With elec­tric ve­hi­cles gain­ing ground, lithium gets Harare’s mo­tor revving

Sunday Times - - Business Cars - By RAY NDLOVU

Zim­babwe is the fifth-largest lithium pro­ducer in the world

A white Tesla Model X ap­pears from time to time on the streets of Harare. The elec­tric ve­hi­cle stands out from the thou­sands of petrol- and diesel-pow­ered cars in Zim­babwe’s cap­i­tal when it does.

For most mo­torists, the Tesla Model X has be­come a source of envy as fuel short­ages per­sist and, for the sec­ond week in a row, mo­torists queue for hours at ser­vice sta­tions.

More sig­nif­i­cantly, the Tesla Model X — the first elec­tric ve­hi­cle to ap­pear in the coun­try — em­bod­ies a com­po­nent in elec­tric ve­hi­cles that has the po­ten­tial to turn around Zim­babwe’s eco­nomic for­tunes: lithium.

The gov­ern­ment hopes that global elec­tric-car mak­ers whose ve­hi­cles are pow­ered by lithium-ion bat­ter­ies will in the near fu­ture recog­nise the coun­try as a lithium hub.

Zim­babwe is the fifth-largest lithium pro­ducer in the world and the largest in Africa. Glob­ally, it trails be­hind Aus­tralia, Chile, Ar­gentina and China. Fig­ures from Statista show that lithium pro­duc­tion in Zim­babwe rose to 1,000t in 2017 from 900t in 2016. Peak pro­duc­tion was 1,060t, in 2012.

Now, with min­ing com­pa­nies set to de­velop new mines in Zim­babwe, hopes are high that pro­duc­tion will rise.

Speak­ing ear­lier this year at a min­ing ind­aba, mines minister Win­ston Chi­tando said the coun­try at peak out­put had the po­ten­tial to meet 20% of global lithium de­mand. In the next four years it could meet 10% of the de­mand, he said.

An Aus­tralian firm, Prospect Re­sources, is at the fore­front of ef­forts to turn Zim­babwe into a lithium gi­ant. Last week it held a ground-break­ing cer­e­mony at its Ar­ca­dia lithium project, about 40km out­side Harare.

Based in Perth and listed on the Aus­tralian Se­cu­ri­ties Exchange, the com­pany also has op­er­a­tions in the Demo­cratic Repub­lic of Congo.

It said it had “am­bi­tions to grow the lithium min­er­als foot­print” in Zim­babwe.

“The next key mile­stone for the project is to secure fi­nance from in­ter­na­tional in­vestors and lenders,” said Hugh Warner, the ex­ec­u­tive chair of Prospect.

“As Prospect reaches out to the in­ter­na­tional in­vest­ment com­mu­nity to fi­nance Ar­ca­dia, we are also work­ing closely with the gov­ern­ment to pro­vide con­fi­dence of fiscal stability to Prospect, our in­vestors and in­deed to the peo­ple of Zim­babwe,” An in­de­pen­dent con­sult­ing ge­ol­o­gist, Greg Mose­ley, said the Ar­ca­dia project was among the top 30% of lithium de­posits in the world and “had the po­ten­tial to be a big money-spin­ner”.

Ex­perts say de­mand for lithium will be driven by rapid ex­pan­sion in the lithium-ion bat­tery in­dus­try as world de­mand for hy­brid and elec­tric ve­hi­cles, en­ergy-stor­age sys­tems and high-drain por­ta­ble elec­tron­ics grows.

Global de­mand for lithium metal is es­ti­mated to grow 8.9% this year.

For the cash-strapped Harare gov­ern­ment, global de­mand for lithium is be­ing watched closely, as it presents an op­por­tu­nity for a wind­fall in tax rev­enues.

Pres­i­dent Em­mer­son Mnan­gagwa said at the ground-break­ing cer­e­mony that Zim­babwe had to in­vest in re­search into how it can use its lithium re­sources to take ad­van­tage of the grow­ing de­mand for elec­tric cars.

“With one of the largest lithium re­serves in Africa and con­firmed de­posits in Bikita, Goromonzi and Ka­ma­tivi, we are poised and ready to be­come the hub for re­search, devel­op­ment, ex­ploita­tion and man­u­fac­tur­ing of green en­ergy and lithium-based so­lu­tions,” said Mnan­gagwa.

An­other Aus­tralian com­pany, Lithium Con­sol­i­dated Min­eral Ex­plo­ration Lim­ited, has also made in­roads into the lithium min­ing sec­tor and this week said it had pur­chased more as­sets in Zim­babwe.

Shan­thar Path­manathan, the CEO and ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor at Lithium Con­sol­i­dated, said Zim­babwe and Mozam­bique will be­come sig­nif­i­cant lithium sup­pli­ers in the world and will in time dom­i­nate lithium sup­ply.

“We are truly well po­si­tioned as a com­pany in these two prov­inces. We are now the No 1 listed lithium com­pany in Mozam­bique and we are the No 2 listed lithium com­pany in Zim­babwe in hard-rock lithium,” he said.

“We see a spe­cial op­por­tu­nity in lithium. We’re at the be­gin­ning of the lithium age and there are truly world-class, tier one, po­ten­tial as­sets, avail­able glob­ally. We think they’re in the fron­tier prov­inces now. We in­tend to seize on these op­por­tu­ni­ties, in par­tic­u­lar in Mozam­bique and Zim­babwe. Mozam­bique will be­come a flag­ship prov­ince and there’ll be more to come on this in the next year,” said Path­manathan.

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