Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Botswana’s mineral wealth could propel it to become Africa’s mining centre

That Botswana has the potential of becoming Africa’s mining centre because of its mineral rich wealth is undisputed. Botswana has numerous and vast deposits of diamonds, coal, potash and uranium available for exploitation. By all accounts, the opportunities for mines to expand are large.

Recently, the Botswana Chamber of Mines Chief Executive Officer Charles Siwawa opined that “Botswana has an estimated 822 million tonnes of uranium and (likely) 200-billion tonnes of coal.” Such untapped reserves could provide immense opportunities for Botswana seeing that nuclear power generation regionally, and mostly around the world, is likely to become an attractive form of energy in the future. A surge in demand for nuclear power generation comes in handy for Botswana as it would mean an increase in demand for uranium and the potential to export to outside countries.

Nuclear energy is a sustainable energy source and more reliable than solar and wind, as it does not depend on favourable weather. It is also relatively cheap, as uranium prices and running costs are relatively low, compared with conventional power generation methods. Thus, provided that the market and investment to develop the reserves is favourable, Botswana could experience new mining opportunities in the near or term.

The uranium reserves have been recently discovered, while the coal resources require exploitation to convert to revenue. Currently, the country has one active coal mine, the Morupule mine, owned by Debswana ÔÇô a 50/50 joint venture by the Botswana government and mining company De Beers. 

Siwawa says, in light of the power supply challenges throughout the Southern African Development Community owing to underinvestment in new infrastructure and backlogs in maintenance, coal could become one of Botswana’s main exports in the form of electricity. Moreover, there is potential for the beneficiation and export of coal-to-liquid products, among others. The BMC CEO also expects that demand for coal will increase exponentially if technology advancement could lead to a way of limiting harmful emissions from coal-fired power stations. Buyers in India and China have expressed strong interest in securing thermal coal supplies from Botswana, as the two Asian nations look for sources of energy to support their fast growing economies. 

Sadly, coal-fired power stations are still the main power-generating source for most countries in the developing world. He also says there is still a market for coal, irrespective of the current coal prices.

The issue of lack of infrastructure development was also brought to the fore by global consulting firm KPMG which says “Botswana has the potential to become a mining mecca because of its mineral rich wealth.” However the firm notes that the region lacks the necessary infrastructure, such as rail, road and ports, which creates challenges for miners.

Botswana also has granted only one uranium exploration licence to Australian exploration company A-Cap Resources. The Letlhakane project is owned by A-Cap Resources. It is one of the largest undeveloped uranium deposits in the world, with a defined resource of 365.7-million pounds.

A-Cap submitted a mining licence for the project in August last year and Botswana’s Department of Environmental Affairs approved the environmental-impact assessment in May this year. A-Cap’s mining licence application is based on a low-risk, shallow openpit mine. The mine should produce about three-million pounds of uranium a year over 18 years.

The Letlhakane uranium project is significant because it will be Botswana’s first uranium mine, if the mining licence is approved. Siwawa is also excited about the potential for learning and skills transfer. He notes that, because of the novelty of the project, miners and other stakeholders, including the Ministry of Minerals, Water and Energy Resources, will have to learn new skills pertaining to uranium extraction while furthering the development of the project.

There has been a significant decline in coal exploration, he notes, attributing this to listless prices. However, there was plenty of exploration activity before the 2015 commodities crash, with Siwawa expecting many mining or exploration companies to renew their licences once prices improve.

Further, coal-related infrastructure developments across Africa, such as coal-to-power plants, the Trans Kalahari Railway (TKR) project and/or the Ponta Techobanine project (PTP), should re-emerge once prices improve.

The TKR project entails the construction of a 1 500-km-long coal railway line that stretches from Botswana to Walvis Bay, in Namibia. The PTP project entails the construction a 1 100 km line, but necessitates the construction of a deep-water port at the Techobanine coastal village south of Maputo, in Mozambique.

Siwawa says Botswana’s mining industry is “stable, with a positive outlook”. He concludes that, while diamond production has stagnated, sales have increased of late and poor copper, nickel and coal production is expected to be amended by an increase in base metal and coal prices, which are forecast to improve in the near future. 

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