Africa Vies to be a Rare Earths Player, Create a Rival for Dominant China

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Rainbow Rare Earths, which owns a rare earths mining project in Burundi, was listed on the London Stock Exchange at the end of January, according to the Financial Times. This has prompted speculation in mining and trading circles that China’s dominance may finally be challenged. We’re not holding our breaths, and China likely isn’t either, but it wouldn’t be the first time that the abundance of resources in Africa had been underestimated.

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The U.S. Geological Survey said in 2015 that China’s annual production of the key battery, magnet and conductor elements was slightly more than 100,000 metric tons. Australia came in second with 10,000 mt. Only three other countries produce more that 1,000 mt of rare earths a year. The US produced 4,100 mt but that’s sure to go down after the 2016 closure of the Mountain Pass mine, Russia produced 2,500 and Thailand checked in with a respectable 1,100 mt contribution to the production of cell phones, military hardware and wind turbines.

Rare Earths MMI

The FT points out that despite China’s dominant market position in refined exports, the same is not true of rare earth deposits. It’s estimated that China has no more than 30% of global deposits of the quite abundant, despite their name, elements. The problem that all new rare earths projects run into is the cost of bringing new deposits into production and the ability of one country with such a dominant position to flood the market and bring down prices, hitting the viability of new projects.

What’s Left of China’s Previous Challengers

Remember what happened to Molycorp, Inc. and how the Japanese threw a lifeline to Australia’s Lynas Corp.? Yet, the fact that Lynas is still trudging along and investment is still being made by a Japanese government and industrial culture that wants nothing to do with China’s rare earths industry may, paradoxically, be what sets Africa apart and its low-cost resource sector apart from others who have taken on the dragon.

Japan was de facto banned by the Chinese government from receiving any shipments of rare earths back in 2011 after the Japanese Navy detained a China fishing trawler captain. Since then, Japanese industry has not only aggressively replaced rare earths in its supply chains, depriving China of customers, but also supported Lynas and other non-Chinese manufacturers even to the point of keeping them in business. There is little doubt that both public and private Japanese money would automatically flow into African projects if significant deposits of rare earths are found.

Grudge Match

That China has lifted export quotas and prices have fallen to a low range means little to nothing to Japanese businessmen and women who remember having their supply chains cut off in 2011.

According to the FT, it is widely acknowledged that, outside North America and Australia, southern and eastern Africa offer the greatest potential for rare earth production, especially in South Africa, Tanzania, Malawi, Mozambique, Kenya, Burundi, Zambia and Namibia.

Rainbow Rare Earths’ IPO is premised on its Gakara project in Burundi. The project is not yet producing and further exploration will be needed. The risks described in the IPO prospectus are a reminder of the difficulties of developing such projects, including pricing and environmental challenges and the need to produce ore at the required levels of concentration.

Rainbow raised $9.77 million (₤8 million) at its IPO.

The Rare Earths MMI broke eight straight months of flat performance and increased 1 point (5.9%) to 18 this month.

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