Zimbabwe is reported to have Africa’s largest and the world’s fifth-largest lithium reserves. Lithium, a key component in energy storing batteries, is witnessing soaring demand as electric vehicles gain popularity. However, despite its abundance of the key resource, the country is lagging in terms of technology to process and fully utilise its lithium. In this story, Kennedy Nyavaya takes a closer look into how lithium can facilitate Zimbabwe’s clean mobility transition while also creating green job opportunities.
The world is currently in the throes of an urgent transition to clean energy, entailing a multi-sector shift from toxic fossil fuels to renewables like solar, wind, hydroelectricity and green hydrogen.
This race to go green has also opened up considerations about more sustainable ways of storage, in particular lithium, a major component in high energy-density rechargeable battery manufacture, owing to its huge electrochemical potential.
Lithium-ion batteries will continue to dominate the energy industry as they are more affordable and efficient compared to other alternatives, global experts have predicted.
According to the Benchmark Minerals’ Lithium Price index, demand for the mineral has seen the metal’s price soar by more than 180% in the past year. Last November, lithium carbonate spot prices in China, the world’s biggest electric vehicle market, climbed to a record $84000 per ton.
Yet, despite having the resource in abundance, Zimbabwe is still to fully benefit from its endowment. Somewhat ironically, the southern African country is lagging in its clean energy drive despite being home to the world’s fifth-largest lithium reserves.
The scramble for “white gold”
Zimbabwe first discovered lithium in the 1900s. Exploration at Bikita Mine in Masvingo Province -the world’s largest known deposit of the metal at around 11 million tonnes – reportedly began in 1953, back when it was hardly a prominent mineral. Lithium, dubbed white gold, has since massively gained in value and importance as a key factor in modern energy storage.
Demand for it will inevitably continue growing as electric vehicles (EVs), Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) and other renewable energy products dominate markets.
This has consequently triggered a lithium rush locally and internationally as miners scramble for the mineral of the moment.
Locally, this ensuing haste is unmistakable with growing reports of artisanal miners clashing with authorities as they wantonly and illegally dig out lithium, while international economic giants and largest global battery maker, China has intensified its acquisition of mining firms endowed with the resources.
On December 20, 2022, the government of Zimbabwe, via its ministry of Mines and Mining Development, sought to put a stop to the largely unregulated mining and subsequent export of the metal through a circular banning the export of raw lithium.
The move, done through the Base Minerals Export Control Order, 2023, sought to prevent loss of revenue due to smuggling to foreign destinations as well as to encourage local value addition. Annually, Zimbabwe reportedly loses $1.8 billion in mineral revenue because of smuggling and low returns on its unprocessed mineral ores.
But, as international demand for the mineral increases, the country is poised to be one of the world’s largest exporters of both mineral and lithium related products if it fully exploits its newly discovered windfall.
Underlying opportunities, hindrances and potential solutions
In 2019, the government of Zimbabwe set a target to achieve a US$12 billion output in the mining sector by the end of 2023, with lithium expected to rack in at least half a billion dollars.
This has been hindered by a host of factors, including the export of raw minerals – both legally and illegally – that then fetch less than when refined.
“Despite having more than 40 minerals whose commercial viability has been demonstrated over the past years, Zimbabwe mainly exports unprocessed mineral ores, disadvantaging the nation in terms of jobs creation and enhanced revenue generation,” reads part of the National Development Strategy 1 (NDS1) economic blueprint.
There is no doubt that if this status quo persists, the country will continue to lose revenue and achieving its mining output targets on time will become an arduous if not an impossible task.
As a result, the country needs to open up an avenue for local value addition that is not only key to financially maximising the finite resource but can also help ease its worrying unemployment crisis, technological shortcomings and ambitious clean mobility goals.
While the recent ban on lithium ore exports is a welcome move in terms of ensuring that miners consider local processing and value addition, concerns have risen over its hasty introduction that has inversely affected trade in the mineral even for formal miners.
“The unexpected ban has prejudiced standing off-take agreements between miners and international buyers, some of whom had taken loans from their respective countries to finance trade in these minerals,” Zimbabwe Miners Federation boss Henrietta Rushwaya wrote to the country’s president recently.
“Some miners have found themselves stuck with huge stockpiles, thus locking cash flows and affecting operations. Establishment of processing plants takes between six months to 12 months to commission.”
To realise maximum benefit from lithium, the country will need to go beyond inconsistent and unclear policies that generate uncertainty, undermining what could be great plans.
There is also a need to seriously commit to targets and timelines on when as well as proposed ways to help benefit locals like setting up Base Metal Refineries (BMRs) in the NDS1.
This will facilitate local processing of minerals, ensuring that the country gets maximum return from its lithium reserves.
Such policies would benefit local communities, especially job-seekers, generating opportunities in mining, manufacturing as well as maintenance of lithium products.
Such positions make up part of the country’s projected hundreds of thousands of green jobs that can help lessen the unemployment gap currently widening due to its faltering economy.
Additionally, at a time when hybrid and EVs are gaining popularity locally with giant producers like BYD establishing dealerships in the country, value addition presents an opportunity for technological advancements nearer to the source of the minerals.
This will eliminate the exorbitant economic cost and greenhouse gas emissions emanating from export of mineral ores to faraway destinations like China, as well as from the importation of finished products.