It is not every day you get the opportunity to tour a chrome mine in Zimbabwe as a media correspondent. I had the rare opportunity to do just that last week with African Chrome Fields (ACF).
The company invited a number of media guests to tour their R800 million mineral beneficiation plant as part of a broader invitation to Zimbabwe.
The aim was to create more transparency around the country and showcase the beauty and potential for foreign investment.
The plant utilises an “aluminothermic process that has placed the company and the country at the forefront of mining technology”, according to ACF.
Mark Beuckes, the mine manager at ACF, took us through the process of how they collect and sift through the sand to assemble and manufacture chrome.
He explained and simplified alluvial mining and the aluminothermic process, the process they use at ACF in the Great Dyke region in the Midlands province of Zimbabwe.
It was immensely fascinating to see the alluvial process from start to finish.
Mine manager Mark Beukes was excited to give BR a birds eye view of the alluvial mining process at the African Chrome Mine in Zimbabwe. pic.twitter.com/zUWvY5TnQ9— Business Report (@busrep) August 11, 2023
A UNIQUE ENDEAVOUR
The process of mining alluvial chromite ore for the stainless-steel industries is a unique endeavour.
The aluminothermic technology is the culmination of several years of research and testing, and was specifically developed in response to a lack of available power and infrastructure in the area, states Zunaid Moti, Chairman and Country Representative of African Chrome Fields.
“The Zimbabwean government has placed increasing focus over the years on beneficiating its natural resources and minerals as opposed to exporting raw material, with the aim of promoting inclusive, sustainable economic growth. In line with this thinking, we took the decision to build a plant to beneficiate our chrome within the country.”
“So, over the past few years, we have invested more than R1.2 billion to develop completely new technology that is not dependent on electricity,” explains Moti.
According to ACF, unlike traditional power-hungry and carbon-intensive furnaces, the aluminothermic plant draws on a proprietary chemical mix to produce the heat needed to convert raw chrome ore into ferrochrome, a specialised ferroalloy used in stainless steel manufacturing.
This proprietary mix ensures that the ferrochrome produced is ultra-low carbon, high-grade ferrochrome featuring between 62% and 65% chromium and just 0.2% carbon – a quality that is unmatched by most international counterparts, ACF notes.
“To explain the process, we take atomized aluminium and chrome concentrate, mix it with other accelerants and light it. The mix then self-ignites and the aluminothermic process takes over, producing a very hot chemical reaction that is completed within a few minutes rather than the hours needed to produce the same reaction in furnaces,” Moti notes.
“The slag then separates from the ferrochrome, and once the mix has cooled, we can remove the ferrochrome, which remains of exceptionally high quality without harmful contaminants.”
As a result, ACF’s ferrochrome is suitable for specialised high-grade stainless steel manufacturing for end-clients in the aeronautics and construction industries, amongst others.
The piece of ferrochrome illustrated above can retail for $4 to $7 per pound.
A SCHOOL AND THRIVING COMMUNITY
It became abundantly clear that the mine in Zimbabwe’s Midlands is not just a place of work but has now become a thriving community.
The mine, according to Beukes, employs around 600 workers.
“We started with about 25 people in 2014. We now have over 600 workers. Considering that the average family size is 4 to 5 people, we impact or help assist a few thousand in this community,” Beukes explains.
The company has invested some $250 million into expanding its mining operations since 2014, including the construction of necessary infrastructure such as boreholes, roads, and accommodation for staff, as well as the construction of seven wash plants.
The workers live on-site and have access to housing, health facilities, and recreational facilities and are given three meals a day.
The life of the mine is expected to endure for at least 20 years, if not 30 or 40 years given the richness of the chrome reserves in the area. This will provide long-term job security for local employees and hope for further sustainable socio-economic development and stimulus for decades to come, notes Moti.
ACF has also taken an interest in educating the area and has sponsored a school in the Kwekwe District.
The company helped set up the structures where the learners are educated every day.
They also assisted in providing running water and electricity to the school.
The school has around 145 primary school learners.
I had the privilege to be taken around the school by Amos Manyarara, a senior teacher at Sebakwe Primary.