant. Dangote also has an import terminal in the country and is building its own grinding plant. The drop in cement sales since June 2014 has nearly undone all this production growth.

Neighbouring Sierra Leone has seen a steady fall in weekly cement sales since June 2014. Similar to Liberia, it has a HeidelbergCement-run grinding plant with Dangote planning expansion soon. Guinea, which had about a sixth of the notified cases of Ebola in mid-October 2014, has seen its cement imports fall by 50% in the year so far compared to 2013.

Before readers become too depressed though, it should be considered that Nigeria has been declared Ebola free by the World Health Organisation after six weeks with no new cases. It may have been relatively expensive to contain Ebola through public health measures but the alternatives for the regional economies could have been worse. More cases are expected to arrive in Nigeria but the country has shown that Ebola can be stopped.

Immediate cement operators threatened by the epidemic include HeidelbergCement with its five grinding plants in west Africa. How an uncontrolled or high case Ebola epidemic affects Dangote's expansion plans in its 'backyard' will also be hard to predict. West Africa is the obvious place for the Nigerian cement giant to build itself up before it tackles other markets in sub-Saharan Africa that have stronger competition like South Africa's PPC. Take this market stability away and Dangote faces a direct economic threat to its growth beyond the humanitarian horror of the epidemic. What also has implications for the cement industry in Senegal, the second biggest cement producer in the region, where there are two integrated plants.

The World Bank report concludes that Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea could lose US$129m in GDP in a low case scenario or up to US$815m in a high case scenario. To give this some context, Sierra Leone's GDP was US$2.7bn in 2013. In a high case situation it could lose US$439m or an amount equivalent to 16% of its GDP in 2013. If and when the fight against Ebola turns, this still leaves a severe economic recession for the survivors in what is already one of the poorest countries in Africa. Cement, one of the indicators of a country's economic and industrial development, is intricately bound up in this.

Last modified on 22 October 2014

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