Until the global recession, the mineral industry was an important source of export earnings for many African countries. But as the downturn moves from Wall Street to Main Street with sinking world market prices, exports from the continent are dropping and mines are shutting down. But in Cameroon, one company has drawn inspiration from the crisis. It's a recycling firm that uses old automobile batteries to extract lead for export. Now it has suspended those exports and is focusing on making roofing tiles from the plastic used in packaging the old batteries.
Cameroon is often mentioned as one of Africa's major exporters of minerals. But it's not known for producing lead – a flexible and highly resistant metal used in building construction and in manufacturing automobile batteries, ammunition, and radiation shields, among other things.
Cameroon has no lead mines in contrast to other African nations like Morocco, Namibia, Tunisia and South Africa. Industrial production is handled by two lead smelters recycling spent automobile batteries. One of them, COMAGRI, is owned by Indian expatriates while the other, BOCOM International, belongs to a Cameroonian. Both operate within the free trade zone and benefit from export tax exemptions. The free trade zone agreement also requires them to export all the lead they produce.
Soh Fosso Beautrel is factory manager at BOCOM International. He says two years ago demand for lead was high and encouraging. But he notes a global price slump for the product has forced the company to suspend exports. He has 106 tons left.
He says the price of the product is based on the London Metal Exchange, or LME, "When the LME was very good, that was around 3500 dollars per ton. Now, the price has decreased by around 50 percent and so what we are trying to do is wait till the LME is high again."
Soh Fosso says the reduced demand has forced the company to trim production. He says if the global recession persists, the company will have to slash salaries and downsize its staff to stay afloat.
From a ton of batteries gathered and supplied by scrap market dealers countrywide, the company gets half a ton of lead and acid, as well as a large amount of plastic used in packaging the batteries. The heaps of plastic have grown bigger since BOCOM began recycling old batteries five years ago.
The global recession has inspired the company to diversify production. It's reprocessing and selling the spent battery acid, and it uses the plastic casing to produce synthetic roofing tiles – a fairly new technology in Cameroon and most of Africa.
Soh Fosso says the process is uncomplicated and cheap, "At the beginning, we collect the acid because it is also recycled. The battery is melted in a furnace around 8000° centigrade. After melting, we separate lead for refining and the plastic. You know we have a huge quantity of plastics. We mix all in a thermo-mixer and after that, we crush it; mix with dry sand and at the final stage, we press it to have tiles."
He says the company is not selling the tiles until it stockpiles a major supply. But it's already receiving hundreds of purchase orders from across the country and beyond.
Experts say plastic roofing tiles in contrast to aluminum sheets traditionally used in building construction in Africa, are resistant to corrosion. They're also less expensive and help reduce the heat in a country where air conditioners are not easily affordable.
And once again the scrap market is booming. Hundreds of jobless people are gathering broken buckets and other plastic items for sale to the company. At the same time they're inadvertently helping clear the neighborhoods of huge piles of garbage and dumped toxic car batteries.
Soh Fosso says the roofing tiles just may help the company survive the global recession. He says while waiting for lead prices to rise again, the company is also thinking about producing brand new lead-acid batteries, "We're studying the market. Making new batteries is possible and is another plan, a huge plan. Our major problem is money. Till this day, there is no support from government and my director is trying to look at how we can have help from government."
He says the company plans are also held back by stiff competition from an increasing number of Chinese and Indians combing the entire Central African sub-region and buying spent batteries, paying more than his and many other African companies can afford. He says the government should intervene because they export the spent batteries directly, while BOCOM adds value and creates jobs.