Hungry for knowledge, hungry for change: How capacity building of the ASM sector can drive progress on the ground

Lithium is at the forefront of the clean energy transition. In this article, Robin Gilli, geologist and project manager at the World Resources Forum, takes us on a tour of the world of lithium in Zimbabwe and how the artisanal and small scale mining (ASM) sector can play an important role in sourcing this highly critical material. Explore lithium’s geology, why it is so critical and how capacity building can, not only support the ASM sector’s incorporation into responsible mineral value chains, but in turn facilitate positive improvements in their economic realities.

What’s all the fuss about lithium?

Some call it the “new-”or “white oil”, some call it the “white gold” or the “new gold rush”, whatever you call it, lithium is currently in high demand and has generated a lot of buzz in the world of green energy. The majority of this fuss centers around an ever increasingly important product called the Lithium-Ion Battery (LIB). These powerhouse rechargeable batteries currently electrify our lives and the batteries found in our cellphones, our laptops and our gadgets. Perhaps even more importantly, LIBs are primarily utilized in our electric vehicles (eV) and are the battery of choice for energy storage produced from solar panels.

LIBs have high energy densities, meaning they can store a large amount of energy, are long lasting, relatively light weight and can charge quickly.Thus, LIBs are becoming increasingly important for renewable energy and the phasing out of fossil fuels. To quote one of the inventors of the LIB, the Nobel Prize winning Professor John GoodenoughIf you’re going to have renewable energy…you need a battery where you can store it”. Indeed, this battery is now currently changing the landscape of energy and almost all but assuring a green future must include LIBs.

Don’t take it for granite

The geology of lithium ores is fascinating (admittedly, I say this about every element). Currently we are globally sourcing lithium primarily from two types of deposits, lithium brine deposits and lithium mineral bearing pegmatites. Brines deposits originate from groundwater from saline aquifers rich in lithium, that is then pumped to the surface and is allowed to evaporate, thereby concentrating the salt (Vera et al., 2023). The majority of the lithium from these vast lithium brines comes from a region in South America called the lithium triangle, consisting of Argentina, Chile and Boliva.

While interesting, I will leave the discussion on brine deposits for another discussion and instead focus on pegmatites. These exceptionally coarse-grained, intrusive igneous rock bodies are characterized by large interlocking crystals and often include rare minerals rich in lithium, cesium, tantalum, niobium and a host of other important elements (Shaw et al., 2022). Pegmatites tend to have granitic compositions but differ in that, as the classical explanation of their formation suggests, they are the last and most hydrous portion of the magma to crystalize (Phelps et al., 2020).

The most sought after lithium-bearing minerals in pegmatites are spodumene, followed by petalite and lepidolite. While pegmatites in general can be found in many regions around the world, the pegmatites of Africa, specifically those of Zimbabwe, have the potential to provide the world with a considerable amount of lithium.

No other country in Africa is known to have more lithium reserves than Zimbabwe. The country is naturally endowed with numerous pegmatites, thanks in part to the Zimbabwe Craton, the basement rock underlying the majority of the country. Many of these pegmatites scattered across the country contain lithium bearing mineral assemblages (Dittrich et al., 2019) and the country along with a handful of others, currently have the only operational lithium mines across the continent exporting ore (Masilela, 2023).

Together with large scale mining, the artisanal and small scale mining (ASM) sector is also extracting lithium in Zimbabwe, contributing to improved livelihoods of millions of people in the country. As with artisanal mining of other commodities, the ASM workers utilize rudimentary tools and methods to extract the lithium minerals from these hard rock pegmatites. The sector faces many challenges mining lithium pegmatites, such as unsafe conditions when digging shallow, unsupported underground mining, lack of water or sanitation near mining sites, and subsequent environmental degradation due to lack of knowledge on better practices (ZELA & AIEL, 2023). However, it is often said, that in many cases, it is precisely due to the ASM or community mining activities, that large, economically viable deposits of lithium or other valuable materials are discovered.

ASM Academy in Zimbabwe

In April 2024, the World Resources Forum, partners on the AfricaMaVal project, together with the Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association, the Zimbabwe School of Mines and with the Zimbabwe Association of Women in Mining Associations (ZAWIMA), organized an ASM Academy specifically for Zimbabwe’s lithium artisanal and small scale sector under the banner of “Making a Just Transition Inclusive for All: Empowering ASM to Actively Participate in the Lithium Value Chain”.

The themes in the capacity building ranged from: the laws governing the mining sector in Zimbabwe; what responsible sourcing means; safety and health; the technical aspects of mining, such as the geology of lithium, its value chain; mine development and surveying; production and beneficiation techniques; grading of ore; tailings and waste disposal, environmental management and very critically, business fundamentals, mining as a business, taxation, and what is needed for accessing finance.

The sessions were interactive, which was often driven by the participants themselves. They were open, fun and all in an atmosphere of co-creation of knowledge, where all participants, whether it be miner or trainer, learned from each other. I had the honour to provide the geology lecture where my passion for rocks and minerals could not be contained. ‘Learn to really see the rocks! Learn to really see the minerals!’, I repeated over and over again. The participants loved the geology.

Over the four days of lecture, laboratory exercises, and field visits, it became palpable that there was something growing in the minds of the miners. They realized that this knowledge could take them somewhere. The opportunities such information could present to them could be huge. The participants began discussing their own operations, brought samples to learn more about them, miners were discussing ways they could change how they operate, to have a safer work environment, mine more efficiently and in the end, be more financially successful. They knew this knowledge could begin to address their operational challenges. They were inspired to become an official part of the lithium value chain. The proverbial lightbulb in the students’ mind was being lit.

Geology Rocks

I have spent much of my career as a geologist in the field, logging rock cores on drill rigs, collecting samples. And there is one lesson I learned over and over again, all those years working with some talented drill rig operators. They were all geologists. Maybe they didn’t receive degrees, go to university, or know anything of the geochemistry behind the rock formation, but they knew the rocks and they knew how they behaved. They knew what they were looking at because they worked with them, day in and day out. They didn’t just look at the rocks, they learned to really see those rocks and minerals.

The ASM participants in the Academy and of the sector in general are in many ways the same. Even though for many people working in the sector, artisanal and small scale mining is a subsistence activity, that does not negate the experience they are gathering as practicing geologists. The sector in Zimbabwe and probably in many other countries around the world where ASM is active, should be seen as a resource. A workforce trained on the job that with investment, can become an important asset to its country’s economy.

Arming that workforce with the knowledge they need to work more effectively, work safely, and to consider the impact their operations have on the environment and improve them, can turn the ASM sector into a valuable economic resource. The benefits are many. Improvements to the livelihoods of the sector will in turn improve the surrounding communities and generate an increased revenue stream that can fund things like schools, public servants like teachers and firefighters, infrastructure, roads etc. In this way, knowledge really is power, and the possibilities are endless. To quote the great Nelson Mandela “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”. Indeed, sir. Onwards and upwards together.

References

Robin Gilli

World Resources Forum

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