A Chinese mining company has officially inaugurated a $300 million lithium processing plant in Zimbabwe. This African nation possesses one of the world’s largest reserves of lithium, and the demand for the metal has surged globally due to its vital role in electric car batteries.
Zimbabwe stands as the leading holder of lithium reserves in Africa, attracting investors in battery minerals from countries like Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia, with China emerging as the dominant player in this sector.
The newly opened plant, established by Prospect Lithium Zimbabwe, a subsidiary of the Chinese company Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt, boasts a remarkable capacity to process 4.5 million metric tons of hard rock lithium into concentrate annually. Zimbabwe’s President, Emmerson Mnangagwa, attended the official opening of this expansive facility situated in Goromonzi, approximately 80 kilometers southeast of Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital.
Mnangagwa expressed the significance of lithium as a crucial mineral of the present and future, emphasizing that its value addition will position Zimbabwe as an emerging and competitive participant in the global lithium value chain. He urged the Chinese company to enhance expertise that could eventually pave the way for the local manufacturing of lithium batteries and other components, benefiting Zimbabwe and other southern African nations.
Lithium plays a pivotal role in electric vehicle batteries, and to capitalize on the growing demand, Zimbabwe took a bold step last year by banning the export of raw lithium ore. This move aligns Zimbabwe with other countries like Indonesia and Chile, aiming to maximize returns on their lithium, cobalt, and nickel deposits by mandating local investments in refining and processing before exports.
Prospect Lithium Zimbabwe’s Deputy General Manager, Trevor Barnard, shared their ambitious target to commence processing 450,000 tons of concentrate annually, with further processing of the concentrate into battery-grade lithium occurring outside Zimbabwe.
Mnangagwa’s approach in seeking support from China, Russia, and Iran follows sanctions imposed by the United States. Notably, in July 2023, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s visit to Harare marked a significant show of solidarity. Additionally, at the 2023 Russia-Africa summit in Saint Petersburg, Vladimir Putin offered support, including a helicopter for Mnangagwa. These nations are increasingly becoming vital partners for Zimbabwe in its pursuit of economic growth and development.
Despite criticism from Zimbabwe’s opposition, who accuse Chinese companies of exploiting mineral resources and neglecting environmental regulations, the Zimbabwean government defends its partnership with Chinese firms, pointing to the tangible benefits and opportunities they bring to the nation.
The Zimbabwe Investment Development Agency reports that international investors are flocking to the country for lithium prospects. With the majority of investment licenses issued for lithium mining, prospecting, and processing, China has emerged as the primary investor, substantially outpacing applications from the United States and the United Kingdom.
The situation has caught the attention of Washington, with Pamela Tremont, the U.S. ambassador-designate to Zimbabwe, being tasked with countering China’s influence in the region. The foreign direct investment in Zimbabwe’s mineral sector is primarily dominated by Chinese and Russian interests, raising concerns about the terms of contracts and ensuring fair compensation for Zimbabweans.
As China focuses on driving development in Zimbabwe and other African nations, the U.S. faces off with sanctions and interference accusations, prompting tensions that echo on the international stage. The unfolding events will undoubtedly shape Zimbabwe’s future and its role in the global lithium market.