Beneath the surface of its latest economic crisis, Zimbabwe has been quietly positioning itself as a future major exporter of chromium to the insatiable Chinese market.

Chinese demand for chromium is mainly driven by stainless steel, of which it is the world’s largest consumer. The country does not have its own chromium reserves and relies on imports. Chromium is concentrated in South Africa, Kazakhstan, India, Zimbabwe, the US and Turkey. South Africa is the largest producer of chrome, and a majority of the country’s production goes to China.

Zimbabwe has the world’s second-largest chromium reserve, with about 12% of the global total, Technavio says in its report Global Ferrochrome Market Analysis – Size, Growth, Trends, and Forecast 2019–2023.

  • The company forecasts that Chinese demand will stay firm in the coming years due to increased infrastructure spending, such as on urban rail projects.

That means that China needs to diversify its sources of chromium and ferrochrome (an alloy of chromium and iron). Zimbabwe is well placed to benefit.

  • Zimbabwe almost doubled its production of ferrochrome to 300,000tn in 2017, according to Technavio.
  • “Availability of chrome ores, increasing investment from companies and supportive government initiatives are expected to boost the [Zimbabwe’s] production of ferrochrome substantially during the next 10 years,” Technavio says.

Zimbabwe’s government has facilitated investment, last year reducing electricity tariffs for chromium miners from 8.7 cents to 6.7 cents per kilowatt-hour. From a low base, Chinese ferrochrome imports from Zimbabwe increased 68.6% in 2017, while imports from established South African suppliers stagnated.

Chinese industrial buyers and South African miners alike are alive to the potential.

  • In 2018, China’s Tsingshan signed a $1bn agreement to build a steel plant in Zimbabwe.
  • The initial target set is to produce 1m tonnes of steel by 2022 and 2m tonnes by 2026.
  • Tsingshan also plans to build an industrial park in Zimbabwe.
  • Sinosteel of China is also investing $1bn in Zimbabwe to build a power plant and raise ferrochrome production to 300,000tn.

South African miner Tharisa, which is listed in Johannesburg and London, offers a possible play on the potential.

  • Tharisa in May bought a 90% stake in Salene Chrome Zimbabwe.
  • Tharisa says that Salene’s mine allows for production of 48%-50% chromium concentrate, beating the 40-42% level that it mines in South Africa.
  • That was followed in June when Tharisa bought a 26.8% stake in Karo Mining Holdings, a Zimbabwe project that could lead to new chromium and platinum-group-metal projects.

Turning those projects into reality, of course, will be a complicated task. In 2018, African Chrome Fields, Zimbabwe’s largest chromium miner, launched a ferrochrome plant in Zimbabwe capable of producing 600tn per month.

  • But Roskill reports that the miner’s alluvial operations have been on hold since March. It says the company is restructuring to take account of “uncertain economic and financial conditions within Zimbabwe”.

Bottom line: Stability in Zimbabwe would put the country in pole position to take a bigger share of China’s chromium market.