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Exploring the Southern African Lithium Rush

The past three years have witnessed a surge in hard rock pegmatite lithium mining activity across southern Africa. While Zimbabwe has emerged as the regional leader, neighbouring countries like the DRC, Namibia, and South Africa are also experiencing exploration and development.

Pegmatite, an igneous rock similar to granite, holds a wealth of minerals. Quartz, feldspar, and mica are its common constituents, but some pegmatites also host gemstones like emeralds, tourmaline, and beryl. Additionally, they can contain tantalite, the primary ore for tantalum, a crucial element in electronics, and cassiterite, the primary ore of tin. Within the range of lithium-bearing minerals, pegmatites primarily host spodumene. However, lepidolite and petalite are also potential sources.

Map of southern Africa's lithium mines and projects

Zimbabwe has taken the lead in southern Africa's lithium race. Here is a glimpse into some of its key projects:

  • Arcadia Lithium: Initially developed by Australian firm Prospect Resources Limited, this project is located 20 kilometres east of Harare, not far from the historic Arcturus gold mine, and was acquired by Chinese company Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt (Huayou) for US$378 million in 2022. Huayou has since invested an additional $300 million to construct a mine and processing plant targeting an annual output of 450 000 tonnes of lithium concentrate.

  • Bikita Minerals: Located 70 kilometres east of Masvingo, at Glencova, and in operation for over a century, Bikita Minerals is said to be the world’s largest producer of petalite concentrate for the glass and glass ceramic industry and has been a significant producer of tantalum since 2018. The mine was acquired by Sinomine (Hong Kong) Rare Metals Resources Co. Limited (Sinomine) for US$180 million in 2022. Sinomine's reported US$300 million investment is transforming the mine. A new spodumene concentrate plant with a projected annual capacity of 300 000 tonnes, a new petalite concentrate plant, and a 12MW solar power plant are all part of the expansion.

  • Zulu Lithium & Tantalum: Premier African Minerals Limited, an AIM-listed company, is advancing the Zulu pegmatite deposit, situated 80 kilometres from Bulawayo. Suzhou TA&A Ultra Clean Technology Co. (Suzhou TA&A) has partnered with them, investing US$35 million in a pilot plant designed to produce 50 000 tonnes of lithium concentrate annually.

  • Sabi Star Lithium Mine: Shenzhen-listed Chengxin Lithium Group (Chengxin) acquired a 51% interest in the Sabi Star lithium tantalum mine in 2021 for US$76.5 million. The mine is in Buhera about 80 kilometres west of Mutare. Chengxin commissioned a US$45m floatation plant in 2023 and has committed a total of U$130 million to developing the mine to produce 300 000 tonnes per year of spodumene concentrate.

  • Kamativi Mine: Located about 65 kilometres east of Hwange and exploited for tin from 1936 to 1994, the Kamativi pegmatite deposit is undergoing a revival. Ownership in recent times appears somewhat opaque however a joint venture between China's Sichuan PF Technology Group (subsidiary of Yahua Group) and a Zimbabwean company Defold Mine (Pvt) Limited appears to be redeveloping the mine with a new 50 000 tonne per year spodumene concentrate plant being built. Other activity in the area includes a local private company Zimlithium investigating the reprocessing of historic tailings dumps and AIM-listed Galileo Resources PLC, chaired by mining entrepreneur Colin Bird, pursuing exploration on nearby properties.

  • Sandawana Mines: Located about 60 kilometres south of mining town of Zvishavane, in the Mberengwa district, this mine’s history is primarily associated with emeralds. Production began in the 1950s, with Rio Tinto acquiring the mine in 1959 and operating it until 1993, when the Zimbabwean state acquired a significant interest. The mine was closed in the 2000s. With the resurgence of interest in lithium Kuvimba Mining House, the state mining company, took over the mine in 2019, although the mine is now reported to have been transferred to the Mutapa Investment Fund, another state-owned entity. The deposit had been embroiled in litigation and accusations if illegal mining, however, is reported to have reopened in 2023.

While Zimbabwe is currently leading the pack, there is some activity in its neighbours too:

  • DRC: The Monono deposit in the Democratic Republic of Congo is embroiled in controversy. The original Monono-Kitolo pegmatite mine was operated from 1915 until the mid-1980s, producing cassiterite and columbite-tantalite (coltan). A majority interest in the deposit was secured by ASX listed AVZ Minerals Limited in 2018. This position is disputed by China’s mining giant, Zijin Mining. The dispute appears ongoing. The 54MW Piana–Mwanga Hydroelectric Power Station, built to service the Monono-Kitolo mine was shuttered at about the same time as the mine, and should the project be revived then the power station could be brought back into service. Meanwhile AIM listed Tantalex Lithium Resources Corporation is looking to exploit the historic Monono tailings resource.

  • Namibia: AIM listed Andrada Mining Limited has revived the historic Uis tin mine in the eponymous pegmatite field. This mine previously operated from the 1920s until closed in 1990 and predominantly produced cassiterite and coltan. Besides tin, it has now begun producing petalite concentrate from a pilot plant. Andrada is looking to increase this to 30 000 tonnes per year of technical-grade concentrate. There has been some controversy around the operations of Xinfeng Investment’s Kohero mine, also in the Uis pegmatite field, with questions being asked of the nature of its mining licence and its ongoing attempts to export unprocessed ore. Lepidico is pursuing a US$63M brownfield re-development of the Rubicon/Helikon mines within the Karibib pegmatite field 120 kilometres north-west of Windhoek. This will include a 60 000 tonnes per year processing plant to produce a lepidolite concentrate. China’s Hebei Xinjian Construction acquired, or is the process of acquiring, the of the Tantalite Valley Mine in southern Namibia from Kazera Global.

  • South Africa: The country boasts two tiny operational spodumene mines:

    • Marula Mining PLC, a company listed on London’s Aquis Stock Exchange, and now also with a secondary listing on SA’s A2X market, has restarted the historic Blesberg mica mine in the Northern Cape. It is currently using optical sorting to upgrade historic surface stockpiles to a higher-grade spodumeneore for direct export. Marula aims to produce 50 000 tonnes of 6% spodumene ore by December 2026.

    • A private party operates a similar small-scale operation at the Highbury mine, near Port Shepstone in KwaZulu-Natal.

Notwithstanding price volatility the global lithium sector is experiencing a boom, driven by the demand for this critical battery metal. In southern Africa, Zimbabwe has emerged as a significant player, but the region as a whole holds potential.

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