Cement – Suffering in the Midst of Plenty

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Nigeria is like the proverbial child of the potter who doesn’t have a pot to cook! This is a country with plenty of crude oil but experiences fuel scarcity regularly because we are unable to refine the crude to produce sufficient fuel for our daily consumption. With purposeful leadership, we should not only be producing enough for our needs but we should be exporting to all other west African countries and beyond. The Gods are definitely not to be blamed!

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In the same vein, Nigeria is blessed with large quantity of deposits of limestone (the raw materials for producing cement), all over the country, north, south, west or east. It is there in abundance! Our problem is how to turn this God-given gift to cement for our construction industry.

A few months ago, our hopes were raised by the news that Nigeria will not only be able to produce enough cement for domestic consumption but will soon be exporting the product. But today what do we have? The product has become so scarce that the price has risen by as much as 38% in the last six months. A 50kg bag that sold for N1,600 in August 2010 now sells for N2,200!. It could be more outside Lagos.

This problem keeps on recurring because of our overdependence on the use of cement in our construction industry. All our walls are built with cement blocks, our concrete pillars are cement stuffed, same goes for our concrete floors. Cement is used as mortar for bonding the blocks while it is in the same material we use for plastering and for laying the floor and wall tiles. Interlocking blocks made from cement are used for paving the compound and even roads. Cement is therefore a major component in our construction industry. Without cement, the construction industry will be grounded! This is why people will buy it at any price whenever there is a scarcity.

To solve this problem, government has always resorted to adhoc solutions like massive importation or waiver of import duty. But these have not always been effective rather it has sometimes created its own problems like the cement amada and port congestion of the 70s!

What needs to be done is to embark on a massive production of cement locally since we have the raw material in abundance. This we can do by government assisting the local manufacturers in the following ways:-

  1. Give grants or interest free loan to existing cement manufacturers to allow them expand their production capacities.
  2. Encourage new factories by giving incentives like waiver of import duties on plants and machineries used for the manufacture of cement. Afterall, the Federal government did this for GSM equipments when they were given licences initially. Tax holidays for some years can also be given to such new factories to enable them stabilize.
  3. In view of the high costs of production occasioned by lack of necessary infrastructure especially power, government should also waive exercise duties on all locally produced cement to reduce the price to consumers. Right now, locally produced cement is more expensive than imported ones due to infrastructural problems like power and high interest rates.
  4. As an interim measure only, the Federal government should allow importation of cement at no import duty for a period of just two years to allow 1-3 above materialise in sufficient local production of cement. Once the expansion programmes and new factories are completed, importation should be stopped to encourage the local industries.

In addition to be above, we should look at ways by which we can reduce our dependency on cement. Government should encourage the use of alternative materials like clay bricks, wood, fibre, stones and even mud walls. The only way to do this is for government to use these materials on government projects to demonstrate to the people that they are not inferior to cement blocks. About 90% of houses built in the U.K are built of red brick walls. In the US, wood is mostly used as walling materials.

The impression is given that red brick is inferior to cement blocks in this part of the world but this is not true! The only way to disprove this is for government to use red bricks on its projects. For example, Ekiti State inherited a red brick factory at Ire from the Old Ondo State. On the creation of the state, I wrote a policy paper on housing for the state government in which I had recommended (among other things) that the new state should make use of red bricks from the Ire factory for the building of the state secretariat, the governors lodge, house of assembly as well as residential quarters for the legislators.

If this was done, the state government would have demonstrated to the people that the red brick produced at Ire-Ekiti is as good as cement blocks. That would have encouraged the citizens of the state to patronise the factory thereby keeping it alive and employing many hands. The factory is now dead due to lack of patronage.

There is need to deemphasize the importance of cement in our construction industry by looking at alternative materials as earlier mentioned above. Until this is done, the price of cement will continue to soar since construction activities will continue to increase. There is nothing wrong in using stabilized mud wall for building. The primary school I attended was built about 1954 with mud walls. It is still standing there today 57 years on! This was ordinary mud walls not stabilized at all. A stabilized mud wall can last a century if plastered and painted to prevent water percolation.

In conclusion, the Federal government should look seriously into the cement issue since as at now, we cannot do without it in all our construction activities. Is anybody listening? I doubt!

Kola Akomolede ([email protected])

Chairman, Faculty of Housing, NIESV.

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