South African cement producer PPC reported this week that its annual profits rose due to ‘strong’ performance in Rwanda and Zimbabwe. Unfortunately it had no such luck in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) where its new plant near Kimpese in Kongo Central province has suffered from political instability, lower cement demand and subdued selling prices.
As the group went on to describe the local market as ‘challenging’ with production capacity above market demand. Research from the International Finance Corporation (IFC) suggests that the country will only reach a cement supply deficit by 2022. On top of this the country’s elections have been delayed from December 2017 to December 2018, creating uncertainty in the construction market and delaying infrastructure projects. Following an impairment assessment PPC took an impairment cost of US$14m on the unit. Or in other words it concluded that the value it might gain from selling its new 1.2Mt/yr plant was less than the estimated US$280m it cost to build it.
This outcome is depressing given that the plant was only commissioned during the last quarter of 2017 and the fundamental need for development in the DRC. The unit is run by local subsidiary PPC Barnet DRC, a joint venture 69% owned by PPC, 21% owned by Barnet Group, with the remaining 10% owned by the IFC. The plant was 60% debt funded by the IFC and Eastern and Southern African Trade and Development Bank. In January 2018 PPC agreed with its lenders to reschedule debts from the project until 2020. Then in April 2018 it was reported that PPC was in talks with China National Materials (Sinoma) over selling its stake in the plant. PPC chief executive officer (CEO) Johann Claassen said that the deal was dependent on the price and the on going merger between Sinoma and China National Building Material (CNBM).
With the merger between the Chinese cement giants close but yet to be confirmed, PPC remains stuck with a cement plant it’s losing money on. No doubt also the Chinese producers will aim for a bargain on the unit, especially since Sinoma built the plant. This also raises one potential method how the merged Sinoma-CNBM might expand internationally by scooping up plants it builds that have subsequently gotten into financial trouble.
All in all it’s a cautionary tale about how fast cement companies are able to expand in Sub-Saharan Africa. The demographics are enticing to investors but if the market isn’t there or if competitors get there first then building cement plants can go wrong. A 1.8Mt/yr joint-venture plant run by Lucky Cement started up in late 2016 also in the Kongo Central province. On top of this neighbouring countries have targeted DRC for exports. A local ban on imports of cement was implemented in mid-2017 and reportedly renewed in the west of the country for another six months in February 2018. However, Nigeria's Dangote Cement said in its first quarter results for 2018 that its operations in the Republic of Congo were targeting exports at the DRC. As PPC has discovered, investing in Sub-Saharan African has its risks.