A PPC lime plant. Picture: SUPPLIED
A PPC lime plant. Picture: SUPPLIED

PPC is weighing expansion into new markets as SA’s biggest cement maker seeks to draw a line under a tumultuous two years that included an emergency rights issue and takeover interest from competitors.

Since taking the top job in July, CEO Johann Claassen had reviewed the company’s operations and balance sheet, with a particular focus on boosting liquidity and extending debt maturity, he said in an interview with Bloomberg

"We had to steady the ship and make it sustainable," he said. "Now we need to get a new pipeline of projects."

New investment would follow a R12bn outlay on five plants in the past half decade, which took PPC into countries including Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) from its South African base. All are now in operation and generating cash, said Claassen, allowing the company to consider new facilities.

East Africa is a particularly fast-growing region, while an abundance of projects in Ivory Coast implies a high demand for cement in the West African country, Mokate Ramafoko, PPC’s head of Africa operations, said in the same interview. While he and Claassen declined to identify specific markets PPC would expand into, Ramafoko said Kenya had a shortage of cement clinker plants and Uganda also looked promising, with a new project coming up.

The plan marks a step change in the strategy of PPC, which raised R4bn from shareholders in 2016 to service debt after S&P Global Ratings cut its credit rating to junk. That came during a perfect storm of heavy investment in new projects and slowing economic growth and falling prices in its home market, which accounts for about 70% of sales.

‘Construction site’

Looking ahead, the company sees the potential for growth, both at home and internationally, as it seeks to repay shareholders for the faith shown during the rights issue.

"There’s an emergence of African leaders that are really starting to change the continent," Ramafoko said. New presidents of countries including SA, Ghana and Zimbabwe are all in the process of approving new infrastructure projects that benefit cement makers, while the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa is "a construction site", he said.

Ongoing infrastructure projects include a €1.4bn urban-railway project in Ivory Coast, while Zimbabwe plans to widen the highway that links the capital Harare to SA, which heavy duty trucks use to transport everything from power-plant equipment to minerals such as chrome and copper.

Of all the new plants, generating a return from the DRC facility has proven the most challenging. PPC has negotiated a "debt holiday" with lenders after the market "didn’t pan out as envisaged", Claassen said. There’s an over supply of cement in sub-Saharan Africa’s largest country, and PPC is in talks with China National Materials, known as Sinoma, about selling a stake in the Congo operation.

DRC Sale

"They are quite amenable in taking a majority stake," Claassen said, adding that the outcome may depend on merger talks between Sinoma and local rival China National Building Material, which would create the world’s largest cement maker. "We are not married to [the DRC], but we would need a fair price for what we invested."

PPC spent much of 2017 in merger talks with local rival AfriSam, which teamed up with Canadian insurer Fairfax to try to push through a deal. PPC considered Fairfax’s R5.75-a-share offer for a minority stake in a proposed PPC-AfriSam combination too low, and a string of other rivals, including LafargeHolcim and Dangote Cement, walked away after considering an approach.

The shares climbed 1.9% to R7.90 at the close in Johannesburg on Friday, valuing the company at R12.6bn. They have gained 13% in 2018.

There’s still scope for consolidation in SA, Claassen said, with competitors including Sephaku Cement, part of Dangote’s operations, and Mamba Cement as well as AfriSam. He declined to comment on whether PPC-AfriSam merger talks could be revived.