The Ghana Minerals Commission confirmed to the media earlier this week that it has discovered lithium in commercial quantities in the Volta, Western, and Ashanti regions. While it is yet to release its projected value as it is yet to begin comprehensive exploration activities in the areas identified, it is clear that there is tremendous potential for the country and its people to benefit from the mineral’s extraction.
In fact, lithium has been called “white petroleum”, or “the gold of the 21st century”, and is used to power phones, computers, electric cars – any rechargeable battery device – as well as medicines such as mood stabilizing drugs. It is one of the 10 most expensive minerals on earth and its price has tripled to a record $12,000 a tonne in the last year as demand soars.
American automaker, Telsa’s, estimated production target for 500,000 electronic cars by 2020 could require as much lithium as is already currently being produced.
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It makes sense, then, that the government is excited about this discovery, as evidenced by the statement by the Chief Executive of the Minerals Commission Mr Kwaku Addai Antwi Boasiako:
The mining activities will start but we want to attract investments into the Volta Region, that is where we have the Lithium and all these rare minerals. These are the minerals of the future. Lithium is about green energy and renewable energy. So if you have lithium and all these rare minerals in the Volta Region, you will want to expand the base of mineral production. The presence of these minerals is as important as having the money to mine them… for now, we know we have it.
But, this excitement around the discovery of Ghana’s lithium is reminiscent of the jubilation around the discovery of oil and gas in the country in 2007, and unless properly managed, lithium’s discovery might lead to disappointment for the populace who could expect riches.
A citizen-first approach to mineral management
The Ghana Minerals Commission says it plans to publish the mineral map of the country so that individual cosigners can apply to take charge of them. It will also take the license application online so as to prevent corruption. Finally, Boasiako says the commission is in the process of setting up 14 new satellite stations to monitor the discovery sites and deter illegal miners from encroaching on them.
“…if we [authorities] don’t block it and give it the prominence it deserves, then we are going to lose it because this is the first time of hearing that the Volta Region is as good as any other region in terms of minerals”, he said.
But it can and should do even more besides what has been outlined for the public. Taking Argentina and Chile, the first and second largest producers of lithium respectively, as case studies, the best course of action is to also do the following: The government should develop a comprehensive policy on its long-term strategy for the mineral’s extraction and share this policy with shareholders and citizens to ensure accountability.
The policy should include estimated quantities of the mineral, a plan and criteria for selecting strategic partners, both local and foreign, regulatory framework, terms for competition, as well as ways to build a local value-added industry. Ghana should not just or only export the raw material. Like Chile, it must be intentional about developing some consumer products – such as batteries – from the minerals at home.
As Argentina’s recent talent dilemmas prove, the government should also begin finding and developing local talent for the mineral extraction, now, rather than later – lest it faces a problem of having to get foreign workers for a plan that can benefit the community tremendously through jobs. As John Kanellitsas, Lithium Americas’ president, explained on the “arms race for engineers”: “Generic mining experience is insufficient. This is not copper or gold. Every lithium project is a bespoke chemical plant.”