Polytra discusses the challenges of logistics and power for the mining industry in the DRC.
Polytra has been operating major projects in Africa since 1974, making it one of the longest standing freight forwarding companies in the DRC. What milestones have been achieved by the organization most recently?
GI: We have completed several major energy projects to bring the necessary capacity to the mining industry, and we continue to move new energy projects and equipment for the mining sector. We have also been operating in more remote areas such as the Manono project where we have been moving a large amount of solar panels. This operation required a combination of expertise because it was a difficult and remote area. Experience and knowledge of the people and the terrain allowed us to conduct a successful mission. We were also awarded one of the largest contracts in DRC: the NYA cement plant. Our speed of execution through logistics broke several records. We have also restructured our Africa freight forwarding desk to cater for the changes in the market and are now one of the largest movers of non-ferrous metals out of the Copperbelt (DRC/ZAMBIA) to the rest of the world via most Africa exit ports.
How has the uptick in the copper price impacted Polytra’s activities and how did the company adapt itself accordingly?
GI: New developments and projects are coming online while previous projects such as KCC in Kolwezi have been revamped . The volumes in the market have been tremendous and the problem is finding solutions for clients in terms of capacity. The imbalance between import and export commodities is getting bigger. In the past we were the market leaders in railway development, and we have decided to get back into this because, although it is challenging, we are seeing results and our focus is to develop this solution to offer value to our clients. When the demand for logistics increases, prices can skyrocket and we believe we need to diversify solutions for our clients.
Why do you believe railway is critical to solving the logistics challenges facing the DRC and what are the most significant obstacles to making it a reality?
AL: The initial challenge in the past was to find traction locomotives, but this has been resolved to a certain extent so that it is no longer the major challenge. The second part is locating reliable wagons to move cargo, and the final challenge is the accessibility of the rail to the sites. By not developing rail as a logistical solution, the permanent imbalance that exists between export and import will only increase. As production in DRC increases with developments such as KCC coming back online, trucking prices will increase, and as a logistics solution provider, we cannot afford to follow this price game. We need to find alternatives, and we believe rail will certainly be part of the alternatives we offer. It is not in competition with the roads, because even with the combined contribution it will still not offer enough capacity.
In terms of power, what developments do you see as critical in support of the mining industry and what role can Polytra play in this space?
GI: There is no doubt that the industry has been suffering because of the energy issues and the increase in production will augment this challenge. However, there are many power sources that are being rehabilitated. For example, SNEL has been cooperating with the mining industry to relaunch the Madigusha Central. Polytra is moving the majority of the transformers and equipment for this project. The Inga Dam, although based in Kinshasa, will provide power to the Katanga region by a massive power line being put in place, representing another collaboration between SNEL and the mining industry. There is massive work being done to rehabilitate the energy distribution sector in DRC. Polytra has, since its inception, served as a crucial force in delivering the heavy and complicated equipment in these areas. It requires not only expertise, but also terrain knowledge as well as a significant amount of trust.
Have you seen the capabilities of Big Data begin to play a role in your operations in Africa?
AL: Increasingly with large-scale clients we have observed a desire to exert control over their supply chain. They have such large volumes that they lose the ability to have transparency and visibility. We have put in place a solution for these types of clients where we are not only organizing the logistics, but also reporting KPIs, putting in place track and trace systems, and analyzing the invoices we receive from our providers which makes us very comparable to an air traffic control tower in that we provide complete control in the shipments for our clients. This is exactly what Big Data is all about We have one system that has been designed for Polytra where all our operators are putting their data into one central system that allows us to handle all of this information. We decided last year to roll out this control tower concept for all of Africa, starting with Tanzania where the internet connection is more stable. One of the key elements is interconnectivity between our offices, clients and service providers, and we are hoping to be completely operational by the end of 2018.
In terms of geography, where does Polytra see the most opportunity for growth in DRC and which ports do you presently view as most important to the country?
AL: Although Polytra is actively growing and developing its activities in Kinshasa as well – we feel that the economy in Kinshasa (and by extend Bas Congo) experiences a complete different dynamic and a notable difference in growth. Katanga is growing with the increase in the copper and cobalt, but there is a slowdown in the Kinshasa economy due to the political situation. As such – although it is difficult to create in depth synergies between both offices – both offices do represent interesting growth potential especially for the project cargo.
Finally, the Goma – Bukavu area remains on our close radar to develop a local Polytra hub covering Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and East DRC.
Concerning the ports – Polytra has chosen a clear strategy to be present with own offices in all key areas and ports used by the mining industry serving DRC – being Dar Es Salaam and Durban and, in lesser a extent but with growth potential, Beira and Walvis Bay in order to guarantee the service and the full control all along the supply chain.
GI: In 2018, the trend is towards increasing logistics costs, with Dar es Salaam and Durban being the most important ports. Durban is becoming increasingly expensive, whereas Dar es Salaam is continually developing. For Walvis Bay the challenge is that imports from that corridor to DRC are very scarce, and Beira freights rates are making this port uncompetitive. The Copperbelt is quite important not just because of the products produced, but as a central hub for volumes from DRC flowing from there to the various Africa exit ports.
What is your vision for Polytra across the African continent over the next few years?
AL: From a strategic point of view, Africa has always operated as a support unit for Antwerp, and our objective is in the near future to reverse that trend. Our business in Africa should be larger than ours in Europe, and we are on the right path to accomplish this. Africa is still the continent of the future and we will continue to invest heavily here.