EDITORIAL COMMENT: New fertiliser factory  most welcome

A NEW fertiliser factory opened in Norton on Saturday, capable of supplying around 15 percent of the national market, and bringing in a new and extra investor into the sector as Zimbabwe continues to build its inputs industries through its pro-investment strategy.

Demand for fertiliser is rising sharply and has reached 630 000 tonnes a year as more farmers embrace the range of input-supply schemes run by Government and processing companies in the private sector and as these same business-orientated farmers expand their hectarages. So the new investment and new factory is needed and most welcome.

The investor, Heliconvest Investment, considers the new plant to be just the first phase and has plans for expansion.

The factory will be processing a wide range of compound fertilisers as well as Urea as a nitrogen rich top dressing and calcium nitrate, a component in many fertilisers.

This means that while some raw materials can come from local sources, many will have to be imported. It is still worth while to do a lot of processing locally, since the final bagged products are often bulkier than the raw materials, so transport costs are reduced. And it always makes sense that the processing charges, which are largely labour, should be incurred in Zimbabwe and so provide new jobs.

Zimbabwe is largely self-sufficient in phosphates, thanks to the major deposit at Dorowa, and mining and processing can be expanded. But it seems sensible for others to start looking for a decent second deposit.

Potassium salts have not been found in Zimbabwe, although there has not been much prospecting for these. It would seem to be a good idea for geologists to start thinking where in Zimbabwe such minerals could have accumulated and for a decent prospecting drive at the most hopeful sites. Minerals that no one expected in Zimbabwe, such as diamonds and petroleum products, have been discovered, hence the need to start listing where potassium minerals might be discovered.

Besides urea, most nitrogen fertilisers are based on ammonia. Zimbabwe used to make a lot of ammonia once, through a well-known but usually uneconomic process. This was liquefying air to separate out the nitrogen, with oxygen as the main waste product, and electrolysing water to extract hydrogen, again with oxygen as the waste product. That waste oxygen could be sold to Zisco.

Sable chemicals started doing this during the UDI era when Kariba South power station could generate more electricity than the country then needed. Capco, the owners of the power station, had the option of opening flood gates to release surplus water, or making a little extra money with a special rate, especially at night, for Sable. So Sable was able to buy cheap electricity.

As Zimbabwe moved from a hydro-electric surplus, to using more coal-thermal power and then the climate change seeing less hydro power, cheap electricity at odd hours ceased being a possibility and the economics of the particular ammonia manufacture made it no longer a practical proposition.

The odd country with surplus hydro-power still uses that process, but Zimbabwe is no longer one of those countries so has to obtain ammonia from the most common method. This uses natural gas and we import the ammonia, with Mozambique being a major supplier.

Here the Muzarabani gas strike makes local production a possibility again, and this needs to be explored with all the decisions made while the commercial drilling and exploitation of the natural gas is being arranged.

Sable has expressed interest in a pipeline to Kwekwe, but we feel that all possibilities should be examined. The natural gas strike will almost certainly be fuelling a power station, and we assume liquid petroleum gases and even helium will be extracted from the gas. All this will require a gas-based industrial centre a lot closer to the gas field, perhaps Bindura, perhaps Murehwa, perhaps a brand new town or city.

That town or city is likely to become the centre of Zimbabwe’s chemical industry as the gas and condensate strike builds up supplies of raw materials. Considering the rise of electric vehicles, there is a fairly good chance that a petrol and diesel refinery will not be a very good idea, by the time the investment possibility arises, but the condensates, the liquid part of the strike, could be used to fuel a wide range of chemical products. Even if the fuel refinery is built, there will still be a chemical industry.

So with that nascent chemical city, it could well be cheaper to move the ammonium nitrate plant to that new city than bring the gas to Kwekwe. The calculations need to be done and all options examined before the best one is chosen.

One important factor in all Zimbabwean agricultural products is to keep costs down. Zimbabwean farmers can grow a lot of things, but at a price. There is the cost of fertiliser and the latest and best varieties of seed, with new varieties tending to cope with the short seasons we now have to cope with.

Then Zimbabwean farmers need to spend rising sums on irrigation, and on electricity to run the pumps and irrigation equipment. So we need to figure out how to keep the costs of each of these inputs as low as possible, which is why some extra competition is more than welcome.

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