Please introduce yourself to our readers
Sakwa: My name is Fidelis Sakwa. I’m an Engineer at Bamburi and I work as an Innovation and Technical services manager.
Give us a bit of your professional background
Sakwa: I graduated from the University of Nairobi, Civil Engineering. That was in 1996. I worked briefly as a Consulting Engineer from 1996 till 2000 and thereafter joined Bamburi Cement.
What is your Specific role at Bamburi Cement?
Sakwa: I have had a number of roles but currently I focus on innovations whose outcome is the new products that we are launching. These are both in cement and concrete. Apart from new products, we are looking at how we can get modify the existing products to get more from them. I double up as quality manager of Bamburi special products. Bamburi special products manufacture ready mix concrete and precast products.
In a nutshell What role does engineering play in the production of cement?
Sakwa: We have a big number of engineers in the cement industry who play different roles in the production process. You will find a number of mechanical engineers because the whole process is heavily mechanical. We have a number of electrical engineers because to run this equipment the input of power is quite high. We do have a number of mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, chemical engineers and you will find also a number of civil engineers like me because we now look at the downstream process where we have to ensure that the product that is manufactured is fit for consumption.
How have the engineering methods changed in the production of cement over time?
Sakwa: Cement is a very interesting product. Some old cement used to be made by what we call wet process. This is the process where the raw materials would be grounded to fine particles then they are suspended in water so that we have slurry then it’s eventually dried to end up with the cement. Over time this process was found to be uneconomical because we spent so much energy to dry the material. So today you find all modern cement companies use the dry process. Over and above that, when you look at the production, we are living in a world where by automation and IT have really taken root. To reduce human error a number of processes are automated today, so this are some of the changes we have seen.
What would you say is Bamburi’s Competitive edge as a result of innovation?
Sakwa: At Bamburi we’ve had a number of innovations. We’ve got the widest product range for any cement manufacturer. For instance we are the only company that manufactures a limestone building cement. We have a 32.5 cement which we’ve put limestone in it. We have also manufactured a cement that we call power plus. The strength of this cement is 42.5. If you check what other manufacturers in the market are doing, their products are OPC cements. By OPC we mean cement with a very high clinker content (95% clinker minimum as per the standards). Now if you look at the Standard Gauge Railwayway Project, when they came on board they asked for a 52.5 cement and there were special requirements for this cement because the contractor is Chinese and he has been given a commitment for a 100 years looking at durability so there are some durability requirements that have been added to the product to suit this specific customer. We moved very fast, we manufactured the product. It was not very easy to do but we did it. That’s how we were able to get huge supplies of the 52.5 cement into this project as well as the 42.5 which we also modified a bit to fit the requirements. We are also the only cement company that has integrated vertically downstream. We have gone into ReadyMix Concrete, we are making concrete commercially and supplying to various construction sites. Also to assist a number of clients, we have come up with mobile concrete laboratory. What it basically does is that, for customers who are very far from our testing facilities we are able to go to them. We look at their materials and how they are working and we are able to give them advice in the matters to do with the quality of their aggregates, quality of their sand, quality of their water and the mixing of the concrete.
What is your assessment on the impact of the mobile concrete laboratory?
Sakwa: It has been taken positively by the market. There are customers who are not very sure what they are doing at the site and they’re not able to go to testing facilities or come to us. This mobile lab goes all over the country. We are able to meet customers, we have actually held meetings with masons, some of them came through a partnership with the National Construction Authority and we were able to discuss and do site demonstrations for them to really understand how to make a good quality concrete product .
Let us discuss power Max cement. What is it about it that sets it aside?
Sakwa: When discussing the power max cement, we have to look at it in the context of what we’ve been doing traditionally. For a long time there is cement that has been made which is the OPC. Today, all the cement companies make the 42.5 cement class as an OPC which is to say it’s a cement with a very high clinker content . We created power Max for various reasons; Firts, If you are able to reduce the clinker content in cement, then, ideally you reduce the cost of production. Our Power Max which is a 42.5 cement product is cheaper than any other 42.5 cement you’ll find in the market. Now the reduction in clinker is not only commercial, it also improves the strength of the construction. Consider the reactions in cements, if you are using a product that has a very high clinker content, the most reactive part of that cement is clinker. When clinker reacts it releases heat in what we call an exothermic reaction. It’s a lot of heat being liberated and the challenge is this heat can become a problem especially when you are doing very thick concrete because the central part of that concrete will start heating as the cement hydrates. The external part heats too but is subject to ambient temperature so you end up with a temperature gradient. You can have temperatures as high as 80 degrees or even above at the center and at the top surface you have temperatures of about 25 degrees. The beauty of a product like Power Max is that if you reduce the clinker component the reactive component is reduced. For Power Max we reduce clinker by between 20-35%. In terms of durability, if you reduce your clinker content you are also reducing that component that can be attacked by chemicals in the environment. Finally again we add some limestone into it. When you look at concrete from a microscopic level it has pores. When you put cement that has fine grounded limestone in it, then that fine limestone tends to fill the pore in the concrete such that you actually end up with a concrete with better water proof properties.
I would like us briefly to discuss the challenges that are facing construction industry.
Sakwa: Restricting myself to matters to do with the cement and concrete one of the biggest things we’ve seen in the industry is the sheer lack of knowledge in the mixing of concrete. We have gone to sites where the cement being used in the concrete mixture is actually half of what you are supposed to use. There are ratios that have been prescribed in the code documents for instance let me just go with the ratio of 1:2:4 which is supposed to give you a class 20 but if you look at what the market is doing some people have decided a ratio of 1:2:4 means 1 bag cement to 2 wheelbarrows of sand and 4 wheelbarrows of aggregates when ideally you should have used the same mixing containers. Over and above that, there has been a change in the materials being used. Today people use quarry dust to mix concrete. While quarry dust is an acceptable material for making concrete, the challenge is a number of people are using it as a direct substitution for sand. Also, these prescribed mixes do not have a water component. What we advocate is to do what we call a trial mix. Before a contractor commences on any project they should get the materials they are going to use in that project and take them to a concrete laboratory who will do a trial concrete mix for them. The problem is the masons will come to site, they see things being done and they will want to do this in other sites. At Bamburi cement we have engaged in a project we call The Builders Academy whose main purpose is to create awareness in the construction industry. We are typically looking at the fundis, the masons and trying to educate because a number of these people never went through any formal construction education. We have so far reached over 2000 masons in this awareness and we are still continuing today even as we speak just to try and explain to them the challenges they might face by not following proper instructions.
The other challenges of course is the collapsing buildings and it is related. If you do a bad design, you are not checking the mix, there is no engineer supervising the project, all these are recipes for disaster. There are bodies and the authorities that check on buildings like we have National Construction Authority, the county councils, Kenya Bureau of Standards but what we’ve seen is that the enforcements of standards is not happening very well. A number of projects are constructed without caring so much about the quality of the building materials which is not right. We in the cement industry spend so much time and effort to create a fantastic cement products, we go through a rigorous audit by KBS, but it all goes to drain if we make a very good product and other aspects of the industry are not followed up particularly at the site. Some of them even use sewage water from the trenches and ditches that you see at site. The net effect is all the good work we do in making good cement is lost at site.
The other challenge is if you look at the specifications under industries, they are a bit old, they need to be revised. If we go back to the story of OPC, most of the existing documents will talk about OPC cement. The OPC cement is not necessarily the best product for the reasons I said earlier when we were comparing with power max. So we need to revise these documents, we should not tie the users, clients and contractors with an OPC product. If you go to Europe today you will be shocked to find very limited use of the OPC cement. We have created awareness around this but we still give our clients what they want. We try to convince some, we will do concrete mix deigns even in our mobile laboratories in far off sites just to try and convince some of the contractors and some of the clients but unfortunately the impact of the standard is so huge it’s very difficult for us to overturn because it has been the traditional way of doing things.
Let us briefly discuss how the Industry is facing these challenges and what would be the practical solutions.
Sakwa: We have seen the National Construction Authority coming up very strongly and we are happy this authority was formed because now they are able to regulate, they can go to sites and check exactly what is happening to try and mitigate some of these issues. We would like to see a number of these other bodies and authorities also step up their components of regulation and standards enforcement. While at it, whoever is in charge of concrete standards, we would really like to see them updating the old documents and should there be need then we at Bamburi cement will be very happy to be part of such a process. Let’s update our old standards I think it is high time we moved away from the prescribed mixes 1:2:4 and move to application based mixes. The aggregates in Mombasa and aggregates in Nairobi differ so there is no way you will tell me the same mix design can be used in two different places. We would like to see bodies like the Institution of Engineers of Kenya spearheading this type of work. There are all these bodies like KBS, NCA, the county councils, we as private manufacturers we need to come together and try to rescue concrete industry because there is a big problem.
Tell us a bit about the roles Bamburi is playing in environmental conservation.
Sakwa: If you look at our environmental conservation, to manufacture clinker we actually mine limestone. Limestone is actually Calcium carbonate we will add it with the other raw materials and grind them to fine powder. Then we shall burn that material and end up with what we call clinker, clinker being the main reactive agent in cement. Now when you burn that calcium carbonate to make clinker, you actually release carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We have system trying to reduce the soot that we liberate in the atmosphere by the mere fact of reducing the clinker component in our cement. This again is also an advantage of power max cement. Just by trying to reduce the clinker component in the cement we have actually reduced the carbon dioxide emission in that product. We call the power max a green cement because we have reduced the amount of carbon dioxide we emit in our atmosphere. Further deep in to the story of environmental conservation, there is a unit called Lafarge Ecosystem. What we do is that the mining of the limestone and other raw materials for cement is a process where we touch on the environment. The quarries are very deep. After we’ve finished mining we don’t leave mines like that. We’ve had a rehabilitation programs since the 1950s when we started mining limestone for cement. What we have done is that in the areas where we had our quarries , we’ve rehabilitated the area, we’ve done proper landscaping , we planted trees and we actually regenerated the environment into something better than it was before. If you go to Lafarge ecosystem you’ll be surprised, you might think you are in a typical rain forest . The cement industry is also a consumer of waste product from other industries. For instance if you come to our Mombasa plant, you will find us burning old tires which would have been left on the ground lying everywhere. So we burn this tires and turn into something useful in cement.
What are your comments on the quality of graduates from our engineering schools and how does Bamburi enhance the careers of engineers of Kenya once you hire them?
Sakwa: We have very good graduates from our institutions graduating every year. What I can say is that there is a bit of disconnect when you look at the graduates and when you look at the industry. You find in certain situation the graduates are not well prepared for the industry for instance in the manufacturing industry. They are very good in what they have been taught but they have not had an opportunity to learn on the job. We’ve seen this challenge and normally what happens when the graduates come in, they are put on a training program on our ways of doing things which might not be what they have been taught in campus. We will be happy to see more of the university students before they finish, we would like them to come and see how cement is manufactured. We have done it with some of the institutions. We would be happy to go and give them a talk on cement manufacturing.
How is Bamburi planning to remain relevant and ahead of the competition?
Sakwa: Today our relevance should be around issue to do with innovation. We are busy looking at innovative ways of producing cement. We are busy looking on how to bring more innovative products. We are looking at expanding our product range; we are looking at concrete as a material. We are also going out of our way and further trying to have more sessions and interventions with the masons, the technical teams, engineers, architects and consultants just to create awareness on the new products that they can use to make the construction even better and that’s how we end up developing new products to keep on being relevant.
Sakwa: Thank you too for the opportunity.