Near the rusting carcass of the old tin smelter, men and women,
barefoot, search the ground for cassiterite, while hoping for the rebirth of
their town of Manono, in DR Congo, thanks to the large deposit of lithium
discovered at the gates of the old mining town.
A little further on, the “diggers” bring their harvest to the Lukushi river where women, in the water from morning to evening, wash in zinc basins the gravel from which will emerge the small black pebbles of tin ore, whose they hope to make enough money to live on.
“There is nothing else in Manono, life is very difficult,” says simply Marcelline Banza, 28, mother of three, who says she can earn between 15,000 and 18,000 Congolese francs ($7.5 to $9 ) per day by washing the sandy soil.
The area is dotted with bumpy, gullied terrain excavated by hundreds of these artisanal miners armed with shovels and crowbars.
“The majority of the population lives below the poverty line and, rather than cultivating the fields, people prefer to dig, for a faster gain”, regrets Patrice Sangwa, head doctor of the Manono health zone, an isolated territory which faces malnutrition, cholera or even an epidemic of measles which has killed dozens of children since December.
The city is located in the province of Tanganyika, born in 2015 from the division into four of Katanga, a region in the south-east of the Democratic Republic of Congo full of minerals, copper and cobalt in particular. It was created at the beginning of the 20th century, with the exploitation by Belgian settlers of a deposit of cassiterite, the ore of tin.
Quarries, dams, foundries, railways, housing, mines brought prosperity.
– Ruins – But little by little, with the fall of the courses, the turbulent years after independence in 1960 and the bad management, the equipment got old, the city fell asleep and the coup de grace came from the war that accompanied the capture of the country in 1997 by Laurent-Désiré Kabila. “The war of aggression”, as the people of Manono call it, where the Rwandan soldiers left a very bad memory.
“We all fled. The foundry was destroyed, the houses looted, the European district devastated, that of the African executives too”, says Paul Kissoula, known as “papa Paul”, 70 years old.
A quarter of a century later, vegetation is invading the ruins, two steam locomotives, a crane, wagons are rusting by the side of the road, the slag heaps are covered with trees.
“There has been nothing for years”, sadly regrets “papa Paul".
Driver, he has known everything. He was hired in 1974 by “Congo Etain”, a public company that became “Zairetain” when the country changed its name under the presidency of Mobutu, then “Cominière” (Congolese mining company).
Today, Paul Kissoula is a driver for the Australian company AVZ Minerals which, in search of lithium, a metal that has become a star in electric car batteries, was the first to obtain a research permit in Manono in 2016, where it set up a joint venture with La Cominière.
– “We are waiting for the permit” – After several years of drilling, carried out in particular in an old and vast cassiterite quarry called “Roche Dure”, the company discovered a deposit of “400 million tonnes of ore at 1.6% , probably the largest untapped resource in the world,” said Nigel Ferguson, CEO of AVZ Minerals.
This represents lithium reserves of some 6 million tonnes, more than enough to measure up to the usual producers such as Australia, Chile, Argentina and China.
“The quality of the rock deposit is very good”, assures Nigel Ferguson, better according to him than the lithium extracted from brines, as in South America.
In large hangars, the company stores the “carrots” drilled in the rock, up to nearly 400 meters deep. In the first meters, there is the ground, then come the laterite, the shale...
Erick Nkulu wa Kabamba, geologist, then shows the “pegmatite” (magmatic rock) containing “spodumenes”, the lithium mineral. Samples are taken and sent for analysis to Perth, Australia.
The “definitive feasibility study” has been completed and was sent several months ago to the government, which the company is now waiting for it to issue an operating permit.
When it has obtained it, AVZ “plans to devote 600 million dollars to the construction of a factory”, which should produce around 700,000 tonnes of finished product per year, which can be used mainly in batteries, specifies its boss.
It will also rehabilitate the old hydroelectric plant, increase its capacity, and employ hundreds of local workers.
If the permit arrives quickly, production could start in 2023.
“People are suffering... AVZ will help us”, hopes the territory administrator, Pierre Mukamba Kaseya who, like everyone else, is “waiting for the permit”.
“The specifications also provide for actions on roads, schools, hospitals…”, also anticipates Baccam Banza Cazadi, secondary school director. “We want them to be able to succeed, for the province and for the country. There is hope,” he said.