RioZim re-opens Empress Nickel Refinery

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Walter Muchinguri and Kudakwashe Mhundwa
Diversified mining group, RioZim Ltd has re-opened its Empress Nickel Refinery after a four-year hiatus with indications that the plant will reach full production soon.

The mining company’s chairman Lovemore Chihota said the restart, which is being done in phases, has already created over 100 jobs.

“Am happy to say that we have opened part of Empress Nickel Refinery creating about 160 jobs.

“We are opening it in phases, we have opened phase one and we will be opening other phases soon. But this depends on a number of factors; the availability of raw materials and repairing of the plant itself. The important thing is that we have opened the plant and there is a great deal of excitement,” said Chihota in an interview.

RioZim chief executive Bheki Nkomo said they had only reignited the furnace and were processing dumps.

“We re-opened the furnace part last month and we are processing flag so that we get money to finance the plant’s care and maintenance,” he said. Nkomo said that although they had just restarted production the levels were within their projections.

“We are still doing a trial run but our production is slightly above our plans although I cannot give more details,” he said. He added that they were looking at reaching full production this  month.

“We are going to have our first full production this month. We will be able to discuss the project in detail at the end of the month,” he said. Nkomo said that they were still negotiating with several suppliers for ore. He however, declined to disclose specific details on the identity of the suppliers.

The restart of ENR will see RioZim’s entire workforce increasing from around 1 900 people to about 2 300. The diversified miner has been considering the possibility of using the refinery for platinum refining.

Rio general manager for base metals Claver Kariwo said that they were in talks with a platinum miner, without disclosing the identity of the miner.

“We’re looking to re-open the smelter in the next three months and are in discussion with a potential supplier of platinum group metals,” he said.

Zimbabwe doesn’t have facilities to process the ore locally and sends it to plants in South Africa. The Government has told producers including Anglo American Platinum Ltd, the largest, and Zimplats Ltd that they must work toward smelting the metal locally or face penalties.

According to the mining group the ENR operation is symbolic of its journey from inception in 1956.

The company initially started as a nickel and copper refinery and grew steadily with the purchase of the Cam and Motor mine in 1959, and the Sandawana Emerald mine in 1961, establishing itself as a major operator in the country.

In 1964 the company’s attentions returned to the ENR body when nickel prices firmed and in 1967 the company produced the first nickel refined on a commercial basis in the country.

ENR enjoyed strong success, but by 1982 the deposits at ENR were all but depleted, forcing the refinery to be shut down.

However, recognising the value of the expertise that had been developed at ENR, RioZim approached a Swiss company, Centametall, in order to facilitate the purchase of matte from Botswana, which became the basis for a toll-refining contract between RioZim and BCL.

However, failure by BLC formerly Bamangwato Concessions Ltd of Botswana to supply matte resulted in Empress Nickel Refinery being placed under care and maintenance in 2013. BCL has since been liquidated after running into operational problems.

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