SA’s Manganese refining pioneer set to electrify West’s quest to diversify from China – CEO Louis Nel

A manganese refinery near the Kruger National Park, known as the Manganese Metal Co (MMC), is poised to benefit from the West’s desire to detach itself from China’s supply. Located in the rural town of Mbombela, MMC is one of just a handful of refiners of battery-grade manganese outside China. MMC CEO Louis Nel told Biznews in an interview that the exponential growth of lithium-ion batteries in electric vehicles enhances the prospects for the company and has resulted in a steady flow of Western automakers knocking on its doors, looking to decouple from China. He did not want to comment on whether it includes Tesla but said that most pre-eminent automotive producers have come calling. When it comes to price, Nel said that it was hard to compete with China, but there was a market for an alternative product with a smaller environmental footprint. – Linda van Tilburg

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Relevant timestamps from the interview

  • 00:11 – Introduction
  • 00:31 – Overview of Manganese Mining Company
  • 01:18 – Demand for Manganese Metal from Automakers
  • 02:21 – Competition from Junior Miners
  • 03:25 – Price Competition with China
  • 03:57 – Unique Selling Point of Manganese Metal Company
  • 06:00 – Legislation and Incentives in the US and Europe
  • 07:37 – Customer Base and Premium Pricing
  • 08:54 – Challenges of Operating in South Africa
  • 10:35 – Government Support and Beneficiation
  • 13:24 – Interest from Automotive Producers
  • 14:37 – Conclusion

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Excerpts from the Interview

The only real competition outside China, electric vehicle revolution increases growth prospects

Over the past decade, we’ve observed a significant shift in our product portfolio towards battery sales, specifically lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles. The prospects are promising. In the next 10 to 20 years, we anticipate exponential growth in the electric vehicle sector. We are one of a few manganese refiners outside of China, and as such, many Western producers are seeking to reduce their reliance on China for their supply. They have limited options when looking for refined manganese.

There are several junior miners raising capital, setting up demo facilities, and making announcements. We are more than willing to cooperate with these juniors. The world needs more non-Chinese supply. Currently, about 95% of all manganese refining happens in China. Until we have more refiners outside of China, OEMs will remain heavily dependent on China. We welcome the emergence of these juniors and are open to cooperating with most, if not all of them. We view this as healthy competition. We are the incumbent outside of China, and our 50-year track record puts us in a strong position.

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Can’t Compete with Chinese Prices, but Western clients are prepared to pay the premium

If I were to identify our unique selling point, it would be that we are a non-Chinese producer. We firmly believe that we manufacture the best manganese metal available globally. Our product is 99.9% pure manganese metal, produced through a process that does not involve selenium. Most, if not all, Chinese producers use selenium in their process, which gives them a significant energy advantage, probably making them about 30% more efficient. However, the selenium is absorbed into the product and makes its way into the final product as well as the production process. We produce the world’s best manganese metal, operating according to Western business principles.

We have close relationships with our customers across various geographical territories. We do not sell exclusively via agents. Instead, we employ a business-to-business marketing model where we understand the needs of our 120 customers, and what they use the product for, and then tailor the product to meet those needs.

On the environmental side, we’ve been operating for quite some time, and the legislation in South Africa is reasonably strict, comparable to first-world standards. The environmental footprint of our operations is certainly one of the benefits when selling to the Western world.

US legislation benefits MMC 

We have two pieces of legislation that are particularly relevant to our business. Historically, the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) has been important for us. We receive a duty benefit when shipping our manganese metal into the United States, which makes us more competitive against China. So, this act is important for us as a South African producer for our current product. For our future participation in the Lithium-Ion Battery Space, the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) in the United States is an important piece of legislation that aids us as a producer. Of course, this is incentivising. 

The Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) in North America are encouraged to source non-Chinese entities or countries of concern for their raw materials as well as their products, with China being one of them. So, I think that this piece of legislation and incentive in America certainly has a lot of upside for us as a non-Chinese producer. Europe, in the same vein, is looking at decoupling their resources. They are reliant on China and are implementing legislation and measures to ensure stricter control over materials coming in from China.

SA rail and power supply is challenging, but “we’re resilient” 

We are a private South African company that has grown up in South Africa. By definition, we are resilient, even when operating in a less-than-perfect economic climate. Despite the challenges, which certainly don’t make doing business easier, we are coping and learning that complaining doesn’t help. We just need to get on with the task at hand. Rail is a good example.

Established in 1974, we were initially a business entirely dependent on rail operations. All incoming and outgoing logistics were rail-based. We have an operating and active rail siding, but post-COVID, we haven’t shipped or railed a single container to Durban. Currently, most of our ore from Hotazel and the Kalahari is trucked on the road. This is not ideal for our country’s road infrastructure or road users, but as a business, that’s what we need to do to keep going. We’ve significantly increased our stock holding in all critical materials. We carry more stock than we traditionally did in almost all our reagents and raw materials. We make plans as we go along.

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SA Government should do more to promote beneficiation, a quick way to create jobs

We are a product of government incentives. In the early 70s, we were established in Nelspruit, primarily due to government incentives to promote business. Our business was started with funding from the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) in the early 70s, so our history is tied to the IDC. Over the last 10 years, we’ve seen increased attention to the green economy in the political arena in South Africa, as well as globally. We’re seeing that political players are starting to develop policies and frameworks around businesses that participate in this area. MMC is a business that is already contributing in this space, so there’s interest rather than help.

We are a proudly South African company. For the last 13 years, we have been privately held by South Africans and operate exclusively in South Africa. We beneficiate 80,000 tons of manganese annually and create 600 jobs in Nelspruit. The impact is much larger if you consider the inferred jobs being created. 

I think beneficiation is something our government should promote. It’s one of the quickest ways of creating jobs and financial prosperity for the people of South Africa. We certainly believe that beneficiation is something we should look at. It’s not easy. In many cases, beneficiation comes with an electricity bill and everyone knows what the challenges with Eskom are. However, I still believe there are opportunities to beneficiate in South Africa, and we plan to continue to beneficiate for the next 15 years.  

Has Tesla come calling?

We’ve signed many NDAs and most of your preeminent automotive producers have come calling, so I’ll leave it at that.

Looking at expansion into manganese sulphate

Our traditional markets are in the steel and aluminium businesses, and with those, I think we are comfortable with where we are at the moment, so we don’t see particular growth in those spaces. About a quarter of our product has over the last 10 years made its way into the lithium-ion battery space for electric vehicles. Of course, there’s huge growth potential in that space. We are looking at a Brownfields expansion of 5,000 tons of manganese sulphate. The end product is similar to what they do with our manganese metal, and our intention is to start a 5,000 ton brownfields plant on our current footprint, utilising all the infrastructure, all the legislation, and permitting that is in place. So, our first expansion option is to venture into manganese sulphate and from there to look at scaling that and see where that goes.

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