The 8 May 2022 announcement that Enterprise Nickel Mine would be brought online within 12 months after a final $100 million cash injection from First Quantum Minerals (FQM) was met with much fanfare, during a buoyant week for Zambia at the Investing in African Mining Indaba. Mining For Zambia takes a look at the progress that has been made in the weeks following the news, and the impact that a large-scale nickel mining operation will have on North-Western Province and Zambia as a whole.
Fifteen kilometres from First Quantum Minerals’ (FQM’s) Sentinel Mine, within the Trident mining complex, lies the mining pit from where 35,000 annual tonnes of the nickel concentrate of Zambia’s future will soon be produced. The open pits at Sentinel copper mine and Enterprise are joined by an unsurfaced road which was laid back in 2015 when Sentinel was built. “The idea is that we will mine nickel ore using the ore ROM pad at Enterprise itself, re-handle it, and then truck it across to Sentinel to be processed,” explains Junior Keyser, General Manager of the soon-to-be operational mine.
Building the two mines within close reach of one another – and jointly constructing two processing plants for each of the two minerals that will be mined – has been key to FQM’s goal of running a productive nickel mine since the Trident Project was first conceived. By 2015, the construction of the $2.1-billion Sentinel copper mine had been completed and an additional $200 million investment made into Kalumbila, the town that now serves the Trident mining complex and the flourishing community that has sprung up around it.
But falling nickel prices from 2015 onwards, coupled with Zambia’s unfavourable mining regime in recent years, halted the prospect of raising the additional investment required to bring Enterprise online, and the completion of Sentinel went ahead without that of its nickel-mining counterpart.
“Back in 2015, we started waste stripping at Enterprise but we never got to the nickel,” explains Mr Keyser. “Because of the low nickel price at the time, we put the bulk of the process plant on care and maintenance.” Care and maintenance is the term used to describe the situation where one or more aspects of a mining operation are decommissioned, and only essential work to prevent damage to equipment and infrastructure is undertaken. Because the Enterprise plant adjoins Sentinel’s own plant, some parts of the former were used to assist in processing a small amount of copper but, for the time being, that was all that it was good for.
“Now the big drive is to finish off the plant’s construction to get it commissioned this year,” says Keyser.
Day-to-day at Enterprise
Waste stripping is the task of the day – and it’s a task of mammoth proportions. Essentially, millions of tonnes of near-surface level rock (regarded as “waste material”) needs to be dug up and transported elsewhere before any of the nickel ore in the pit becomes accessible. “The bulk of the activity at Enterprise is waste stripping – meaning that we move a lot of waste material to get to the production stage. Enterprise is a deposit with a fairly high strip ratio,” says Mr Keyser.
‘Strip ratio’ refers to the proportion of waste material that must be moved for every tonne of nickel ore that can be produced. “Over the life of mine we’re talking about something like a 12:1 strip ratio. That’s twelve parts waste to one part nickel ore.”
If it weren’t for the fact that the nickel deposits at Enterprise are of a relatively high (about 0.9%) nickel grade, it wouldn’t justify the cost of all the waste mining. What is the lion’s share of the $100 million investment in Enterprise being spent on? Paying contractors to mine waste material, as part of the stripping process.
There is a silver lining to the Enterprise deposit’s high strip ratio. Unlike the material that surrounds Sentinel, Enterprise’s waste rock is very “competent,” explains Mr Keyser. “It can actually be used to build proper haul roads to give our operators a stable mining environment to work in, because of the integrity of the host rock that is being mined.”
All roads lead to Sentinel
“We’re about 25% done with the pre-stripping,” says Mr Keyser. “Once we start mining nickel ore, we will then transport it on a haul road to Sentinel for processing.”
But first things first: a haul road. “We’ve got a rough road which was built as part of the original Enterprise project, and now we need to surface that so we can haul [ore and waste rock] through the wet season and dry season without causing too much dust or mud,” says Mr Keyser. “Building a haul road between Sentinel and Enterprise for transportation of the ore is one of the big ticket items, and that is progressing well. It’s about 10% complete, and we aim to have it done by Christmas 2022.”
“Building a haul road between Sentinel and Enterprise for transportation of the ore is one of the big ticket items, and that is progressing well.”
Jobs on the horizon
Once fully operational, Enterprise will create approximately 700 new jobs, and recruitment is well underway. Some low key infrastructure such as diesel tanks and a couple of offices is also still needed at the mine itself.
“We want to have the processing plant recommissioned by around Christmas time so that we can get into a stable [production] ramp-up from February 2023 onwards. We’re aiming to mine the first ore in the first half of next year. We’re in line with, or slightly ahead of schedule,” says Mr Keyser.
In the meantime, it is hoped that His Excellency President Hichilema will attend Enterprise’s formal ‘ground breaking’ ceremony, scheduled to take place towards the end of July 2022.
The dawn of large-scale minerals diversification
The mine is set up to produce in the region of four million tonnes of nickel ore per annum, with the process plant yielding a peak of 35,000 tonnes of nickel concentrate from around 2025. Classified as a critical mineral, nickel has strategic importance in fuelling the economy of the future, in particular as a key battery metal. Enterprise’s high-grade nickel sulphide deposits provide precisely the type of nickel that is required to manufacture batteries for Electric Vehicles (EVs). Even as technology for EVs has advanced, nickel has come along for the ride, and most Lithium-ion (Li-on) batteries today – which are powerful enough to propel any EV – rely on nickel, too. The EV battery sector’s demand for high-grade nickel is only picking up speed, with supply deficits that may now become reality even sooner than forecasted.
The Zambian operation will join the world’s top-10 nickel mines, making the country Africa’s leading nickel producer.
But Enterprise Nickel Mine represents much more than a major foray into a new, untapped mineral. It is a bold step toward mineral diversification in an environment where copper is, and has always been, king. The opening of Enterprise will signal the beginning of the end of Zambia’s economic dependence upon the copper mining industry, a goal on which the New Dawn Government has placed great emphasis.
It also means that the Zambian operation will join the world’s top-10 nickel mines, making the country Africa’s leading nickel producer.
With the sufficient capital and foresight that has characterised the development of Kalumbila, we can expect to see more and more private investment into independent businesses that will ultimately sustain the town beyond the life of the mines for which it was developed. The Multi Facility Economic Zone (MFEZ) which Government has envisaged within Kalumbila will be a critical step towards the fulfilment of the ambitious concept that first inspired Kalumbila Town. It will allow for the development of local supply chains near both Enterprise and the growing Sentinel copper mine.
“We are full steam ahead,” says Mr Keyser. And one thing is certain: this drive toward Zambia’s next chapter could not come at a better time.
See also: Nurturing Nickel