In DRC, it’s all about the zinc mines in Upper Katanga

By Muriel Devey Malu-Malu

Posted on Thursday, 2 February 2023 13:55
Underground drilling operations conducted by Ivanhoe in recent years have expanded and improved the rather large Kipushi zinc deposit’s extractable resources. © Petrus Saayman/Ivanhoe Mines

With funding now available for this mining project, now operated by Kipushi Corporation (Kico), a joint-venture between Canadian Ivanhoe Mines and Gécamines, is preparing to restart production after 30 years of dormancy.

Look to the urban centre of Kipushi, Haut-Katanga, one kilometre from the Zambian border, and you will find the zinc mine and the installations of the joint-venture Kipushi Corporation SA (Kico SA), formed by Kipushi Holding Ltd (KH), a 100% subsidiary of the Canadian-owned Ivanhoe Mines, which holds a 68% stake. Gécamines holds the remaining 32%.

A $500m upgrade

KH’s entry into Kico, which was incorporated in 2007, dates back to 2011 when the association agreement was signed prior to the start of the mining operation. Shareholding changes have been related to the annual production rate and governance, with the development of a framework promoting good cooperation between the parties, more transparency, and visibility. About 10 years were needed to rehabilitate the 1923-built mine that halted production in 1993.

“At the time of acquisition, underground infrastructure had been abandoned, poorly maintained, and in decaying conditions in part due to flooding. Great efforts were taken to rehabilitate and modernise all of the equipment,” says Olivier Binyingo, Vice President of Public Relations for Ivanhoe Mines in the DRC. By the end of 2022, all work, including mine readiness, was complete, costing a total of $500m.

Beginning commercial production

The matter of surface infrastructure construction, complete with a new concentrator and ore transport conveyor in shaft 5 for the concentrate plant. Earthworks and civil engineering work began in the second half of 2022, with plant and conveyor work set to begin as soon as the necessary materials are received. This will represent a $400m investment.

Mining will not wait for the completion of the plant before beginning, with ore stocks being built by the end of 2024, which Binyingo says is “a century after the mine’s opening and 30 years after its mothballing.”

Located 1,250m deep, the deposit hosts about 12 million tonnes of both indicated and measured resources, with 35% zinc (the highest in the world) and 10.81 million tonnes (32% zinc, 0.65% copper, 19 g/t silver and 51 g/t germanium).

Since the Kipushi project is focused on zinc extraction, even if indications of other metals could spur more exploration, the end product will be zinc concentrate. Forecasts are based on a production of 450,000 tonnes of zinc concentrate per year, or 240,000 tonnes of zinc content.

Concentration is key

For Ivanhoe, the transformation will not go beyond concentrate, with Gécamines already involved in several mining projects and closely associated with discussions with zinc merchants working on different concentrate valorisation scenarios.

“Third parties will facilitate additional valuation efforts, as opposed to Kico,” explained Binyingo.

Zinc has several uses:

  • galvanising steel to prevent corrosion;
  • to manufacture fertilisers and nutritional supplements.

The fertiliser option projects to be an outlet for local industry, with the DRC possessing strong agricultural potential moving forward. Concentrate will be moved by truck, near the new border post which will be installed for Kico at Kipushi.

“We signed a memorandum of understanding with the province of Haut-Katanga to study different exit options for Kico, Kamoa, and additional traffic,” added Binyingo. The Zambian border near Kipushi may still be used as a means of international transport.

A bidding process to identify potential buyers has been launched and has not yet been finalised, but the bulk of the work has been done. However, it is difficult to know for the moment what will be the final destination of the zinc concentrate, or even of the finished products after recovery.

At present, the market is still dependent on foundries located in the Americas, Europe, and Asia, each of which have had to cope with energy price spikes. The next two years remain unknown.

What about the environment?

The Kipushi project is not immune to environmental concerns. With that said, two positive points deserve highlighting: the electricity required for operations, estimated at 25MW, will come from a clean and renewable energy source, benefitting from the energy produced by the Inga 2 hydroelectric plant.

The Société nationale d’électricité (SNEL) and Ivanhoe Mines Energy have engaged in a public-private partnership in order to rehabilitate turbine 5 to facilitate this effort. Furthermore, due to the Kico mine’s high zinc content, the environmental impact of CO2 emissions per tonne of zinc produced will remain low at about 0.06 tonnes.

If the energy question is resolved, the concerning impacts of certain mining operations remain, with support from both provincial and national governments further assisting the minimisation of these impacts, according to Binyingo.

Mining operations are often urban-based, with the nuisances that one can imagine, so the construction of a new border post and bypass road should make it possible to avoid the city and limit the issues of dust, noise, and traffic accidents.

During production, the company also strives to choose the most modern and least-polluting technological solutions. Currently, underground machinery continues to run on diesel. “Companies are starting to manufacture electric vehicles. For now, this is not yet viable for Kico, but we are monitoring developments closely,” emphasised Binyingo.

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