C opper is one of Zambia’s most important exports and, in many ways, the lifeblood of our economy. Zambia is not alone in this, however. There are many countries in the world where copper is an important export and contributes to tax and employment, including Chile, Canada, Australia, and our neighbour, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The amount of copper to be found in a mine is important, but what is also central is the grade of copper. Generally speaking, the higher the grade of copper available, the more profitable it is to mine. How is this calculated? Well, grade is just another way of talking about the weight of copper. For example, if you mine 1 000 kilograms of rock, and 30 kilograms is made up of copper, then the average grade would be 3%. The global average grade of copper ores today is about 0.6% (meaning for every 1 000 kilograms of rock mined six kilograms will be copper).

Where are the world’s highest-grade copper mines? Are any in Zambia?

Zambian mines have lower grades of copper but they still contribute to the country’s economy and exports, and act as major partner in development.
  1. Sepon, Laos

The copper mine with the tenth-highest grade of copper in the world is found in southern Laos, a country in south-east Asia. An open-pit mine, the grade of copper found there is about 2.7%. It is partly owned by the government of Laos, who owns 10% of the mine, with the rest of the mine being owned by MMG, which has its headquarters in Melbourne, Australia. The company has mines all over the world, including in Africa.

  1. Chibuluma, Zambia

This mine, which has an average copper grade of 3%, is a shining example of a well-run, profitable enterprise. Chibuluma, which is a relatively small mine by Zambian standards, has paid over $100 million in tax since 2007, and has had one fatality in eight years.

  1. Kinsevere, DRC

Kinsevere in the DRC is the second mine to be owned by MMG. Another open-pit mine, it is found close to Lubumbashi, the second-largest city in the DRC, which is very close to the border with Zambia. MMG has owned the mine since 2012, taking it over from a Canadian company, Anvil. The grade of copper found at Kinsevere is 3.5%.

  1. Reed, Canada

Reed mine, in Manitoba in Canada, began operations in 2013 and the average grade of copper at the mine is 4.1%. The mine faced some unique challenges as it is located on the edge of a Canadian national park. The mine had to be built so as not to affect the habitat of the caribou, as reindeer are known in Canada. Sound-reducing enclosures were also constructed for the mine’s generators, to reduce noise that could disturb the local wildlife and visitors to the park.

  1. KOV, DRC

KOV is an opencast mine and is the largest high-grade copper operation in the world. Its primary shareholders are Glencore and Gécamines, the Congolese state-owned mining company. The average grade of copper at KOV is 4.2%.

  1. CSA, Australia

Our tour of the world’s highest-grade copper mines now moves to Australia. CSA, which is in the state of New South Wales is another underground mine, where the average copper grade is 4.3%. The mine has been in operation for a long time – nearly 150 years! People first started mining at the site in 1871, with major operations commencing in 1964. It is primarily a copper mine, but silver can also be found there.

  1. Degrussa, Australia

We stay in Australia for our next mine, which is found in the west of the country, in the state of Western Australia. Average grade at this mine is 4.4%. The mine came on stream quickly; copper was discovered in 2009, and mining operations began in 2012. It was initially an opencast mine, but is now an underground operation. About 20% of Degrussa’s energy requirements come from solar energy, reducing its carbon emissions by about 15%.

  1. Kinsenda, DRC

The DRC has a third entry on our list, with Kinsenda mine. It is very close to Kasumbalesa, a town on the Zambian border, and is owned by a South African company, Metorex. The average grade of copper at this mine is 4.8%. It is another underground mine and operations are expected to continue until 2025.

  1. Las Cruces, Spain

Las Cruces is the first European mine on our list. It is owned by First Quantum Minerals (FQM), which operates a number of mines in Zambia. Average copper grade at this opencast mine is 5%. Operations began in 2009 and are expected to continue until 2022. Thanks to innovative technology at the mine, copper cathode produced at the mine is very pure. According to FQM, copper cathode produced at Las Cruces reaches a maximum quality of 99.9% copper.

  1. Sudbury, Canada

The mine with the highest grade of copper in the world is Sudbury (also known as Victoria) in Canada, where the grade of ore is nearly 8%. The underground mine is found in a unique geological area, caused by a meteorite crashing into Earth nearly 2 billion years ago.  One of Sudbury’s main shareholders is KGHM, which has its roots in a Polish state mining company. Although the deposit has an extremely high ore grade it has been beset by a number of problems, delaying full operations.

Only one Zambian mine makes our list, as Zambia’s copper grades are generally reduced after many decades of mining. Modern Zambian mining operations have become highly efficient, to make do with reduced ore grades, and remain a major contributor to the country’s economy and exports. The average growth of the Zambian mining industry between 2017 and 2021 is expected to be about 5.5%, meaning that the sector will continue to be a vital contributor to employment and the broader economy.

 See also: The world’s biggest copper mines