Zim asbestos export industry under siege

Ngoni Chanakira

THE 18-member Zimbabwe National Chrysotile Asbestos Taskforce (NCATF), a multi-stakeholder organisation, is meeting senior media practitioners this Thursday to try and devise a marketing stra

tegy for the troubled asbestos industry.

While thrashing out burning issues and educating the media about asbestos, insiders say the meeting is also coined to try and help protect Zimbabwe’s dwindling asbestos exports.

Asbestos, which earns the country more than US$40 million, is facing problems internationally as countries are calling for the total ban of asbestos, amid reports that it is extremely unsafe.

Neighbouring South Africa, one of Zimbabwe’s major trading partners, has also sent alarm bells ringing as it has begun reducing imports from its southern African neighbour, following in the footsteps of the international plan to ban the product.

Asbestos is used extensively as roofing material and has provided cheap relief to thousands of homeless Zimbabweans seeking accommodation.

The asbestos ban could severely cripple operations and export earnings of the Mutumwa Mawere-led Africa Resources Limited (ARL) rendering 300 000 individuals jobless.

ARL, one of Zimbabwe’s mining giants, is the holding company of Shabani Mashava Mines (SMM), African Associated Mines (AAM), and the Zimbabwe Stock Exchange-listed Turnhall Holdings Ltd.

Turnall, with a market capitalisation of $16 billion, produced an impressive inflation adjusted turnover of $11 billion for the year ended June 30.

Exports, especially roofing material, contributed 22% of total turnover.

ARL has been at the forefront of trying to combat the asbestos ban.

Former SMM chairman John Mkushi, and Turnall managing director Phil Whitehead have been sent on numerous excursions to South Africa and various countries in the Far East to try and persuade executives there that white asbestos is safe.

Last year, Mawere invited a group of prominent South African parliamentarians to tour his mining empire to get first hand information about the white asbestos product being produced by his group.

The move comes at a time when production efficiencies in Zimbabwe have resulted in increased production of asbestos especially in 2002.

The Chamber of Mines of Zimbabwe (CMZ) says by year-end, production was anticipated to have increased by 28,6% compared to 2001.

The chamber said a reduction in world production was acting in favour of Zimbabwe as the number of competitors had been reduced and the asbestos market had remained favourable.

Figures made available by the CMZ show that in January this year, 10 938 tonnes of asbestos were mined earning the country $270 164 295.

In February and March, the country mined 9 205 tonnes of asbestos chalking up $3 849 739 968, and 9 562 tonnes bringing in $3 527 604 696, respectively.

The NCATF was appointed four years ago by government to put across Zimbabwe’s case internationally, and in an effort to inform the world that the country’s asbestos is very safe and is an “eco-friendly product”.

The association’s members are a cross section of mining gurus such as Phil Whitehead (Turnall), David Murangari (Chamber of Mines), as well as officials from the Minerals Marketing Corporation of Zimbabwe.

Officials maintain that Zimbabwe mines only white chrysotile asbestos fibre, which has been scientifically proven not to be harmful to health if used responsibly.

A spokesman for the NCATF said Zimbabwe did not have deposits of the banned carcinogenic blue and brown asbestos fibre whose commercial production had been stopped worldwide.

“However, there are still some misperceptions in the market, particularly in the European Union about white asbestos fibre,” he said. “As you may be aware, chrysotile asbestos plays a major role in the Zimbabwean economy in terms of foreign currency earnings and employment creation. The asbestos industry this year expects to generate over US$40 million in foreign currency earnings.”

He said Zimbabwe’s major export destinations of chrysotile asbestos fibre are South East Asia, the Far East, Middle East and Africa.

Zimbabwe is the fifth largest producer of white asbestos fibre after Russia, Canada, China and Brazil.