Electric vehicle wave triggers revival of Otse manganese mines

Making plans: Giyani Metals staff and an investor (second from left) meet on site in Otse PIC: JAMES MATHIBE
Making plans: Giyani Metals staff and an investor (second from left) meet on site in Otse PIC: JAMES MATHIBE

Abandoned in the 1970s, the manganese deposits in Otse are set for a recovery that could lift economic activity in a village that has been living in Gaborone’s shadow. The global electric vehicle movement has reignited interest in the metal and one company hopes to build an economic ecosystem around Botswana’s manganese. Staff Writer, MBONGENI MGUNI reports

A year before the now famous discovery of the ‘three shiny stones’ in Motloutse River that eventually led to the explosion of diamond mining activities in the 1970s, a less high profile mineral had been found in the country’s south east.

Available records indicate that as early as 1957, the abundant presence of manganese in the area west of the Otse hills had not only been proven, but mining had actually taken place. Various mineral research articles indicate that manganese mining took place in Otse and at least two other sites in Botswana between 1957 and 1973, before activities were abandoned.

Using methods that today are viewed as rudimentary, manganese mining in 1973 produced 43,000 tonnes but rising production costs and low prices for the metal forced miners to pack their bags.

The closure, however, did not mean the resources were depleted. A Mmegi news crew that hiked the scrubland behind Otse hills this week found naturally occurring manganese quite literally littered all over the area. From small rocks, to large boulders, the metal is scattered on the surface nearly everywhere that one looks, giving an enticing promise of the wealth hidden further beneath the soils.

Remnants of the old mines remain with structures such as slurry dam and mining pits still accessible.

Canadian company, Giyani Metals and its local partners are ramping up activities into resuscitating not only the Otse mines, but other sites in Kanye, Lobatse and Ramotswa.

In recent years, the company has raised millions of pula to fund studies aimed at updating information about the resources at the three project sites and assessing the capital required to restart commercial mining activities.

While manganese is predominantly used in the steel and speciality alloys sectors, the global shift towards electric vehicles has reignited interest in the metal. High Purity Manganese, also known as battery grade manganese, is purchased by cathode and battery manufacturers for use in electric vehicles, in either a metal or sulphate form.

Reviving memories: The old pit at the Otse mines PIC: JAMES MATHIBE
Reviving memories: The old pit at the Otse mines PIC: JAMES MATHIBE

While the share of electric vehicles to fossil-fuelled powered vehicles in the global market is presently as little as three percent, it is expected that this figure could increase up to 70% in the next 20 years as part of the global clean energy transition.

Far from the projections and numbers in the boardrooms, Giyani Metals’ geologists spend their day drilling, taking samples and improving their knowledge of the resources in the lease areas.

In Otse, the licence area stretches deep into the bushes, where geologists and labourers have reported coming across cobras, black mambas and leopards in their quest to resuscitate the mines.

With little activity over the years since the abandonment in the 1970s, the bush has ‘taken over’ the most remote parts of the licence area and the Mmegi news crew is to exercise caution on the hike. Each step must be measured. Eyes must be trained on what is moving around and any danger.

A few minutes into the hike and up a short ledge, the ancient beauty of the landscape comes into view, from the old mining structures towards the hazy hills in the far south-west.

Checking the samples: A small manganese rock found on site at Otse PIC: JAMES MATHIBE
Checking the samples: A small manganese rock found on site at Otse PIC: JAMES MATHIBE

Giyani Metals’ CEO, Robin Birchall explains that rather than shipping out the manganese as a raw product, full beneficiation will be done in Botswana. The company intends to process the rocks into High Purity Manganese Sulphate Monohydrate, which is a pale pink inorganic compound with typically 32% of contained manganese.

“We will be producing a manufactured product in the country,” he explains.

“Our product, on a contained metal basis, currently sells for about $6,500 a tonne while the rock is $125 per tonne and so there is huge value addition.

“When you add the taxes of that, you capture a lot more of the economic value chain in the country.

“We will not just do the mining and send off the rocks and while you cannot capture the whole value chain, you can definitely go up further in the value chain.”

The value chain, Birchall explains, will involve Giyani Metals mining manganese and producing the ‘salt’ in the country, then selling this up the process to a cathode manufacturer who sells to the battery manufacturer and finally an electric or hybrid vehicle manufacturer at the tail end.

In the next two years, the company expects to have further upgraded its resource estimates at Kanye, Lobatse and Otse, allowing the development of mines and processing plants. As a publicly listed company, Giyani Metals keeps its shareholders timeously updated on all developments in Botswana and resource updates are due in the new year.

However, it is already known that Otse contains high-grade manganese, which Birchall expects could be used to ‘blend and sweeten’ the feed into a plant built for the regional projects.

Across the A1 Highway from the manganese mines is the main village of Otse, whose 8,000 or so residents have long lived in the shadow of Gaborone, Ramotswa and Lobatse.

Yesteryear: Remnants of the old manganese mines which closed in the 1970s
Yesteryear: Remnants of the old manganese mines which closed in the 1970s

With little economic investment, Otse’s youths are largely dependent on employment in Gaborone and to a lesser extent Lobatse.

Birchall says while the manganese mines coming up will require skilled workers, already unskilled labour has been engaged for field activities across the project sites. The value of the investments being made in Otse and elsewhere will be felt beyond just the village and into the greater economy.

“We have just raised more capital and we will be funded for the next year, meaning there will be more opportunities for employment,” he says.

“When operational, the tax revenue of the mines will be significant and we will be purchasing a lot of power and creating economic activity.

“This adds value to the people of the region as well.”

Statistics Botswana estimates that in the last census in 2011, nearly 35% of Otse residents were characterised as youths, meaning aged between 18 and 35 years. For this group, the old manganese mines opened and closed before they were born. The revival will see the emergence of long-forgotten economic activity in an area of the village that many rarely visit.

Editor's Comment
Implement the recommendations Mr. President

The nation is eagerly awaiting this report to have a glimpse of what the recommendations are like, possibly for further debate. Mr. President, it’s our ardent hope that true to your promises, the public will have an opportunity to peruse the report and see if it reflects their interests as the Commission went around the length and breadth of the country collecting views of the people with some choosing to write to the Commission’s...

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