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