Copper has long been viewed as a crucial indicator of world economic health. If copper prices are on the rise, then we can rest assured that the global economy is growing. Copper’s current slump in price amid a deepening global trade conflict has therefore been greeted with apprehension. However, this time it seems to be different. As Citigroup analysts’ Max Layton and Tracy Liao remarked recently, “prepare for a decade of Dr. Copper on steroids”.
As chairman of MBI Group, a privately-owned group of companies rooted in Zambia, the fortune of copper is integral to our economic outlook. Not only does MBI Group have investments in copper, but the entire Zambian economy is deeply intertwined with the fortunes of the metal. We believe that the metal is the key economic development, and African businesses should be leading the charge and exporting copper to the rest of the world.
Zambia produced 755,000 tons in 2017, ranking it seventh globally and second in Africa, behind the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which produced 850,000 metric tons. With the correct investment and deployment of technology, Zambia has the potential to re-take top spot as Africa’s chief copper producer.
Copper prices have nose-dived in the past few months, mainly due to President Donal Trump’s trade disputes involving several key economies, most notably China. China is the world’s largest consumer of industrial metals and accounts for nearly half of global copper demand. But the bullish outlook for the metal has remained.
This is for several reasons. The first is that there will, in the coming years, be a shortage of copper. Rapid urbanisation in the developing world and the rise of renewable energy and electric vehicles ensures that demand for copper will keep growing. As a durable and sustainable metal with a long service life, copper plays a crucial role in the wiring, plumbing, heating and cooling, lighting and roofing of buildings. Growing cities require copper. A single electric vehicle can have up to six kilometers of copper wiring, and because copper is a highly efficient conductor of electricity and heat, it is used in renewable energy systems to generate power from solar, hydro, thermal and wind energy across the world.
The second factor is that mining high-grade copper is becoming increasingly difficult, as deeper and deeper mines are needed to access the metal. Deeper mining has its own risks, and inevitable associated costs. Supply-side pressures and the realisation that demand is only heading in one direction has set in motion a global search for new mines in which to invest, as the world’s largest mining corporations look to splash out on copper.
However, owners of copper mines from Chile to Zambia are simply not willing to relinquish ownership at a time when the outlook is so positive. Instead, as the MBI Group has proven, companies are working to introduce new methods and technologies which ensure that even low-grade sources are utilised and reach the marketplace.
Over-burden dumps are one such source that have become the focus of exploration. Material that lies above an area that has previously been mined, and historically regarded as waste product, is now financially viable to mine. In Zambia, there are some of the largest over-burden heaps in the world containing vast quantities of copper suitable for market. Harnessing these largely untapped resources will be vital if we are to meet global demand.
The deployment of technology will also be central in the race to supply greater quantities to market. As firms look to go deeper and deeper in search of high-grade copper, the safe use of controlled explosives is increasingly important. They can be deadly if handled incorrectly. Zambia is leading the way in this regard, as firms are utilising virtual reality simulations to practise without the inherent dangers. The VR mine allows trainees to mark out their measured blast holes, practise detonating explosives in the right sequence, and watch how the rocks fracture and react. This technology has helped reduce costs, improve safety, and facilitated deeper mining without the associated risks.
The MBI Group is also adopting the latest technology in the sector to help improve productivity and gain a better understanding of potential resource base at exploration stage. This has allowed the group to invest and pursue opportunities which may have previously been deemed economically unviable. New technology has also brought other advantages such as the creation of employment opportunities for the local work force.
For Zambia, the DRC and other leading copper producers across the world, the outlook is extremely positive. The challenge that remains is to ensure that the infrastructure of the future, whether it be electric vehicles, hydro-electric power sources or building projects in our cities, have the vital copper supplies on which they rely. It is through the exploration of new sources, and the deployment of technology, that it will be achieved. African countries, and African businesses, can lead the way.