Shift in southern African economic landscape following Zimbabwe’s lithium ban

A lithium stone is seen at a news conference of Macusani Yellowcake and Plateau Energy in Lima. Picture: Supplied
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Johannesburg – The African continent is seeing a shift in its economic landscape, with Zimbabwe recently banning all raw lithium exports after the government said it was losing €1.7 billion from exporting it as a raw mineral and not processing it into batteries in-country.

By Lesego Makgatho

Lithium is a mineral used as a component in electronic batteries for mostly cars, cellphones and computers. It is so valuable that it is known as “white gold”, and its price has gone up by 1 100% in the past two years alone.

The alkali metal is found in small amounts in minerals such as spodumene, petalite, lepidolite and amblygonite, as well as in indigenous rocks and waters of some mineral springs. It’s produced through the electric decomposition of molten lithium chloride and potassium chloride.

Zimbabwe holds some of the world’s largest reserves of hard-rock lithium, a vital mineral in the production of clean energy technologies.

Presidential spokesperson George Charamba said the law had been drawn up following “a beeline of 30-ton trucks full of lithium ore from Sandawana (mine) to the sea en route to different destinations of the world”.

“When the government caught up with the mischief, it looked for an appropriate law to deal with the illicit flow of high-value ore,” he said.

He said the ban came days after President Emmerson Mnangagwa said a new law would target hordes of artisanal miners who were drawn by the mineral’s high prices and invading abandoned mines to dig for lithium-bearing rocks.

Mnangagwa said the raw lithium was being exported through neighbouring countries.

Charamba explained that miners for a long time had been aware of the government’s stance on value-addition driven by its long-term economic vision.

“Government has for a long time been having conversations about value-addition, so no one here has been caught unawares. President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s vision is to industrialise the economy, and we have to be serious in terms of value-addition so that we fully industrialise the Zimbabwean economy,” he said.

According to him, the paradigm policy shift by the Second Republic is the first by any country on the continent, whereas for years Africa has not benefited fully from its rich natural resource endowment. Hence the government’s move demonstrates its determination to industrialise the economy in line with Vision 2030.

Energy experts weighed in on Zimbabwe’s ban, saying it was a good move for Zimbabwe in terms of taking control of the raw materials produced by the country.

“As a CEO of a mining company aspiring to diversify into critical minerals like lithium, just a thought of a possible collaboration in manufacturing lithium batteries in southern Africa is at the centre of Exxaro’s purpose of powering better lives in Africa and beyond,” said Nombasa Tsengwa, CEO of mining company Exxaro Resources.

Prian Reddy, a senior analyst in the sustainable mobility and energy storage department at GreenCape, a non-profit organisation in Cape Town, said this shift was needed.

“It’s interesting to see that Zimbabwe has now banned the export of unprocessed lithium ore in a bid to attract investment in local lithium beneficiation.

“Zimbabwe holds Africa’s largest lithium reserves – the fifth-largest globally. The province of Masvingo is home to the Bikita mine (with reserves amounting to 10.8-11 million tons of lithium ore. With a grading of 1.4%, this would amount to around 0.15 million tons of usable lithium,” he said.

Reddy said this was similar to a move made by Indonesia early last year which banned the export of unprocessed nickel ore.

“Indonesia has approximately 22% of the world’s nickel reserves, and this policy shift also aimed to attract investment towards the local beneficiation of key minerals in the lithium-ion battery and EV value chain.

“South Africa has the world’s largest reserves of manganese, another strategic mineral in the lithium-ion battery value chain. Co-operation with neighbouring African countries that have strategic mineral reserves is imperative if South Africa aims to develop a local lithium-ion cell manufacturing capacity in the years to come,” he said.

According to the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy, ongoing exploration has indicated there are significant deposits of lithium in the country.

“The Council for Geoscience confirms the presence of numerous sources of lithium-bearing rocks in all provinces in South Africa, all of which are currently the subject of an intensive research programme at various stages,” said a spokesperson for the department, Ernest Mulibana.

Mulibana said the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy, the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition, and the Department of Science and Innovation were in the process of developing a battery minerals beneficiation value chain master plan in collaboration with industry and organised labour.

Once finalised, the master plan will guide the beneficiation of minerals in battery production. To date, only Polarium (a Swedish battery manufacturer) is known to be assembling lithium-ion batteries in South Africa.

“Zimbabwe is a sovereign state that has the right to make its own economic and trade policy decisions informed by national interest.

“Bilateral, regional, continental and international agreements and protocols are in place to ensure that countries balance domestic imperatives with international obligations and compliance,” Mulibana added.

This was first published here by the IOL.