THERE has been a scramble for Zimbabwe’s lithium deposits by multinationals in the past five years. Exploration projects that kicked off in 2018 are now at advanced stages of implementation, and Zimbabwe is slowly turning into one of Africa’s largest producers of the mineral.
Lithium ore is found in abundance in Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia, although geologists insist the mineral is still largely unexplored in the region.
However, controversy has surrounded the discoveries in Zimbabwe, with reports of leakages of the base mineral.
Lithium ore has been discovered in Mutoko, Mberengwa, Buhera and Goromonzi, where the largest mines have already been established. Chinese mining houses have established most lithium mines in Zimbabwe.
Reports of raw lithium leaks through porous borders jolted the government into action, leading to the banning exports of raw ore, which attracted global attention.
Not looking at the controversy and debate around the latest ban, Zimbabwe can leverage its position as a leading lithium ore producer to advance its technologies for economic development.
Finance minister Mthuli Ncube defended the ban in an interview with African Business saying the government saw beneficiation as critical for sustainable economic growth and employment creation.
“Lithium is a mineral of the future. In fact, in terms of renewable energies and lithium batteries that drive green cars, Zimbabwe has one of the largest deposits of lithium in the world,” he said. “We are saying that you cannot export raw unprocessed lithium, but if you build a concentrator, it can be exported as a lithium concentrate. Better still, if you build a lithium battery manufacturing plant, hallelujah!”
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Ncube said while the government has already received offers from investors seeking opportunities in both lithium concentrators and manufacturing plants, authorities were currently interested in exporting concentrate.
The same African Business publication states that a 2020 US Geological Service summary indicates that Africa accounts for more than 5% of the world’s lithium resources, but is under-explored.
“It’s important to remember that there are other lithium pegmatite deposits known that have not been explored enough to have resources estimated,” principal geologist at the British Geological Survey Kathryn Goodenough is quoted in the article. “The continent as a whole is prospective for lithium pegmatite (deposits), and because we know that they are heavily affected by tropical weather, there is more likely many more to find, but they are not exposed at the surface.”
It is also argued that Southern Africa’s lithium industry is concerned with building processing plants, which is a far-reaching objective.
“At the moment, the concentrate produced in Southern Africa’s lithium mines has to be exported to China because the next step, which consists of taking that spodumene concentrate and turning it into a lithium compound that you can sell to battery manufacturers currently almost only happens in China. Almost nowhere else are there facilities,” Goodenough said.
It is further argued that the Chinese near-monopoly in processing is more likely going to happen in Africa with Chinese expertise.
“Ultimately it can’t be done without the Chinese. There will be a need to make use of the Chinese to develop the technology. And that is the step that is challenging in terms of reducing Chinese dominance,” Goodenough further argued.
According to the African Business, the current supply chain for lithium-ion batteries is geographically narrow: while lithium is sourced in Southern America, Australia, and China are believed to own 70-80% of the entire supply chain for electric vehicle manufacturing.
“This dominance is seen as unsustainable for Western countries fearful of dependence on China, especially as producer countries increasingly look at controlling their exports following the energy crisis,” the African Business noted. “More lithium suppliers are therefore needed to accelerate the energy transition. This is where Southern African countries, such as Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana are expected to play their cards.”
But the argument for Zimbabwe goes further beyond exploration and exploiting its lithium resources while supplying the world market. It is about adding value to lithium and supplying the manufacturing industries while developing its economy just as Ncube earlier argued.
Zimbabwe can go further and use its relationship with China to build industries that can add value to lithium.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa revealed the same in one of his articles in a local weekly revealing that Zimbabwe was stockpiling its ore in anticipation of the development of necessary plants.
Responding to inquiries about China’s plans to assist Zimbabwe to develop its lithium industry, the Chinese embassy in Harare commented on Zimbabwe’s decision to ban raw ore exports.
“The Chinese embassy understands and supports the recent revision of mining policies declared by the Zimbabwean government according to its development strategies,” the embassy said in a statement.
China committed to firmly supporting the government in refining the regulatory framework to enhance supervision of all foreign investments, keep policies steady and create a more favourable investment climate.
Chinese nationals reportedly fuelled lithium leaks, but the mining ventures in Goromonzi and Buhera indicate that Zimbabwe has the potential to develop its industry. The embassy also called established and capable Chinese companies to invest in Zimbabwe to support the government's Vision 2030.
The support of the Chinese further indicates the leverage that can be used by authorities to develop the lithium industry using technology that is readily available in China.