Insight: Congo's neglected state miner hankers for past glory

Fri Feb 22, 2013 11:50am EST
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By Clara Ferreira-Marques and Jonny Hogg

KAMBOVE, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) - At the heart of the Democratic Republic of Congo's southern mining belt, Kambove once churned out tonne upon tonne of copper for Gecamines, a sprawling conglomerate that used to make up 60 percent and more of the country's exports.

Now, inside the rust-streaked corrugated iron walls of the Kambove copper plant, the conveyor belts run erratically and the corroded walkways have holes so large that visitors can see through to the workers milling below.

Today, like much of state-owned Gecamines, the processing operations are working at a fraction of their capacity, slowly crumbling in the searing African heat.

Kambove, however, is part of an ambitious government plan to put state-owned Gecamines back on the map as a miner and producer and reverse decades of underinvestment, war and kleptocracy presided over by the late dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.

Under technocrat managers appointed in 2010 and a plan laid out last year, Gecamines would no longer just hold minority shares in mines across Congo's south, but aim to triple its own production by 2015, thanks to investment in new machinery and a push into exploration. The group last month took its first minority stake in an asset outside Congo - cobalt refinery assets in Finland - a move it says will help raise and improve its bruised international profile.

"Gecamines has a great story," Chief Executive Officer Ahmed Kalej Nkand, a former central bank official, told a room of mining investors in Cape Town. "It is the story of a mining giant that is awakening from its slumber."

The ambition, Gecamines executives say, is to be an African Codelco, which is Chile's state copper miner and the world's largest producer of the metal, producing just under 1.7 million tonnes last year. That ambition is, at best, a very long way off. In its 1980s heyday, Gecamines made nearly 500,000 tonnes, but it reported only 35,000 tonnes in 2012, and its target of 100,000 tonnes in 2015 looks tough enough.

TIGHT FINANCES   Continued...

Gecamines' Shituru hydrometallurgical facility, which processes copper and cobalt, is seen in this general view, outside Likasi in the southern region of Katanga in the Democratic Republic of Congo, January 31, 2013. REUTERS/Jonny Hogg