Australians and Chinese are investing in a project that could soon make the Sahelian country the third-largest producer
of the metal in the world.
An area of 100 km² located in the district of Bougouni, in the Sikasso region, on the southern tip of Mali: this is where the Goulamina mineral deposit is located, managed by the Leo Lithium company, a joint venture created in mid-2021 by the Australian Firefinch and the Chinese Ganfeng companies. It is estimated that this mine contains 108 million tons of lithium, a chemical element of the alkali metal group, a component necessary to light up the batteries of our smartphones, but also the engines of hybrid and electric vehicles.
Australians and Chinese will invest $250 million in the development of the Goulamina Lithium Project.
The goal is to get to extract from the mine over the course of its life – just over twenty years – an annual average of 436,000 tons of spodumene concentrate, which could even amount to 726,000. Once fully operational, this field would make Mali the world’s third-largest producer of lithium, allowing it to cover 15% of global production.
The chronic insecurity of this Sahelian country, the continuous military coups and government oustings, and the repeated halts to the issuance of permits for mining exploration have thus far not been an obstacle to the project. To the point that the minister of energy, mines,
and water, Lamine Seydou Traoré, personally took the trouble to lay
the foundation stone last June.
The axis with the port of Abidjan
The Chinese partner of the joint venture, Jiangxi Ganfeng Lithium, the world leader in the sector, will offer a loan of about 194 million dollars for the development of the mine. This has allowed the construction of an on-site lithium processing plant to begin with, which could soon make Leo Lithium the main exporter throughout West Africa, pending the entry into production of another large mine, also located in the district of Bougouni but farther north than Goulamina, managed by British Kodal Minerals. By the end of this year, the first shipments are expected to the autonomous port of Abidjan, from where cargoes of clinker, manganese, bauxite, and nickel are already transiting to Western and Asian processing plants.
Belgian Sea Invest, the manager of the Ivorian port’s mining terminal, in November 2022, reached an agreement with Leo Lithium to take care of the handling and storage of its cargo for the next ten years.
To comply with the agreements, work is under way in the terminal to increase the storage capacity from 200 thousand to 300 thousand tons within 9 months, in order to guarantee the export of over 3 million tons of metal per year.
A system of lagoon barges has also been created in the port which allows for the transfer of up to 100,000 tons of goods to anchored ships with a draft of up to 14 metres, double the normal load on the quay. Another element that made the choice of Leo Lithium fall on the port of Abidjan was the road infrastructure that connect it to Bamako in less than 24 hours. An added value compared to the ports of Dakar (Senegal) or Tema (Ghana), which are more difficult to reach.
Breathless race for Africa
The growth in the value of lithium at a global level mainly depends on the increasing use made of it for the production of batteries that power the latest generation of devices. In 2008, lithium covered only 20% of this market, but by 2030, according to estimates by the United States Institute of Geological Studies, this percentage will increase to 85%. If in January 2021 a ton of lithium was worth 6,400 euros, today that value has already passed to 65 thousand euros. Currently, the world production of lithium is shared by Australia, Chile, and China which in 2019 extracted 45, 19 and 11 million tons, respectively. Thanks to the increase in demand, for some years the radars of large mining companies have also turned to Africa.
China alone has, since 2021, invested in three projects on the continent, including the Goulamina Lithium Project.
In addition to Mali, the other countries attracting the most attention are the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, and Zimbabwe. In Angola, the Australian group Tyranna Resources announced its intention, at the beginning of 2022, to acquire 80% of the shares of the Namibe Lithium Project. While in Zimbabwe, the Chinese company Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt has invested 378 million dollars to purchase the rights to exploit the Arcadia mine from the Australian Prospect Resources.
At the moment, however, with the exception of the Manono Project, located 500 kilometres north of Lubumbashi in the south of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and in view of the Goulamina Lithium Project, only the raw metal is extracted in the other African mines. The high costs and complexity of the raw material transformation processes cut Africa out of the supply chains, despite the immense reserves it has. The continental demand for batteries for electronic devices thus remains anchored to imports from abroad. Yet another case of a supply chain broken at the source.