There was a festive mood with music, food and decorations at Zimbabwe’s State House last Friday as Chinese investors signed a deal to build a $2.8 billion battery metals industrial park.
Zimbabwean authorities say the lithium, platinum and nickel production will be used to make solar batteries.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa said the project, about an hour’s drive northwest of Harare, would help turn around the decline of Zimbabwe’s economy.
“The mines-to-energy park will augment my government’s thrust of value addition and beneficiation of minerals, as well as bolster the crucial role that minerals’ value chain plays in the national industrialization agenda," he said. "It is set to mark the inception of a lithium ion battery chain in Zimbabwe. It is set to place Zimbabwe among the world’s producers of lithium ion batteries.”
Zimbabwe’s government plans to provide the land and minerals for the park, while the two Chinese companies investing will bring in machinery and needed funds.
Mnangagwa is aiming for a $12 billion mining industry in Zimbabwe by next year.
Lionel Mhlanga, director at Hong Kong Eagle International Holdings, one of the Chinese investors, said the project "will revolutionize the mining and energy sector of Zimbabwe, ensuring optimum value addition for all minerals extracted locally. Zimbabwe is endowed with most if not all minerals needed in this clean energy drive. Eagle International Investment Holdings and Pacific Goal Investment are partnering with the government of Zimbabwe to set up this industrial park. This multibillion-dollar project, on completion, will have a turnover exceeding $13 billion annually.”
But critics note Zimbabwe has announced several multibillion-dollar projects in recent years that fell apart, include mining by Russian investors for platinum and Chinese for diamonds.
The projects that do go forward rarely benefit ordinary Zimbabweans, said opposition lawmaker and rights activist Daniel Molokele.
"The mining model that we have, which favors countries such as China, is a big disadvantage for the poor people of Zimbabwe because the investment method is called extractive mining," he said. "It’s to the advantage of the investor [rather] than to local communities. So Zimbabwe is not benefiting — at least at common citizen level — until and unless we come up with a mining model that favors local communities, that allows for shareholding and profiting for local communities in all mining investments.”
Zimbabwe is home to valuable minerals such as gold, iron, diamonds, lithium, platinum and chrome. But the World Bank says half of Zimbabweans live on less than $1 per day.
Farai Maguwu, the director of the Centre for Natural Resource Governance, a group working to improve governance of Zimbabwe’s natural resources, said the metals park deal needs to be transparent and aimed at helping locals, or else Zimbabwe will remain a resource-cursed country.
“If the government is merely looking at creating jobs, then that’s a very minimal expectation that we can have out of this project," he said. "What we see with the Chinese in Zimbabwe is that everything they are getting, they are taking to China. That’s why the influx of Chinese investors in Zimbabwe is not contributing anything, even to liquidity, in our financial sector, simply because the Zimbabweans are not involved in these projects. We are simply giving them access to our resources without any plan.”
The battery metals park is expected to be up to 50 square kilometers in size when completed in about three years.