Coal demand picks up for Mchenga mine in Malawi
…Firm survives competition from imports
…Our coal is of high quality – Manager
By Chiku Jere
After years of uncertainty for Malawi’s ailing coal industry, a rare glimmer of hope has emerged as Mchenga Coal Mine is reportedly registering a pick in business since last year, with soaring demand for its coal mainly coming from the tobacco industry.
This was learnt last month when a team from Malawi Chamber of Mines and Energy toured the mine as part of a fact-finding visit to Northern Region-based mining sites.
Malawi’s coal industry, used to be one of the largest employers until it was brought to its knees by the uncontrolled influx of coal imports from Mozambique’s Moatize coalfield, which choked the market for local producers resulting in closure of over three quarters of the mines located in the northern coal fields.
What could well be described as the country’s coal industry crisis saw the folding up of operations by five once thriving mines such as Mwaulambo, Nkhachira, Jalawe, Lisikwa, Njati and DDY Trading, a situation which compelled some quarters to conclude that this was the demise of the industry.
The situation got even worse when Tanzania imposed affirmative coal import restrictions that blocked Malawi miners from exporting coal to the East African neighbouring country.
However, last month’s visit to Mchenga Coal Mine located in Chiweta escarpment in Rumphi presented reassuring news that there was still hope for the industry which was almost written off.
Mchenga Coal Mine Manager Johnson Dandadzi acknowledged that the mine was not spared from the problems that led to the closure of the other mines, particularly market challenges, to the extent that they also were toying with the idea of closing shop until late last year when things took a positive turn.
The situation was dire during year 2015 through to mid 2016. Things were really bad for us until August 2016 when there was a sudden upsurge in demand and orders for our coal, which is of high quality,
The manager said the demand has been encouraging since then, with major orders coming from the tobacco industry, especially during peak tobacco harvesting period which falls between the months of May and October.
With the current trend, this is going to be a better year for business and we expect much better years to come,
He also said that they are looking for funding to invest in a new mine by next year as the current mine reserve is almost depleted.
Mchenga, which is one of the oldest coal mines, boosts of customers spread throughout Malawi in various industries such as tobacco processing, poultry, beverage, steel and textile.
Coal at Mchenga Mine is extracted using Room and Pillar method, which involves the application of underground working variation of Bord and Pillar configurations, a competitive method in ground control measures for stability and safety.
Mchenga Coal Mine is situated in Livingstonia Coalfields, 120km from Mzuzu City off M1 Road.
The mine concession area stretches through Rumphi Valley covering 17km in length by 5km width and hosts sub-bituminous coal measures in Karoo sedimentary rocks of Permian age.
The sediments constitute many types and hues of layers of beds of grits, mudstones, siltstones, bones, arkoses and sandstones laid down in varying thicknesses which have undergone intense faulting due to proximity to the Malawi Rift System.
To date, exploration has identified sixteen coal seams of varying thicknesses with varying Ash Content Range of 14-24%, Moisture Content Range of 1-3.5%, Volatile Matter Range of 20-36%; Fixed Carbon Range of 50-62% and Calorific Content Range from 50000-74000k/cal/kg.
Coal mining at the mine started in 1987 through a Cooperation Protocol between Malawi and French Government and a state mining company, Mining Investment and Development Corporation (MIDCOR), operated the mine from 1988 to 1995 before the Malawi Development Corporation (MDC)/Indebank Consortium bought it.
Coal Products Limited (CPL) currently owns the mine after it took over from (MDC)/Indebank Consortium in 1999 through a bidding process conducted as part of Government’s privatisation exercise.
Currently, the company has 250 employees plus 30 casual labourers who work in shifts, and its production fluctuates between 2000 and 3500 tons per month.
This piece was initially published in Malawi’s Mining & Trade Review Issue Number 49 (May 2017).