Malawi could probably be Africaâ€™s largest source of rare earths, a situation that could make the countryâ€™s mining sector contribution hitting 30 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in the next five years.
Minister of Mines and Energy Dr Cassim Chilumpha said surveys indicate that Malawi has over 30 million tonnes of rare earths with a lifespan of over 30 years. Currently, mining contributes about five percent to GDP.
â€œRight now our economy is slowing down and we need drivers of the economy and one such driver is mining. In the next 10 years, Malawi will become a booming mining country,â€ he said.
Chilumpha was speaking in Malawiâ€™s commercial city, Blantyre, in the context of miningâ€™s attractiveness in Malawi in his presentation at the public dialogue on Economic Recovery Plan (ERP).
This feat means mining could become Malawiâ€™s lifeline taking over from tobaccoâ€”currently accounting for 13 percent of the national economyâ€”which is facing global pressure arising from anti-smoking lobbyists and guidelines contained in the World Health Organisationâ€™s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO-FCTC).
Director of geological survey Dr Leonard Kalindekafe was reported out of the country on Monday, but an official at the department confirmed that Malawi hasÂ indeed become the largest source of rare earths in Africa.
However, the biggest challenge for Malawi to realise full potential is insufficient power supply which has been a thorn in the flesh of businesses. Escom only generates about 287 megawatts of hydro power against a suppressed demand of more than 300 megawatts.
Currently, Escom is struggling to supply electricity to Paladin Africaâ€™s Kayerekera Uranium Mine in Karonga, forcing it to use diesel power-generators.
But government is banking hopes on the 64 megawatts that will be added on to the grid from Kapichira, the modernisation of distribution lines with $350 million (K110 billion, at the current exchange rate) from the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) and the expected 1 000 megawatts to be powered by coal.
Experts have always urged the Malawi Government to diversify the economy and expand its export base instead of relying on a few commodities for export to boost its foreign currency earnings.
According to the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC), rare earths metals are a set of 17 chemical elements and despite their name, they are relatively plentiful in the earthâ€™s crust.
However, because of their geochemical properties, rare earth elements are typically dispersed and not often found in concentrated and economically exploitable forms. The few economically exploitable deposits are known as rare earth minerals owing to their scarcity.
Malawi, according to information from the department of mines, has rare earths such as dysprosium, uropium, terbium, niobium, palladium, zirconium, manganese, niobium and salium.
These mineral elements are used in electronic gadgets such as TV screens, hybrid electronic vehicles, cell phones and refrigerators, among others.
Currently, the Malawi Government has given exploration licences to Lancaster Exploration Limited, 100 percent owned subsidiary of Mkango Resources Limited exploring for rare earths at Songwe Hills in Phalombe and Salambidwe in Mwanza.
Others are Globe Metals and Minings exploring for niobium at Kanyika in Mzimba, Lynas Corporation at Kangankunde in Balaka and Canadian-based Gold Canyon Resources Inc which is exploring for rare earths at Chambe Basin in Mountain Mulanje.
Chilumpha said, so far, government has issued 65 mining licenses, 43 of which are foreign with the rest shared by local companies.