DRC: Kamoa-Kakula copper complex set to become world’s third-largest copper mine by 2024

By Muriel Devey Malu-Malu
Posted on Friday, 15 July 2022 11:06

Aerial view of the Kamoa 1 and 2 site, 25km from Kolwezi, in Lualaba © DR

One year after its unveiling, Kamco's mining project near Kolwezi is exceeding expectations. Furthermore, if its development continues to go well, it will become the world’s third largest copper production complex by 2024.

The Kamoa-Kakula concession, which includes the three Kamoa Copper (Kamco) mining licences, is huge. It covers 400km2, 25km west of Kolwezi, in Lualaba (South). Is it a lunar landscape? No, because the mining sites are separated from each other by shrubby savannahs that colour the horizon green.

Probable reserves at this copper mega-complex are estimated at 233m tonnes of crude ore grading 4.46% copper, or 10.4m tonnes of contained copper, according to Olivier Binyingo, vice president of public relations for Ivanhoe Mines in DRC. This is a jackpot for Kamco, whose capital is held by Canada’s Ivanhoe Mines (39.6%), China’s Zijin Mining (39.6%), British-Hong Kong Crystal River Global Ltd (0.8%) and the Congolese state (20%).

The complex’s development is done in stages. The first stage involved constructing the Kakula and Kansoko mines, as well as a first concentrator with a processing capacity of 3.8m tonnes of ore excavated per year and fed from the Kakula mine. The first copper concentrate was produced on 25 May 2021. A total of 105,884 t of contained copper was delivered in 2021 – in just seven months of operation – exceeding expectations.

Optimising concentrator capacity

The second phase started in 2022 when the second concentrator with a capacity of 3.8m tonnes was commissioned in March. Production is forecast to reach 340,000t of contained copper in 2022 and 450,000t by the second quarter of 2023, thanks to an investment that aims to optimise concentrator capacity.

The third phase, which has also begun, will result in the development of the Kamoa 1 and 2 mines (currently under construction) and additional access to the Kakula West deposit. It involves constructing a new concentrator, which will have a capacity of 5m tonnes of ore per year and be operational by the end of 2024. The complex’s overall production is then expected to be 600,000t of contained copper per year, making Kamoa-Kakula the world’s third largest copper project.

During this third phase, a direct-to-blister flash smelter, the largest in Africa, will be built to produce blister copper with a copper content of 99.9%. Its production capacity will be 500,000 t of blister copper per year. The completion of this smelter, whose construction has been entrusted to China Nerin Engineering, is eagerly awaited. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, only a portion of Kamco’s copper concentrate is currently processed into blister copper at Kolwezi, in the Lualaba Copper Smelter (LCS), which is owned by China Nonferrous Mining Corp Ltd (CNMC, 60%) and Yunnan Copper of Kunming (40%). The agreement signed in May 2021 between Ivanhoe Mines and CNMC covers 150,000 t of copper concentrate, which is the maximum capacity of LCS. As Kamoa-Kakula’s concentrate production is around 1m tonnes per year, the rest (850,000 t) is exported… And given that exporting concentrates is forbidden, Kamco obtained a waiver from the Congolese government in June 2021.

Work on the smelter, which is estimated to cost $800m, will start in May 2022 and is expected to be completed by the end of 2024. Once commissioned, however, the unit will not be able to process all of the complex’s contained copper production. LCS will process the remaining 100,000 t and partially export it if necessary.

A limited carbon footprint

Equipped with state-of-the-art technology from Finland’s Metso Outotec, the future smelter will have a limited carbon footprint. “Its continuously closed reactor protects the environment from gaseous effects,” says Louis Watum, managing director of Kipushi Corp – a subsidiary of Ivanhoe Mines – and president of the DRC Chamber of Mines. This is a positive point for Kamco, which is determined to produce ‘green’.

Other factors limit pollution, including “the use of hydroelectric power, the high copper content of the mines (6%), which are underground and therefore have less environmental impact, and reusing waste to stabilise the excavated parts of the mines, which limits their storage on the surface,” says Binyingo. And when possible, the company will equip itself with electric vehicles. Producing blister copper will also reduce the volumes transported, which will result in lower CO2 emissions.

As the Kamoa-Kakula deposits contain sulphide ores, the smelter will also be able to produce and sell sulphuric acid. Used to recover copper from oxidised ores, this acid will easily find a buyer in DRC. At present, it is imported, mainly from Zambia.

The buyers of Kamco’s concentrates and blister copper are two Chinese companies: Citic Metal, a Chinese state-owned multinational conglomerate, and Gold Mountains International Mining Co, a subsidiary of Zijin Mining. The offtake agreement signed in May 2021, and amended in 2022, covers Stage 1 and Stage 2 production, divided equally between each company. No decision has yet been made regarding phase 3. The majority of the products are transported by truck to the port of Durban in South Africa, about 3,000km from Kolwezi. To reduce distances, transport costs and pollution, alternative routes via the port of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania and/or the port of Lobito in Angola are being studied.

A $2.5bn project

How much does such a project cost? “The first two phases, the modernisation of the Mwadingusha power station and various research works, represented an investment of $2.5bn,” says Binyingo. Who is providing the financing? Mainly the two main shareholders and third parties, including South Africa’s Standard Bank and the Swedish Export Credit Agency.

What are the benefits for the Congolese state and local populations? “Kamoa-Kakula represents $126m in salaries, $1.3bn in supplies, $17m in socio-economic development and $360m in taxes paid. Once the investments are completed, the state will receive significant revenues,” says the Ivanhoe Mines representative. The company has also built infrastructure (roads, health, education, hydroelectric and water) that benefits the local population. Not to mention the 12,000 direct and indirect jobs, 97% of which are held by Congolese, as well as the community projects and SMEs created by nationals as a result of the project. “Our success story is a great calling card for DRC. It proves that it is possible to invest in this country despite the challenges, which are real,” concludes Binyingo.

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