In just over 50 years, Protea Chemicals – part of South Africa’s diversified chemical holdings group Omnia – has become one of the largest chemical distribution businesses in the world, ranked number 39 globally and number five in the African/Middle Eastern region by the ICIS Chemical Business journal. Representing Lucite International (LI) in South Africa since January 2019, we talked to David Steward, one of Protea Chemicals’ senior Commercial Managers about the challenges of operating in the African market, what the secret of Protea’s dynamic growth has been, and what it’s like working with LI.

Although Protea Chemicals’ foundations are in its home territory of South Africa, today the company is increasingly a global operation. It has a bulk liquid storage capacity of some 24,000m3, handling imported volumes in excess of 70,000mt per annum through the Durban port, plus major warehousing and distribution centres in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban and Port Elizabeth. The site network extends into Namibia, Zimbabwe, Kenya and Angola (with Ghana to follow during 2019). The business also enjoys the advantage of being able to exploit operational synergies and efficiencies with its sister businesses in the Omnia group and an integrated management system (IMS) that ensures that its quality and service standards are underpinned by the Group’s world-class SHERQ and ISO accreditation profile.

The Protea Chemicals business supplies chemical products and services to industry with a focus on consumer care, food and beverage ingredients, animal feeds, coatings, adhesives and solvents, oil and gas, manufacturing and heavy industry, and water care. It sees its commercial mission as being able to understand and optimise the full value chains of its customers.

Chemicals are delivered to central hubs or direct to manufacturing facilities with Protea Chemicals monitoring stock within the overall network to ensure that just the right quantities of key chemical ingredients are exactly where they are needed at all times.

Operating in South Africa, and out of Durban Port in particular, offers several unique logistical challenges in respect of always ensuring that the various links in the value chain remain unbroken. With generally only one dedicated chemical berth available in the harbour on a full-time basis, congestion at Durban port has been a significant challenge in recent years. Delays in the ability to discharge product on schedule and the subsequent incurrence of regular demurrage charges are features of everyday life and have to be carefully managed.

Land ownership by the National Ports Authority (TNPA) and delays over the renewal of long-term land leases by the government also makes shore tank management in South Africa challenging, resulting in desired upgrade expenditure lagging first world standards in some cases. Industrial action in the various sectors that service the ports can also be commonplace, resulting in challenges with the ability of Protea Chemicals’ transporters to ensure on-time delivery.

To mitigate these challenges however, Protea Chemicals prides itself on having a dedicated “hands on” logistics supply chain team with many years of industry training and experience, who are available 24/7 to customers and suppliers and have close, robust relationships with key service providers in and around the port. This team manages the full supply chain from bulk parcel order placement, the full quality control process from vessel arrival to shore tank discharge, daily tank balance and inventory management, ongoing quality control in tank, through to timeous outbound road tanker distribution to key customers. This requires the team to be fully conversant with all elements of product handling risk across a wide range of bulk liquid chemicals stored with Bidvest Tank Terminals in Durban port. The diversity of Protea Chemicals’ suite of storage tanks enables it to hold safety stocks more readily, manage tank rotation for regular cleaning and inspection, and never risk compromising either stock availability or quality.

It is very much a people business and the company recognises that the development of intellectual capital – the skills and capabilities of its employees – has set Protea Chemicals apart from its competitors and has been fundamental to the company’s growth over the past 50 years.

Protea Chemicals already represents many leading domestic and international chemical producers in South Africa and sub-Saharan Africa and is now delighted and very proud to be representing LI, the global leader in acrylics, providing an efficient distribution channel for their products into the South African market.

“It was immediately apparent to us that LI is committed to investment into sustainable growth that adds true value to its customers and supply chain partners. Both parties gained a strong mutual perception of meaningful synergistic opportunities, as was the similarity of the corporate culture, ethics and integrity to which both companies clearly subscribe,” observes David Steward.

The MMA supply that will be handled by Protea Chemicals on behalf of LI will immediately complement Protea Chemicals’ existing bulk liquid chemical product range. The business enjoys well-established relationships in the South African market and foresees opportunities to expand into other sub-Saharan African territories as the company continues to extend its distribution network across the continent.