Tensions have boiled over regarding imports of cement to Kenya in recent weeks as different importers have received opprobrium in the local press. Last week Dangote Cement was attacked for importing cheap cement into the country from Ethiopia, allegedly off the back of a cheap electricity deal. This week, Chinese imports have been in the firing line, following data reportedly seen by the Business Daily newspaper that showed that the value of Chinese cement imports rose tenfold year-on-year in the first half of 2016.
At the heart of these rows lies a strong demand for cement: Kenya had a cement production utilisation rate of 90% in 2015 according to Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) data. It produced 6.35Mt in that year and used 5.71Mt for consumption and stocks. Its utilisation rate has been rising steadily since 2012. It was 93% for the first six months of 2016.
Unfortunately for the local producers this kind of demand attracts competition from within and without. Nigeria’s Dangote Cement is planning to build a 3Mt/yr plant at Kitui and Cemtech Kenya, a subsidiary of India’s Sanghi Group, is planning to build a 1.2Mt/yr plant at Pakot.
Local producer ARM Cement reported both falling turnover and a loss for the first half of 2016. It blamed this on increased competition in Tanzania. However, in 2015 it increased its turnover in Kenya by importing clinker over the border from its new Tanga plant in Tanzania. It also noted a ‘competitive landscape’ in Kenya and lamented the effects of currency devaluation on its financies as a whole. East African Portland Cement had a tougher time of it for its half-year that ended on 31 December 2015, issuing a profit warning of a loss and expected reduced profits despite a rise of 12% in sales revenue. By contrast, Bamburi Cement, LafargeHolcim’s subsidiary, reported both increases in revenue and operating profit in 2015. Although it too noted problems with interest rates and currency depreciation in the country during this period.
The focus on Chinese imports follows Chinese contractors winning some of the biggest infrastructure projects in the country. The China Rail & Bridge Corporation (CRBC), for example, is building a railway between Mombasa and Nairobi. The Business Daily newspaper has found data showing that Chinese cement imports worth US$19.8m to Kenya in the first half of 2016 compared to US$1.99m in the same period of 2015. The background to this is that China has more than doubled the value of all of its imports to Kenya since 2011 according to the KNBS. Total import volumes of clinker from all foreign countries increased by 51% in 2015 from 1.31Mt in 2014, the largest increase in at least five years.
If local cement producers are being locked out of supplying these kind of deals no wonder they are getting angry. However, another angle on what’s happening here might be that local producers who are suffering from increased competition, falling prices and a precarious national financial situation are lashing out at the easiest target. The local press doesn’t appear to have criticised ARM Cement for moving its Tanzanian clinker north of the border for example. Likewise, a Bamburi Cement spokesperson previously said that the producer had supplied 300,000t of cement to the rail project since September 2014, earning it nearly US$10m. Kenya needs cement as it builds its infrastructure. Fortunes will be made and tempers will be lost as it does so.