Gecamines, the Democratic Republic of Congo's state-owned miner, is in talks to give China Nonferrous Metal Mining Group a majority stake in its most prospective copper asset.
CNMC will finance, build and operate a copper-processing facility at the Deziwa concession in return for a 51 percent stake in the project, Jean Dominique Takis, head of strategy, said in an interview Tuesday in the capital, Kinshasa. CNMC will be reimbursed for its investment in the plant, which should have an initial capacity of 80,000 metric tons a year, through an off-take agreement over an agreed period that wasn't specified, after which ownership of the project will be returned to Gecamines, Takis said.
The agreement is a "new type of partnership" designed to increase revenue in coming years, Gecamines Chairman Albert Yuma said last week.
Since Yuma's appointment in 2010, Gecamines has been trying to boost production after decades of dictatorship and war left its infrastructure destroyed and cash reserves depleted. The company has smaller minority stakes in copper and cobalt projects with companies including Phoenix-based Freeport McMoRan Inc. and Baar, Switzerland-based Glencore Plc that it says have failed to generate the funds required to restore the company's financial health, leading it to explore different types of partnerships.
The deal adds to the growing presence of Chinese miners in Congo's copper industry and follows the sale last month of Freeport McMoRan's Tenke Fungurume copper project to China Molybdenum Co. for $2.65 billion.
Gecamines currently has $1.58 billion of debt. In January 2013, it borrowed $196 million to acquire Deziwa, which it describes as its flagship project, stating that it would provide the reserves needed to reintroduce the company as a major producer. Until further details are published, the decision to give CNMC a 51 percent share in the project, even on a build-operate-transfer basis, may provoke criticism by advocacy groups that have already questioned Gecamines' plans.
The company says Deziwa has the potential to produce as much as 5 million tons of copper over the life of the project. Output in Congo, Africa's largest miner of the metal, was almost 1 million tons last year, of which Gecamines produced 18,836 tons.
"We discussed Deziwa with many investors, but at the end the company that showed the most interest and willingness to accept our conditions was CNMC," Takis said.
The total value of CNMC's investment and the repayment period, during which Gecamines won't receive a part of production, haven't been agreed yet, Takis said. Gecamines and CNMC expect to conclude the agreement this year, he said.
Advocacy groups including the Atlanta-based Carter Center and London-headquartered Global Witness have called on Gecamines to publish details of the deal and specifically the terms of an initial agreement signed with CNMC in January. A 2011 government decree requires that contracts for any deal involving the country's natural resources be published within 60 days of execution. The company says the existing accords with CNMC were only designed to "frame the negotiations" and do not represent binding contracts.
"As soon as definitive contracts are signed with our partners they will be published" within the required time frame, Takis said.
A decision on a second phase of the project, which would increase output to 200,000 tons a year, will be taken at later date, Takis said.