Mopani Copper Mines – Forging Their Own Path

Mopani Copper Mines has been in operation since the 1930s, today it provides work to over 5,500 permanent employees.

Primarily mining copper, the company’s mines have also yielded modest quantities of gold, silver and cobalt through its three t-shaft complexes at Mopani, which include two concentrators, a smelter & a Refinery.

Originally run by multinational mining conglomerate Glencore International, this Zambian owned mine is now building an independent identity.

“We currently produce under 100,000 tonnes of copper cathode. Our capacity is 225,000 tonnes of cathode. We sunk three shafts with Glencore International AG, our previous owner,” explains Charles Sakanya, CEO of Mopani Copper Mines. “We plan to commence with equipping the new shaft at Mindola.”

Going it Alone

The Mindola Shaft has not been completed yet, however, it was 30% complete at the time the previous major shareholder, Glencore International, opted out of the company.

“Capital work was suspended and we’re looking for capital to finish off that work,” Sakanya tells us. “Glencore sold the mine off to the government for $1.5 billion through an offtake agreement where they buy the cathode from Mopani.”

The change in ownership has been a huge shift for the company, financially and culturally, leaving Mopani to position itself as a company with its own distinct identity under its current shareholder ZCCM-IH.

“We need to find our own footing, make our own mark and say, ‘We are here to contribute to the welfare of the country and re-establish ourselves as a powerhouse,’” Sakanya says. “I normally tell people that when Glencore left it was like a divorce. When you divorce and you’ve been together for a long time it doesn’t matter what the reason is. There is always pain and readjustment to find a new footing.”

Despite this huge shift, the mine itself has persisted, partly thanks to a decision to put it on care and maintenance in 2020 which has brought about the fighting spirit to survive.

“We’re currently doing just over 4 million tonnes of copper ore per year, with a 25–30-year Life of Mine, with 129 million tonnes of proven ore reserves , with more yet to be confirmed. We’re talking another 25 to 30 years on top of that potentially,” Sakanya tells us. “The three shafts are equipped with state-of-the-art winders, PLC controlled; unlike old type winders which had analogue type controllers. The new winders can be started remotely, and we are training employees who operated old winders with analogue equipment to computer-based equipment systems. We are currently commissioning a $210 million concentrator at Nkana.’’

Today the company is looking for capital to finish off the remaining work on its expansion projects. Sakanya is seeking $300 million to complete the main, which will mainly be invested in the unfinished shaft infrastructure and some related expansion work.

“We need to establish ourselves as a mining house, get that $300 million and ramp-up to 8.5 million tonnes of ore, 225,000 tonnes of finished cathode in the next three to four years,” Sakanya says.

A Diverse Identity

While Glencore is gone, it seems clear that the company that has been left behind is one with a proud, Zambian identity, and one that is ready to take hold of the current industrial zeitgeist.

“We’ve got a diverse culture; we’ve got brand new infrastructure and modern equipment. We are set to position ourselves in the international market,” Sakanya tells us. “Copper is now a highly sought-after commodity due to the energy transition from fossil fuels to green energy. Everyone wants to move away from fossil fuels and promote electric motor vehicles to cut down greenhouse gases. So, we are we’re positioning ourselves to be a part of that.”

Sakanya has set his sights on working with some of the biggest names in a range of industries, to add value to Mopani’s product, and contribute to Zambia’s growth.

“Over the next couple of years, we want to work with Mercedes Benz and Toyota and companies that want to make electric motor vehicles,” he explains. “Until now we’ve only done cathode, but now we are looking at investing in the manufacture of copper-based products, for example, electric motor parts for export from here.”

While looking at how to add value to the company, Sakanya is also investing in adding value to Mopani’s people, and the company invests heavily in building its knowledge base.

“We run a state-of-the-art training centre commissioned in the last twelve years. We invested $21 million in the Training Centre. We also have a contractor Academy as part of the training centre where contractors are trained  before they are onboarded,” Sakanya says. “We train in-house for mechanical technicians, instrumentation, electronics, electrical, boilermakers and machine operators to name but a few courses. We have a full suite; other mining houses and government institutions send their people here to upgrade their training.”

At the same time, Mopani is not afraid of sending its people further afield to see what knowledge they can bring back to the company.

“We have sent people all over the place. I am a product of that, I was sent to the UK for extra studies,” Sakanya points out. “We send people to Canada, Australia, and the US. If we need a skill and don’t have it, we shop around worldwide. We’ve about 30 expatriates working with us right now. We source the talent wherever we can find it. We’ve also exposed all of our senior staff to operations around the world, again I am one of those beneficiaries. I’ve been exposed to the Canadian mining industry, the Australian mining industry, and the South African mining industry. We have a very diverse and educated workforce.”

Fertile Futures

All of this expertise is helping Mopani Copper Mines to build out its offering, allowing it to contribute more to Zambia’s economy.

“We need to add value. We produce sulphuric acid from the smelter offtake gases when you smelt the anodes. That is one of the ingredients in the manufacture of fertilisers, so we’re talking to fertiliser companies,” says Sakanya. At the moment we sell the acid to companies with leaching facilities for treatment of oxide copper ore. Mopani had leaching facilities more than eight years ago. We want to add value to the cathode by making copper rolls and copper wire, for export.”

As well as fertilisers, Sakanya is excited about the possibilities of the electric motor vehicle revolution.

“We are also actively looking at working with companies that make electric motor vehicles to add value for the country, rather than just exporting raw materials,” he tells us. “We are also actively looking at solar power. There is now a big drive for green copper, and Mopani can achieve this by utilising solar power as part of its energy in the copper cathode production process’. Mopani is a 150MW plant so we think we should look at between 50 to 100MW solar power plant. Mopani is an  ISO certified plant, and our copper is one the most highly sought after, at 99.999% purity, and sold at a premium.”

As Sakanya says, Glencore’s departure might have felt like a divorce, but it has also opened up huge opportunities for Mopani and Zambia as a whole.

“This is the first time in 20 years that Mopani is now owned by ZCCM-IH, an investments holding company. This is the first mining company to own a mine 100% as a shareholder. So, it’s brought up a lot of excitement,” he tells us. “People are wondering whether Zambia as a nation can operate an asset as big as this. It’s been exciting to see Zambians at the helm of the operation, maintaining integrity under very difficult operations.”

More like this