CAPE TOWN // It is being called the “billion dollar map”, a catchy name that, if anything, underplays just how valuable a guide it will be to Africa’s hidden mineral treasures.
Many overseas companies, including from the UAE, are involved in resource exploration on the continent. They include Dana Gas, primarily focused on Egypt, and RAK Gas, which has an ongoing project in Malawi.
While those are hydrocarbon ventures, it has long been established that the continent holds beneath its soil vast quantities of desirable minerals, too. Finding them in economically viable deposits, however, is not always easy. Geological surveys are painfully slow and it can cost as much as US$1 million per metre to drill core samples.
To speed things along and ease the path for mineral explorers, the World Bank has started a geomapping programme that will eventually cover much of the continent.
“The geodata gathering process involved aerial surveys by low-flying airplanes across the country at a consistent line spacing to gather the electromagnetic data,” says Zeria Banda, a World Bank spokesman in Malawi, where a precursor to the Africa-wide mapping project has commenced.
“The survey has already identified interesting geological features that were previously unknown.”
Malawi has been something of a Cinderella state in southern Africa, where mining underpins the economies of the states in that region. Zambia is one of the world’s largest producers of copper, an element vital to electronics, electricity transmission and wind turbine construction.
Neighbouring Zimbabwe is the world’s second-largest producer of platinum after South Africa, used in catalytic converters and jewellery. Botswana and Namibia have diamonds and South Africa has pretty much everything – gold, diamonds, iron ore and more.
Malawi, though, seemed to have been overlooked in the geological lottery. The former British colony was ignored for decades by mineral hunters, largely because it is a peculiar colonial construct that is wedged between different countries with no access to the sea. Without a port, getting minerals to world markets is difficult in the extreme.
Its one significant mine, a uranium producer operated by the Australia-listed Paladin Energy, had been trucking uranium almost 2,000 kilometres by road to Namibia and the diesel bill eventually swamped the operation, causing it to be closed down.
The uranium mine was, at its peak, generating around 10 per cent of Malawi’s GDP, and its closure was sorely felt.
Hydrocarbons are also a source of interest for RAK Gas there.
The company has conducted tests and surveys in the country that are a precursor to exploration drilling.
Now Malawi is hoping mineral discoveries will see new mining ventures opening up, too.
One such hopeful is Mkango, a Canadian company focusing on rare earths. These are a special breed of minerals that are increasingly important in hi-tech applications.
“The demand is from clean-tech and many consumer devices,” says the Mkango chief executive William Dawes. “They are needed for the optimum functioning of wind turbines, smartphones and fuel cracking among others. Any application that requires miniaturisation of components is likely to have them.”
An example of the firm’s Web-based airborne magnetic survey mapping, done last month, is available at http://www.mkango.ca.
Virtually all rare earths are currently supplied by China, which has guarded its monopoly jealously. In 2006 Beijing began to restrict exports to better control the price of the minerals. As prices rose, so others eyed the market and by 2012 the only rare earth operation in the United States, Molycorp, began processing ore.
China then dropped export restrictions and by last year Molycorp had filed for bankruptcy protection.
Many other rare earth start-ups that were touting their projects to investors in Toronto, London and Australia – the centres of mining finance – also went to the wall.
Mkango, however, has soldiered on, promoting its Malawi plan. It recently listed in London – a mere two weeks before Brexit – raising $1m on the Alternative Investment Index (AIM). Considering the company is little more than a handful of geological data and a website, this was a successful listing at a time when few start-up mining ventures are attracting any capital at all.
Mr Dawes says the funds raised will allow further geological investigation in preparation for actually getting shovels in the ground. The company is now the only rare earth miner listed on the AIM, which is part of the London stock exchange.
Much of the success of Mkango’s listing comes down to the time Mr Dawes, a Briton, has spent alternatively dressed in khakis in the rolling hills of Malawi gathering data and suited up for boardrooms talking to investors.
The company was also assisted by a wealth of free data made available by the World Bank’s geomapping project. To date more than $31m has been spent on the project, says Mr Banda.
The information has helped Mkango in its search for rare earths, but also revealed other minerals, Mr Dawes says.
“We are very excited with the results of the airborne survey, which further confirms significant potential for uranium, niobium, tantalum and other minerals,” he says.
As for the issue of lack of infrastructure and port access – that, too, has changed. Malawi is now connected to Mozambique via a 500km railway line that runs to the Indian Ocean. It runs within 100km of where Mkango hopes to build its mine.
Meanwhile, other countries should now also benefit from geomapping. Soon the aerial photographing of Zambia will begin, and others will follow thereafter.
A big advantage of this being a World Bank initiative is that all the data is publicly available.
Often private surveys carried out by mining companies are kept confidential, lest rival treasure hunters try to quickly move in.
Now, all this data will be readily available and it will be the first Web-based open-access regional geodatabase for Africa.
The World Bank believes resource extraction will form the basis of many African economies as they develop.
South Africa is an illustration of how mining can transform a country. Resource extraction has powered it to become the only industrialised country in sub Saharan Africa.
“Uses of geoscientific data for the public good justify government support for their collection, collation and delivery,” Mr Banda adds.
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