Winning - Slashing energy consumption

By Robyn Grimsley

AfriSam is South Africa’s second-largest cement producer, and its Ulco cement plant in the Northern Cape is one of the company’s two fully integrated cement plants operating in the country. First established in 1936 to manufacture industrial lime, today the plant has an annual cement production capacity of 1 250 000 tonnes.

Over the past nine decades, the global demand for cement has increased 50-fold, from 100 million tonnes in 1926 to around five billion tonnes in 2016, with the majority of this demand being from China (56%, or 2.8 billion tonnes). In comparison, estimated cement demand in Africa in 2016 was 240 million tonnes (4.8% of global demand), with South Africa accounting for 5.4% of that amount (13 million tonnes).

However, according to AfriSam sales and marketing executive Richard Tomes, there is currently a massive oversupply of cement globally. Declining global cement demand has resulted in worsening capacity utilisation, lower EBITDA margins, and increased mergers and acquisitions (M&A) activity in the sector. Over the past five years, there has been notable M&A activity in China, India, Europe, Latin America and, to a lesser extent, in Africa. Tomes described the situation as being “pretty dire”, saying that there is a definite need for some form of consolidation in the market.

AfriSam’s Ulco cement plant, situated about 80km outside of Kimberley, is one of the company’s two fully integrated South African cement plants. “Our on-site operations go right from the quarrying of limestone and shale through to raw materials preparation, manufacturing clinker, manufacturing cement, and then packing and dispatching to the customer,” explains cementitious executive Hannes Meyer.

Key Milestones


AfriSam’s Ulco cement plant started operations in 1936 as the Union Lime Company, capitalising on massive high-quality limestone deposits in the area to produce high-quality industrial lime for the gold industry, and later on to the steel and ferrous industries. In the intervening 81 years, the plant has grown to become one of the company’s largest cement factories, and one of its two fully integrated plants located in South Africa. In addition to an increase of one million tonnes per year in production capacity — up to 1 250 000 tonnes from 250 000 when it first opened — the plant has undergone a number of capacity and efficiency upgrades.

In 1949, 13 years after its establishment, the first two cement kilns were established, with a combined production capacity of 250 000 tpa. Both were wet process kilns, which are highly energy-intensive and inefficient in comparison to today’s technology. In 1964, two larger, more efficient kilns were built, increasing the plant’s capacity to 350 000 tpa. However, these kilns still made use of wet chemistry, which limited production capacity and resulted in significant energy consumption.

Twenty years later, in 1984, the current kiln — Kiln 5, a pre-calciner dry process kiln — was built, with 1.25 million tonnes of clinker capacity per year. Kiln 5 is a four-stage pre-heater kiln and is highly energy efficient compared to the earlier wet process kilns. While this kiln has now been operating for over 30 years, Meyer explains that a number of upgrades have been carried out over this period.

“One of the reasons we have managed to improve our energy consumption by 30% since 2000 is that we have invested a lot of capital in improving and modernising this kiln. This is not an original model; it is actually closer to the modern kilns than people think,” explains Meyer.

The upgrades include installation of a raw mill separator, which improves both energy efficiency and production rates, as well as upgrades of the cascade fan and clinker cooler, which also contribute to efficiency and improve capacity. The packers and palletisers have also been replaced through the years, and bag filter added to reduce kiln dust emissions.

Recently, a separator was installed on one of the plant’s two cement mills, which further reduces energy consumption and improves capacity. Currently, the plant can produce 4 000 tonnes of clinker and 7 000 tonnes of cement per day. Further planned upgrades will increase daily clinker production capacity by an additional 750 tonnes, to 4 750 tonnes per day.

The original plant was demolished a few years ago and the area rehabilitated.


Energy is one of the largest cost drivers in South Africa’s cement industry, with Eskom’s tariffs having risen by over 300% from 2007 to 2015. According to Meyer, energy accounts for almost 40% of all cash costs related to the manufacturing of AfriSam’s products. “Electricity used to be a relatively insignificant cost, but over the past 10 years it has become the single most expensive cash cost item to manufacture cement,” he says.

This is why AfriSam has been focusing on decreasing its energy consumption since 2000. Not only do the company’s energy efficiency initiatives reduce its carbon footprint, they also make good business sense. “AfriSam is currently one of the ‘greenest’ cement companies in South Africa, not only because we want to be known as the green company, but because it helps us to reduce our energy consumption and thus our costs,” Meyer explains.

AfriSam launched its energy efficiency drive in 2000 when it embarked on Project Green Cement, which resulted in the reduction of the clinker content of cement and a subsequent lowering of the total energy required for manufacturing.

“By modernising our plants and equipment, and implementing a variety of efficiency and capacity upgrades, we have managed to reduce our specific electrical consumption per tonne of cementitious material by 19% since 2000, which reduces the overall cost per tonne of our cement.” Meyer explains that after electricity, thermal energy is AfriSam’s second-highest cost, with coal for use at the Ulco plant being trucked in from the Witbank area. “Coal is both expensive and energy intensive, but to convert limestone to cement you need a lot of energy. Through our various upgrades, we have managed to reduce our specific thermal energy consumption per tonne of cementitious material by 30% since 2000.”

In 2010, in an industry first, AfriSam launched its Eco Building Cement, a move which resulted in the lowering of its carbon footprint to half that defined by the World Resource Institute and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. It was also the first company globally to introduce a carbon footprint measurement system on each and every cement product relative to the world average. “Our manufacturing process and products are aligned to our environmental philosophy, and our advanced composite cements enables us to reduce our CO2 emissions while also reducing the energy requirements for manufacturing those types of products,” Meyer adds.

In recognition of its efforts to produce more environmentally friendly cement, AfriSam received the Nedbank Green Mining Award in 2010, and the Mail & Guardian Greening the Future Award in 2011for its emissions reduction and energy management programmes. The following year, AfriSam became the first cement company to pledge support for Eskom’s R49-million campaign, to demonstrate its commitment to the global agenda of energy efficiency. In 2013, the company’s Ulco plant received a National Association for Clean Air award following the installation of a bag filter: a device that reduces air pollution by removing particulates released from commercial or combustion processes.

AfriSam also introduced an energy policy aimed at actively further reducing its consumption of non-renewable energy, and the installation of the Cement Mill 6 (CM6) separator at Ulco forms part of this. This will change the mill to a closed-circuit mill, allowing the company to mill cement more efficiently. The project is anticipated to result in a 10% energy efficiency improvement for the mill. The Ulco operation also utilises the co-processing of tyres in kilns as part of the manufacturing process, reducing the use of traditional fossil fuels.

Another project currently in the pipeline at the Ulco operation is a waste heat recovery system. High temperature gas, normally vented through the kiln stack, is utilised to generate electricity that will be recirculated for use in the plant. “AfriSam will continue to research and implement measures that lead to less dependence on non-renewable resources. We encourage other businesses to carefully consider the impact that their manufacturing operations have on both the local and global arena and to adjust methodologies to align with future energy conservation expectations,” says Meyer.


AfriSam is the largest aggregates and ready-mix (construction materials) supplier in southern Africa.

Construction materials

  • National footprint: 17 aggregates quarries (Gauteng: 7, Mpumalanga: 1, KwaZulu-Natal: 6, Western Cape: 3)
  • Annual production capacity: >10 million tonnes of aggregate.


  • National footprint: 40 ready-mix operations (Gauteng: 18, Mpumalanga: 5, North West Province: 3, KwaZulu-Natal: 8, Western Cape: 6) 
  • Annual production capacity: >4 million cubic


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