ZAMBIA’S copper production is likely to remain below one million metric tonnes for at least another three years given the persistent challenges mining companies still face, says the Zambia Chamber of Mines.

Last week, Mines Minister Richard Musukwa announced that copper production had increased to 646,111.25 metric tonnes by September 30, this year, up from 590,321.13 tonnes in the same corresponding period last year, representing an increase of over 55,000 tonnes.

But Chamber president Goodwell Mateyo observed that while the marginal increment in copper productivity in the nine-month period this year would result in increased foreign exchange earnings, the country was not likely to hit the one million metric tonne mark over the medium-term period owing to the continued operational challenges the 10 large-scale mines still faced.

Zambia has remained behind the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) as Africa’s second highest copper producer after the latter eventually overtook the former back in 2013 for the first time since 1988 where it produced 900,000 metric tonnes of copper, registering a sharp rise and surpassing Zambia’s 754,916 tonnes seven years ago.

“In my estimate, I don’t see us getting to that (one million tonne) target in another three years or so because you need to really significantly invest in expansion projects within the operators and with Greenfield mines. And I don’t see, even if significant investment is made to expansion projects for current operations, you’d only be able to realise that at the very least in maybe, three-five years’ time,” Mateyo said in an interview.

He outlined that Zambia’s marginal rise in copper productivity in the three quarters ending September 30 did not reveal the full story of the ongoing operational challenges some mining companies faced.

“Speaking to the production figures, I do know that, as an industry, we are approximately 50-60,000 tonnes higher than we were last year. But it’s not the whole story; much of the increased production is coming from one or two mines in North-Western Province. If you look at it in terms of all the mines, most of the mines have suffered a decline in production. So, it doesn’t tell a story with what’s happening in the rest of the industry,” Mateyo said.

He explained that the majority of mining companies were struggling to ramp up production due the need to recapitalise their assets, but faced challenges due to Zambia’s poor investment climate, characterised by high costs of production.

“A lot of them need to invest into their current operations. But it’s difficult to attract investment in this jurisdiction under the current investment climate. Most of the ‘old Copperbelt’ are high cost operations so to get them to a point where their unit cost reaches a sustainable level; you need to have significant investment into their operations. But investment will come if the climate is attractive,” explained Mateyo, who, however, said power supply to mining companies had been stable this year despite the country’s ongoing power deficit.