How Africa can corner a tenth of the world battery metals market – if being brave favours Fortune!

By Chris Bishop

Slender and snappily dressed Fortune Mojapelo was bent on living up to his first name when I met him at the Mining Indaba in Cape Town; his optimism left you feeling that fate, as well as fortune, would favour the brave. The young mining entrepreneur had a dream to capture a tenth of the multi-billion dollar world market for battery metals, his only concern was that Africa would not be able to keep up with demand. Weeks later, a bolt struck from the blue – COVID-19.

There is no doubt that the disruption of COVID-19 has set back the dream, but Mojapelo is far from giving up.He says his vanadium open cast operation at Bushveld Minerals, just outside Brits west of Johannesburg, has ramped back up to full production ahead of a multi-million dollar investment to supply more battery metals to the world.

More than 90% of the world’s vanadium is used in reinforced steel, but a growing percentage is used to make batteries for electric cars and energy storage. Bushveld Minerals, which listed on AIM in London in 2017, exports to the United States, China and Europe in a market that is likely to expand rapidly over the next few years. The rush for battery metals is expected to see the world market increase 122 times in the next 20 years. An expansion likely to attract $660 billion in capital expenditure to unearth cobalt, lithium and vanadium  

“I can say, do we have a good business: yes. Are we in distress? No. We have a lot of work to do things are going to get worse before they get better,” says Mojapelo who will appear on CNBC Africa’s Business Tomorrow virtual web discussion at 1400 CAT on May 26.

“We are bullish, yet we are cautious and realistic about the short term, but we think the world will revive and still need reinforced steel. In the post- COVID-19 world we believe it will be moving even faster towards a de carbonised future and renewable energy and we think this is fairly positive.”   

 Mojapelo, who grew up in a township near Kwe Kwe in Zimbabwe before studying actuarial science at the University of Cape Town, wants his company to spend at least $100 million over the next four years in increasing his vanadium output through cash, debt instruments and borrowing on the money markets. The plan is to treble production to 8400 mt in the next five years to capture more of the world battery metals market. The company currently supplies 3% of world demand and hopes to expand this to 10% even in the face of COVID-19.

“The only caution is, are we going to do it in the same five year ramp up? Is this going to happen? I think it is going to be impacted especially when it comes to fund raising. We are going to go to the market at a certain point, when you need money, but you can’t bank on when it is going to return to normal. Some projects we have pushed out by up to a year.”

It is a brave man who will put his money into long term investments in the world of COVID-19. Clearly, Fortune favours the brave.

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