DRC tin mining town finds hope in lithium

Near the rusting carcass of a smelter, barefoot men and women scratch the ground in the quest for cassiterite — the tin oxide ore that generations ago gave the town of Manono a taste of the good life.

The diggers carry the sandy earth to the Lukushi River where women wash the grit in metal bowls, hoping to find some black nuggets from which to make a living.

Standing in the water from morning to evening and looking for ore brings in between 15 000 and 18 000 Congolese francs ($7.50 to $9) a day.

“There is nothing else in Manono,” said Marcelline Banza, a 28-year-old mother of three. 

Patrice Sangwa, the head doctor of Tanganyika province in southeast Democratic Republic of the Congo, said: “Most of the people live below the poverty line and prefer to dig [for cassiterite] rather than work the fields.”

This isolated corner of the country is battling malnutrition, cholera and a measles epidemic that has killed dozens of children since December.

But hopes are rising that the impoverished town could be transformed. The big news is that a large deposit of lithium — the metal used to make rechargeable batteries in cell phones and electric cars — has been found nearby.

Australian company AVZ Minerals, which owns a majority stake in a joint venture with Congolese firm La Cominière, says it has discovered about 400 million tonnes of ore with a lithium concentration of 1.6%. The find represents lithium reserves of some six million tonnes — more than enough to compete with leading producers such as Australia, Chile, Argentina and China.

“It probably stands at the largest undeveloped resource in the world,” said AVZ’s chief executive, Nigel Ferguson. “The quality is very good … very pure all the way through.”

In large sheds, the company stores cores drilled out of the rock at a depth of 400 m below the layers of soil, laterite and shale. The samples are sent for analysis to Perth, Australia.

Manono grew from the beginning of the 20th century, when Belgian settlers exploited a promising cassiterite deposit. The mines, along with quarries, foundries, dams, housing and the railway, brought prosperity.

But after the turbulent years and shoddy management that followed independence in 1960, mining equipment deteriorated and Manono became dormant. Decline was abetted by falling prices for tin, although the coup de grace came from the war that led to the seizure of power in 1997 by Laurent-Desire Kabila, supported by Rwandan soldiers.

“We all fled. The foundry was destroyed, the houses looted, the European district devastated, that of the African executives too,” recalled Paul Kissoula.

A quarter of a century on, vegetation has grown over the ruins and slag heaps are covered with trees, while two steam locomotives, a crane and wagons are rusting next to the roadside.

“There hasn’t been anything for years,” said Kissoula.

He was hired in 1974 by Congo Etain, a public company that became Zairetain after the country changed its name to Zaire under the dictatorship of Marshal Mobutu Sese Seko. It was later renamed La Cominière.

AVZ is hoping for an operating licence after submitting a feasibility study for the site. The company says it plans to invest $600-million to build a lithium processing plant with a capacity of 700 000 tonnes a year, and rehabilitate the hydroelectric plant to provide power.

If all goes well, production could start in 2023, and hundreds of people could be employed, according to AVZ’s scheme.

“People are suffering … AVZ will help us,” said territorial administrator Pierre Mukamba Kaseya who, like everyone else, is “waiting for the licence”.

Baccam Banza Cazadi, head of a secondary school, said: “The project specifications also provide for work on roads, schools, hospitals. 

“We want them to be able to succeed, for the province and the country,” he said. “There is hope.” — AFP

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