African Grease Trends
Even as grease production capacity in Africa is increasing, the continent remains a marginal player in the global industry and a net importer, according to Siddharth Sachdeva, the director of Siddharth Grease and Lubes, India.
In 2018, German independent Fuchs Petrolub opened a grease plant in Isando, South Africa with capacity of more than 4,000 metric tons per year of lithium, lithium complex and aluminum complex greases. The next year, France’s Total opened a 2,000 t/y production plant in Tanzania. But when figures are added to the Middle East, Africa only accounts for 5 percent of global grease production and about 6 percent, or 65,000 tons, of global lubricant demand.
Greater middle class prosperity, industrialization and energy use have resulted in higher demand for greases in many African countries. But weak overall economic growth means much of this demand has been for lower-quality products, due to price-sensitivity and underfunded infrastructure.
Additionally, Sachdeva noted that currency volatility is a major stumbling block for foreign companies looking to establish grease manufacturing operations in Africa. This led Siddharth Grease and Lubes’ attempt to open a plant on the continent being shelved in favor of the United Arab Emirates instead.
Almost all greases used in Africa are mineral oil-based, and at 80 percent of demand, lithium soap is the most widely used because of its multiple applications. These include industrial, automotive and mining, the latter of which is a major contributor of GDP to many economies across the continent. At the same time, lithium complex grease is also gaining popularity for its high dropping point, which is especially useful in steel mills, roller table bearings, bearings, blast furnaces and sintering plants.
Sodium-thickened greases are also popular in Africa, mostly in the automotive application segment, while they see less use in countries with cooler climates, said Sachdeva. Aluminum complex grease is widely used as a food-grade product and for spray lubricant in cement and sponge-iron plants. Molybdenum greases are also used in African mining operations, where stable performance in dusty conditions is required.
However, demand across the continent is gradually shifting towards calcium and aluminum complex greases, Sachdeva said.
“We have been supplying Africa with greases for the last decade and I see there is a shift in the procurement pattern … There is a trend that we see into calcium sulfonate and aluminum complex that the consumers are getting interested in,” he told Lubes’n’Greases.
Lithium soap is made by the saponification of base oil using lithium hydroxide, which is also used in the production of electric vehicle batteries. This led a few years ago to a constriction of supply. Lithium hydroxide producers do not tend to focus on the needs of the grease industry, which accounts for only 8 percent of their business, Sachdeva said. He went on to predict that other types of thickener will grow in market share as a result.
“I think aluminum and calcium grease are the future in case lithium goes bad again,” he said.
Lithium soap grease can be more expensive to produce, yet its performance benefits outweigh the cost for many users. Patrick Swan, principal at Aswan Consulting based in Cape Town, South Africa, pointed out that lithium is also the easiest grease to make, leaving little incentive for African buyers to switch. Like Siddharth, he is also cautious about the price of lithium in the future. Swan does, however, see the trend going toward aluminum and calcium greases.
“We all know that lithium is becoming more expensive, and is thus losing market share. Aluminium and calcium greases are less expensive and will take some of the share, but we would need to balance this with the importance of performance,” he told Lubes’n’Greases in a follow-up email.
Calcium greases may not be suitable for all applications. Swan pointed out that both hydrous and anhydrous calcium have low melting points, and aluminium has an even lower operating temperature of around 70 degrees Celsius, while aluminium complex greases are better.
Cliff Classen, director of Clasco Marketing, a petroleum products distribution company based in Cape Town, agrees that there is a growing appetite for a broader range of grease types.
“Africa is now having a healthy discussion; it is no longer a one-type-fits-all kind of market. The choices for blenders and formulators are becoming a lot more open and diverse, which allows them to make better-informed decisions going forward than just to use one product and one base material,” he said.
The same story plays out across the continent. Kenya is predominantly a lithium grease market, said Jospeh Juma, product manager, lubricant and fuel additives, IMCD Kenya. Juma acknowledged that aluminum and calcium greases account for a fraction of the grease demand and are mostly imported. In Nigeria, lithium grease is the mainstay, said Taiye Williams, managing director of Lubcon International, Nigeria. However, the trend is different in Egypt, where calcium and sodium greases are more widely used in the automotive sector and lithium in industrial applications and automotive less so, said Rami Al-Kinanny, general manager of Hitech Oils and Grease, Egypt. According to Al-Kinanny, lithium hovers around 30 percent market share in the country.
Ongoing industrialization across Africa makes the future grease market promising.
“We can see the statistics in countries such as Nigeria, Egypt and South Africa. They are very big lubricant and grease markets and … are set to grow at 5 percent year-on-year. Tremendous growth is expected to come even in places like Morocco,” he said.
The continent will continue to rely on imports to meet demand, and as long as manufacturing is largely established by foreign lubricant manufacturers, the chances of an African-grown manufacturer joining the fray very unlikely in the next decade.