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Mine asbestos while the sun shines

By Features Reporter – 27 December 2018

ANALYSIS – HARARE (Mining Index) – THE use of asbestos or asbestos containing materials will certainly cease within the construction sector, rendering asbestos deposits worthless.

Will Zimbabwe secure investors from countries like Brazil, Russia, India, China, Indonesia, Canada and the United States (although regulated by the US Environmental Protection Agency)that still use asbestos containing material?

Does Zimbabwe’s Shabani Mashaba Mines (SMM) still have a future considering the once import leaders of asbestos have restricted, and even banned use of asbestos due to the rise in extremely hazardous diseases, which accounts for more than 100 000 deaths throughout the world each year?

Referred to as a silent killer, whose effects take decades (up to 50 years), to manifest into a disease following exposure before development of several diseases including asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma.

Global anti-asbestos lobbying has seen at least 55 countries including the entire European Union (EU), Australia and Japan banning use of asbestos in their countries. South Africa, which was the biggest importer of Zimbabwean asbestos also banned use of asbestos due to healthy challenges associated with the mineral.

Although analysts in Zimbabwe argue that the banned type of asbestos is not what is produced in Zimbabwe, will Zimbabwe still secure a market for its asbestos reserves?

Government announced there is a ready market for Zimbabwean asbestos on the international market in Asia, citing Russia, India and Kazakhstan, with reports made in 2017 indicating an Indian company was ready to buy 50 000 tonnes of Zimbabwean asbestos annually.

The former asbestos mining giant, owner of Shabani Mine in Zvishavane and King Mine in Mashaba were once rated the world’s sixth largest asbestos producer, produced 140 000 tonnes annually of fibre for asbestos against local consumption of 10 000 tonnes per year.

Shabani mine, which runs for about a kilometre into the ground, has an installed capacity of 70 000 tonnes while King Mine used to produce 75 000 tonnes of high grade asbestos fibre every year.

With a 17-year lifespan operating at full capacity, SMM is projected to be sitting on US$1 billion worth of asbestos deposits, projected to earn Zimbabwe up to $180 million in export revenue annually, against an expenditure of US$5 million per annum in asbestos fibre imports from Russia and Brazil.

In May this year, Mines and Mining Development minister Winston Chitando said the  resuscitation of Shabani Mine would see the asbestos mine going into the export market, contributing towards import substitution by about $3 million annually.

Once one of the largest producers of white asbestos after Russia, China and Brazil, Zimbabwe used to export asbestos to 50 countries.

Shabani Mine, which used to be one of the biggest employers in the Midlands, closed in 2004 due to a myriad of reasons. SMM closed in 2008, four years after government’s take-over, which seemed to have been the genesis of its productivity challenges as no meaningful production has been produced for export.

With years of lying idle, the two mines have succumbed to environmental pressures which have seen mining equipment worth millions of dollars trapped underground by rising water levels which have accumulated over the years, making transformers, conveyor belts, pumps, load-hauling machines, crushers and rock breakers redundant.

In June this year, Chirandu Dhlembeu SMM CEO revealed that SMM Holdings had made plans to inject US$75 million for Shabani and King mines aiming to reach full capacity of 120 000 tonnes of asbestos per annum. He further disclosed that $20 million was required for King Mine to operate at full capacity and a further $15 million to bring production to 75 000 tonnes while US$2 million was invested in Shabani with US$40 million additional capital required to grow capacity to 45 000 tonnes yearly.

In January this year, Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) chairperson Mrs Rita Likukuma had hinted efforts were underway to help SMM get access to required foreign currency for key mining equipment.

However, economic analysts cited that SMM has potential to self-fund its resuscitation program if the dump is processed and properly account for revenue generated to replace machinery and other operational activities.

SMM started the process of de-watering the mine shafts, to kick start the resuscitation program, a long process that can take up to one year.

Earlier this year, Minister Chitando noted that Government had not yet found an investor to help finance the recapitalisation of SMM, contrary to previous reports in which the former minister Walter Chidhakwa announced the coming on board of a Chinese investor, XCMG company that pledged a US$100 million loan to acquire mining equipment and to recapitalise Shabani and Mashaba mines in 2017.

In 2011, it was estimated that US$200 million was required to recapitalise SMM which used to employ around 7 000 workers at the height of its operations. ENDS//

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