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LUSAKA, ZAMBIA – First Quantum Minerals (FQM) successfully set local and international mining media abuzz with the news of a billion-dollar-plus investment into its projects in Zambia. The announcement has since been the centre of much public debate, as experts and laypeople alike try to interpret what the outlay will mean for the mining sector giant and the people of Zambia.

This announcement was made as President Hakainde Hichilema presented Zambia’s goal to ramp up copper production from the current 830,000 metric tonnes to 3,000,000 metric tonnes within the next decade, at this year’s African Mining Indaba. He also indicated the country’s ambition to increase cobalt and nickel production, and invited private investors to help drive this fresh economic revival.

Never known to back down from a challenge, FQM registered its support of the Government’s ambitious targets by announcing its own landmark investment of US$1.35bn to expand its activities. US$1.25bn designated to Kansanshi Mine, which was slowly reaching an inevitable production decline of an estimated 4% every year in mineral output, and US$100m to start operations at Enterprise, a project set to become one of the top-10 nickel mines in the world.

A quarter of the US$1.25bn earmarked for Kansanshi’s expansion will be used to strip a new section of the mine, in preparation for production. This section, dubbed the Southeast Dome, will begin as a separate pit but will eventually be joined to the mine’s Main and Northwest pits. As the current pits are excavated deeper and deeper, the copper oxide-rich ore, which is most abundant at the surface becomes depleted, leaving a greater proportion of lower-grade copper sulfide-rich ore. This new chemically distinct ore requires more labour-intensive processing methods, making the S3 upgrade to the Kansanshi Mine necessary.

The copper sulfide ore will be more expensive to mine as it requires more steps to go from ore to pure copper anode slabs. Where copper oxide ore processing typically involves four, relatively easy steps: primary crushing, leaching, solvent extraction, and then electrowinning, copper sulfide ore requires both primary and secondary crushing, flotation, thickening, multiple rounds of smelting, and finally electrolysis to refine the product to its ultimate 99% purity.

To accommodate this higher sulfide ore proportion, the remaining three-quarters of the total US$1.25 billion investment will be used to construct a new plant capable of processing 25 million tonnes of ore a year and to procure a larger mining fleet of ultra-class and state-of-the-art electrical equipment. This will increase the amount of raw material capable of going through the mine to 53 million tonnes per year. Other exciting additions to FQM’s upgraded processing train will be a 28 megawatt primary ore crusher and a 22 megawatt secondary ore crusher. The throughput of the Kansanshi smelter will also be increased, allowing it to produce over 400,000 tonnes of copper anode per year.

To further support Zambia’s push to shift its economic dependence on copper, FQM also will take the leap into nickel production with a final US$100m to kickstart operations at Enterprise. The nickel processing plant nestled in Kalumbila district, 160km away from Kansanshi, was completed in 2016 and has since been used only as an extension of Kansanshi’s copper processing operations. With Zambia’s new investment environment and a rise in global nickel prices, plans are underway to begin preparation of the site for nickel excavation this year. Enterprise’s 30,000-tonne processing capacity places the mine in the running to become a top producer of the highly sought-after metal.

Though only a fraction of the US$30-40 billion that experts estimate will be required to meet the country’s mineral output aspirations, this US$1.35 billion will secure FQM’s position as one of the world’s leading mining companies, and Zambia as a strategic producer of two of the world’s most in-demand metals. This investment partnership is projected to create 1,500 additional permanent jobs across both projects, in addition to securing the 8,500 already working for Zambia’s largest private-sector employer. That capital injection combined with the skilled and dedicated workforce looks set to help further unlock the nation’s natural resource base, propelling Zambia into a new era of economic growth and social development.