Friday, April 19, 2024

Botswana’s Post COVID-19 Industrialization (Part 3)

Our country’s economy is under threat. The threat is not from COVID-19 as one would assume. This pandemic only serves as a school of learning and once it’s over, we will become a better country. We will marshal plans as according to lessons learnt and the two most important items on the list of our new priorities shall be agriculture and industrialization.

Of course most countries are going to move in that direction but as for us we have a big problem that stands as the greatest threat our economy has ever come to experience. For many decades now Botswana has relied so much on diamonds and this mineral commodity is in fact the real reason why we have a viable economy. Along the way government allowed the exploitation of the Makagadikgadi Salt Pans for soda ash as it lies there in so much abundance and it also came to support the economy of the country.

The biggest problem we are soon going to be faced with is the conversion from the real mineral to synthetics. These are the copies or the replicas of the real thing and technology makes them a lot cheaper to produce while to mine the actual mineral becomes almost four times more expensive to achieve.

Mining is one of the most expensive business ventures and that is why not everyone can afford to start a business in that field as compared to agriculture for instance. The mining of diamonds in Botswana involves hundreds of millions in order to achieve a return in billions. This is why the diamond industry is looking at converting to the production of synthetic diamonds. When this is achieved, then Botswana will no longer matter to the big diamond companies and we will be left in the wilderness.

Equally, chemists are busy at replicating soda ash and this is at a very advanced stage. Once this is complete, Sowa Town will become a ghost town unless we arise to the call of industrialization right now. There are advanced plans in South Africa to build a synthetic soda ash plant in a small town of Hibiscus in the province of Kwa-Zulu Natal.

It is noted in the project concept statement that, “The establishment of a synthetic Soda Ash plant in southern Kawa-Zulu Natal is to replace Soda Ash products currently being imported into South Africa.” The statement does not mention Botswana in name but it is implied that the synthetic plant is targeted at us. We are currently meeting that country’s soda ash needs at one hundred percent and hence we are totally at their mercy.

Soda ash or sodium carbonate from Botswana is a primary material that sustains the production of domestic and industrial glass in South Africa. Maybe Botswana Ash as a company needs to raise prices of their commodity because we are getting to the end of the road with this product as far as the South African market is concerned. The envisaged plant is aiming at achieving a production rate of 400 000 tonnes of soda ash per year and that will be more than enough to satisfy the domestic needs of that country and will further export any excess to the sub-Saharan markets.

Our soda ash mine will be rendered obsolete and redundant because it will be much cheaper to produce synthetic products. The only way out for Botswana will be to set up a large industrial park in Sowa Town as part of our national strategy for industrialization. Having shaved off the cost of transportation of the mineral, it will now remain competitive to use against synthetic products. The cost of transporting soda ash from Sowa Town to the paper milling plants of Kwa-Zulu Natal has been a major cost that almost superseded the actual cost of the mineral.

One of the things that Botswana is dying to have is the establishment of industrial projects that can effectively bring along the much needed employment. It is very clear that all those who have been mining our minerals wanted them at all cost as raw materials. With this we as a country have been exporting jobs abroad. The only way out for us is through industrialization and we have allowed ourselves to be pushed to this corner.

In the two previous articles I have suggested the setting up of a petroleum refinery in the Ngamiland District that will be linked by rail to Sowa Town. Out of the refinery, a separate petrochemical industry will emerge and will in many ways complement the soda ash project in Sowa Town.

From Sowa Town, the industrial hub will produce a host of products. Among the many will be liquid crystal display (LCD), and every home wants to have a television set made from this technology and that extends to smart phones. Other products manufactured from soda ash include float glass, detergents and fire extinguishing chemicals.

In pharmaceutical manufacturing like in the petrochemical industry, they rely so much in soda ash for their processes. But the list of pharmaceutical products relating to soda ash is endless and that translates to endless opportunities for our country. The establishment of these industries will change the entire economy and poverty will easily be eradicated from this country. 

Already there is an existing power project in that district. BPC’s 132 kilo volts power line traverses the entire Ngamiland District and even goes as far as Gantsi. The project is ongoing and will soon be commissioned. This existing infrastructure will help fast track the implementation of the industrialization project.

It is the right time to begin the process of economic diversification. The recent announcement that the sale of diamonds will be halted is a wake-up call to Botswana. The Arab countries have been working at diversifying their economies from relying on oil because they know that nothing lasts forever. They have now resorted to hi-tech products and yet they are not endowed with mineral wealth base like we do in Africa and particularly in Botswana.

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