Kuvimba: Abandoned emerald mine could be sitting on Zimbabwe’s biggest lithium resource

One of Kuvimba's operations, Bindura

Sandawana Mine was once one of the world’s largest emerald mines, but it shut down years ago after production collapsed and it lost markets. Now, Kuvimba Mining House wants to reopen the mine, this time as a lithium producer.

The abandoned mine, once owned by Rio Tinto, was last year the scene of a rush by illegal miners that led to a ban on the export of raw lithium in December. Kuvimba, majority-owned by the government, believes the site has potentially the largest resource of the battery metal in the country.

“To date, since January, Sandawana has mined and stockpiled 400,000 tonnes of lithium ore of an average grade of about 2%, and we are reviewing plans to build a lithium concentrate plant, with a capacity throughput of just under 5 million tonnes a year,” CEO Simba Chinyemba said at the Chamber of Mines conference Wednesday.

“It is our view, based on the exploration project that we started in January, that we are sitting on the largest lithium resource in Zimbabwe.”

The company believes that Sandawana could hold up to 200 million tonnes of lithium ore, and has started a four-stage exploration to determine the reserve. A report on the first stage is due in August. A US$100 million budget has been set aside for roads and civil works around the site. For power, the company is considering a possible 60MW solar plant in future.

Kuvimba’s founding has been controversial. The company is majority state-owned, but it brought together mines initially bought by Sotic International, associated with Kuda Tagwirei, and was handed assets formerly held by the state-owned Zimbabwe Mining Development Corporation. Among these assets is Sandawana.

Chinyemba acknowledges the company’s perception issue, joking that his company had not been mentioned in Al Jazeera’s four-part “Gold Mafia” series.

“I’ve since received a few calls, asking if there is an episode five,” says Chinyemba, adding that his company is, in fact, helping the government build a system to improve the traceability of gold.

Kuvimba was built to revive struggling mines, he says.  

“The group was set up to acquire and turn around mining entities that have otherwise fallen on hard times, been closed, or are not operating at their best and thus at risk of closure. Such mines would have been deemed to be of strategic national importance or to their local communities,” said Chinyemba.

Kuvimba is Zimbabwe’s biggest gold producer, with Freda Rebecca the largest of its gold operations.  

“This has happened in spite of the fact that all our gold operations were either non-operational or close to care and maintenance at the start of the COVID pandemic,” he says.

It is also trying to revive ZimAlloys, once the country’s biggest ferrochrome producer.

One of its more recent government deals was a management contract for Ziscosteel, the collapsed steel company.

“We have also been granted the management contract to resuscitate Ziscosteel, starting with the decoupling of the mining and steel-making business, and turning (Zisco’s mining subsidiary) Bimco into largely an iron ore and limestone producer.”

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