From tin to lithium: How old Kamativi mine is being reinvented

The last mine trucks rolled out of Kamativi over 24 years ago. Tin prices had collapsed, and the mine was forced to shut down. 

Now the old tin mine is about to reinvent itself, but this time producing a different kind of metal – lithium. 

Drilling results at the Kamativi lithium project in Matabeleland North have indicated the resource is commercially viable, according to a statement just released by Jimbata, the Canadian firm developing the project. 

This means plans to build a new $10 million plant at the site can now move ahead, reviving a mine that last saw activity in 1994. 

It will not be at the scale of the tin operation at its peak, but the Kamativi community has suffered over two decades of neglect and will celebrate the new project. 

The once bustling settlement now only carries memories of a once glorious past, when tin prices were high and the mine was an oasis in the province. 

At the local shopping centre that once served the community, only one tuckshop remains; the rest are abandoned, doors have come off the hinges and the roof has collapsed.

A half built church lies in the centre of the settlement. There are no patrons at the local bar, whose walls have broken down and lie in heaps. There is no water, and residents fetch water from a small dam 4km away. 

It was once a big operation, cited with pride in Zimbabwean textbooks. But in 1985, the world tin market collapsed. The International Tin Council, the global tin cartel, folded and tin stocks fell through the floor. Tin mines began to shut down, from Indonesia, Thailand, to here in this arid corner of Mat North. 

Now demand for lithium has given Kamativi a chance at revival. The new investor says there is $1.4 billion worth of lithium in the dumps at Kamativi, which first started mining tin 82 years ago. 

The Kamativi Project is a joint venture between the Zimbabwe Mining Development Corporation (ZMDC), owners of Kamativi Tin Mines which holds 40 percent of the Project, and Jimbata, which holds 60 percent.

“The maiden resource statement marks the completion of another key milestone in the development of the Kamativi Project,” John McTaggart, managing director of Jimbata says. “The results generated confirm our belief in the project and underscore the significant potential at Kamativi.

“The company now looks forward to aggressively pursuing further metallurgical test work in the planned development of the beneficiation plant for the Kamativi in line with the Rapid Results Initiative set out by the Government.”

It is expected that up to 350 jobs will be created.

The project has had to fend off a challenge by a Chinese firm, Beijing Pingchang Investments Company, which lodged and lost a case in which it was claiming rights to the tailings material at the site. The Chinese firm claimed it had entered into a joint venture agreement with Kamativi Tin Mine to extract lithium from the dumps at the mine. The matter was taken for arbitration and Justice Mtshiya ruled in favour of KTM.

The Kamativi Tailings Project was the first lithium deal to be signed since the change of dispensation in December, according to Mines Minister Winston Chitando.

“The project stands to unlock major economic activity in Matabeleland North. We are excited to work with all shareholders involved in the deal as they share our vision for value addition. While it has unfortunately taken a bit a time, we understand why and we are very happy to get going,” Chitando says, commenting on the resource confirmation.

Zimbabwe is keen to develop its vast resources of lithium, as global demand for renewable energy rises. Lithium is used in the manufacture of batteries, some of which are used by Tesla. However, experts warn that Zimbabwe’s window to take advantage is very short as lithium supply is seen growing over the next few years.

This week, Tesla agreed a deal with a Chinese lithium miner, Ganfeng, and is also buying lithium from mines in Australia and South America.

Ongoing lithium projects in Zimbabwe include Prospect Resources, which has raised $55 million on the Australian Stock Exchange (ASX) to develop its Arcadia mine near Harare. Prospect has contracted a local company, JR Goddard, as the construction contractor, and DRA to provide engineering services and upfront design for the project. First concentrate is expected in the second quarter of 2019. Separately, Prospect has opened a new lithium carbonate pilot plant at Kwekwe, where the company has begun producing 99.5 percent battery grade lithium carbonate.

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