The company is a few months away from beginning operations at a new lithium resource it has identified in the country. But in time, Zerttew wants to do more than just take the lithium out of the ground. It also has plans to manufacture the lithium batteries for which the metal is in such huge demand. “We want a product that is made in Zimbabwe as well as mined in Zimbabwe,” says Valentine Garacho, co-founder of the company.
Garacho accepts his company is not yet in a position to offer such a product, but Zerttew has begun to invest in the research and development work that will be necessary to transition from its extractive industry business to fully-fledged manufacturing. “Why shouldn’t a Zimbabwean business be able to sell direct to customers such as Tesla?”, he asks.
Why not indeed. Africa, after all, is an increasingly important source of lithium. While Australia and South America dominate the global market – and China does much of the refining work – resources in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia and Mozambique are making an impact. Zimbabwean lithium will add to Africa’s contribution. Currently, however, no African business is involved in the value additive work of turning raw material into finished product.
Garacho thinks Zerttew’s lithium resource will have a lifespan of at least 12 years, which gives the business the time it needs to develop battery manufacturing capacity. And even after supplies are exhausted – assuming new resources are not identified – the business will have the option of buying lithium from other miners, including its African peers.
In the meantime, Zerttew’s efforts will support the “open for business” message that Zimbabwe’s political leaders are working very hard to get out to the rest of the world. While the country continues to face sanctions from Western governments, many of which date from concerns about the regime of President Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s international relations have eased under President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who is determined to attract foreign direct investment. Political issues remain to be addressed, but many in the country are hopeful that sanctions may soon be lifted.
For Garacho, a leading light of a new generation of Zimbabwean entrepreneurs and business leaders, the future looks bright – and he believes Zerttew can be part of a narrative of positive change. “It [value-additive manufacturing] has never been done before in Africa and we want to prove that Zimbabwe can do it,” he says. “It is an opportunity to tell a new story about Africa.”
Zerttew is in a strong position to grab that opportunity. Foreign investors in Zimbabwe typically expect domestic partners to put up their own capital too, which can prove challenging – but Zerttew has a good track record in this regard, with a financing arm that consistently raises funding to seed the company’s activities. The business is also well-diversified, with operations in agriculture and pharmaceuticals as well as mining.
Even in its mining unit, Garacho is keen to stress that lithium is not the only game in town for the company. “We wanted to do something greener and cleaner,” he says of the Zerttew’s lithium resource, “but we will also maintain our traditional mining interests”. In any case, as Garacho points out, materials such as copper have green use cases – they are crucial, for example, in the manufacturing of catalytic converters, which strip many of the harmful chemicals out of vehicle exhausts.
Still, it is definitely the lithium opportunity that most excites Garacho. “We want to get on top of this growth curve and ride it for some time,” he says. It’s an enticing prospect for Zerttew – and an opportunity to reframe the traditional view about where African businesses can excel.