President Ramaphosa opens Sappi Saiccor mill expansion

Christo Willemse, General Manager of Sappi Saiccor mill (left) fills President Ramaphosa in on the mill expansion and upgrade, with the press contingent jostling for position.

The mammoth expansion and upgrade of the Sappi Saiccor mill was officially opened by the President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, with a host of senior government officials in attendance alongside Sappi staff, senior executives and a news-hungry media contingent, in what can only be described as a major triumph for government, business and the forestry industry, and a massive stamp of confidence in the future of KwaZulu-Natal and South Africa.

Sappi’s intention to spend R7.7 billion to expand and upgrade the Sappi Saiccor mill, located in Umkomaas just south of Durban in KwaZulu-Natal, was announced at the first Presidential Investment Conference held in 2018, against a backdrop of a desperate effort by government to lift South Africa’s faltering economy after the years of state capture and decline under the previous administration. The announcement of government’s ambitious plans to boost investment in SA by R1.2 trillion in five years was greeted by the usual cacophony of scepticism from many quarters.

Yet here we are just a few years later with Sappi’s part of the bargain done and dusted. It’s all the more commendable considering the mill expansion and upgrade was completed in spite of a highly disruptive COVID pandemic, a worrying bout of rioting and looting, unreliable electricity supply and a flood that caused widespread destruction across the province. No wonder the President was ecstatic as he cut the ribbon that marked the official opening. The Sappi top executives were also pretty chuffed.

President Ramaphosa (centre), KZN premier Nomusa Dube-Ncube (left, facing camera) and Ebrahim Patel, Minister of Trade & Industry & Competition (right) listen closely while Sappi Saiccor Mill GM Christo Willemse (back to camera) explains the inner workings of the expansion. Top Sappi executives Steve Binnie and Alex Thiel are on the left.

“It’s more than an investment in infrastructure, it’s an investment in people, innovation, technology … It’s unbelievable what you can make out of trees,” enthused the President.

He said the completion of the project is a result of business, government, labour and communities working together, and lauded its contribution to rural sustainable development, its support for a circular economy and the environmental benefits it brings.

He called the development “a great boon to our economy”, and was highly impressed with the Sappi staff that he met during his visit. “They have a very positive vibe,” he opined.

However a little bit of a rain-check was called for after all the joyful enthusiasm, as the President admitted that the government would have to address some of the serious constraints impacting negatively on business, including streamlining the forestry planting permit process, fixing the under-performing freight rail service and untangling the bottlenecks at the Port of Durban which affects Sappi’s capacity to get its dissolving pulp product to market.

This is what Sappi Saiccor is all about – wood chips. They are derived from the wood of Eucalyptus trees grown by Sappi and their suppliers throughout KwaZulu-Natal and beyond.

President Ramaphosa was joined on the podium by a powerful government delegation including Ebrahim Patel (Minister of Trade & Industry & Competition), Nomusa Dube-Ncube, (KZN Premier) and Siboniso Duma (MEC for Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs). Also in attendance were Global Board Chairman of Sappi Limited, Sir Nigel Rudd, Sappi Limited CEO Steve Binnie and Alex Thiel, CEO of Sappi Southern Africa.

“The board believes that the South African forestry industry is globally competitive and can make further substantial contributions to the South African economy,” commented Sir Nigel Rudd. “This investment reflects our confidence in our South African operations.”

Explaining the reason for Sappi’s investment in dissolving pulp, Steve Binnie said: “Global demand continues to grow for renewable textiles derived from sustainable wood fibre. Sappi supplies over 50% of the world’s Lyocell demand, the next generation textile material made from cellulosic fibres. This expansion project not only meets customer demand for greater dissolving pulp production and in particular Lyocell, but also significantly reduces the mill’s environmental footprint and supports Sappi’s decarbonization journey, whilst also generating an additional R1 billion per annum in direct benefit to the KwaZulu-Natal economy.”

He went on to express his gratitude to all Sappi role-players who conceptualised the project and brought it to fruition, despite difficult conditions and interruptions resulting from Covid-19 restrictions. “By using renewable and sustainably sourced wood to produce circular, innovative bio-based products, Sappi continues to have a positive impact on society and the planet by reducing and replacing the need for fossil-based products.”

The Saiccor mill, acquired by Sappi in 1989, established Sappi’s global reach into the lucrative international dissolving pulp (DP) markets. Since then, the mill has undergone three expansion projects to keep pace with global demand. Branded as ‘Verve’, almost all of the DP produced at the mill is sold globally into the Viscose Staple Fibres (VSF) markets for use in textiles and clothing for leading brands.

Sappi SA CEO Alex Thiel addressed the environmental benefits of the Saiccor project: “The installation of the largest sulphite recovery boiler in the world and the conversion of the calcium cooking line to the more sustainable magnesium bisulphite technology, reduces the need for coal-based power generation at the mill, leading to a significant reduction in fossil fuel energy requirements and increasing the mill’s renewable energy usage, additionally realising considerable variable cost savings.”

The expansion and upgrade project increases the capacity of the mill from 780 000 tons of dissolving pulp per year to 890 000 tons a year.

Technical fast facts
• The expansion and upgrades include a new evaporator, recovery boiler, screening and washing plant, as well as upgrades to the bleach plant and pulp machines, improved recovery circuits and additional magnesium digesters.
• New technology employed incorporates improved washing technology to optimise water and energy efficiency, optimised cooking technology for improved pulp quality control, the application of robotics to facilitate debottlenecking and shop-floor digitisation for improved commissioning, control and operational efficiency.
• Upgrades to the woodyard to enable smooth logistics supply chain operation include the installation of offloading equipment, side-arm rail carriage chargers and new chipper lines.
• Installation of the largest sulphite recovery boiler in the world, with the capacity to process up to 1,500 tons of dry solids per day.

Environmental fast facts
• Fossil fuel CO2 emissions, SO2 emissions, water consumption and waste to landfill will significantly reduce and specific water use efficiency is expected to improve.
• The project will help Sappi achieve its target of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 18% by 2025.
• A key milestone for ambitious decarbonisation plans and Sappi’s science-based target, approved by the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) to reduce scope 1 and scope 2 GHG emissions by 41.5% by 2030.

The timber is transported from forest to the Saiccor mill by truck and train from the four corners of the province.

Verve – Sappi’s Dissolving Pulp (DP)
• Global textile demand is growing, as a result of population growth, fashion and rising wealth in developing economies
• Against a backdrop of increasing global concern about climate change, the need to develop more climate-friendly solutions, derived from renewable materials that are not fossil-fuel based, is driving the demand for viscose, which is derived from DP.
• Fabrics made from cellulose differ from other feedstock fibres in that they are breathable, absorbent, recyclable and biodegradable, providing a unique and appealing look, feel and drape.
• Woodfibre provides a sustainable alternative to other feedstocks. Unlike many synthetic raw materials Sappi Verve is produced from a natural, renewable resource – woodfibre – that is certified and traceable.
• This project makes an important contribution to supporting the transition to the production of low carbon raw materials in the wood based cellulosic sector.

The impressive stage from where the high level dignitaries addressed guests at the mill expansion opening.
Stylish members of the acapella band Just6 provided some welcome musical relief from the roaring of the plant as the President and dignitaries got to grips with the nitty gritty of the mill expansion.