Africa

Bridging the gap in Mozambique's coal town?

Traffic queues across the bridge from Tete city to the Moatize coal basin in northern Mozambique

An early Monday morning at Maputo's International Airport finds the departure lounge packed with commuters waiting to fly to Mozambique's booming coal town.

Brazilians, Portuguese and Mozambicans, already dressed for work in their company-coloured shirts, are about to board the flight for the 100-minute journey to Tete.

Five years ago, there were just two planes a week to Tete, once better known for its searing heat and tender goat meat. Now, there are 12.

A combination of rising coal prices, increased demand and in-depth surveys that revealed vast seams of high grade coking coal underground have attracted seven different international mining companies to the area.

Production started in 2011 but such is the scale of the coal reserves, once mining reaches full capacity - from 2015 - Mozambique will be vying to join the top 10 coal producers in the world.

The expectation is that mining will fuel the whole country's development, and that Tete and its surrounds will become prosperous and thriving.

Tete itself is already being transformed. What was once a sleepy town is a becoming a bustling city.

Piled high

The group of children jumping into the Zambezi, apparently unconcerned by the crocodiles lying on the sand banks just downstream, belie the activity nearby.

The suspension bridge that spans the majestic river to reach the coal mining area is choked with traffic.

And, while the centre is small with low colonial buildings and villas by the river bank, Tete is expanding, mainly in the direction of the nearby town of Moatize where many of the mining subcontractors have their offices, factories and accommodation.

Image caption Coal is stockpiled above ground while waiting to be transported to port

Brazilian mining giant Vale was the first to establish itself in Tete in 2004.

About 10km (six miles) from the city is a grass-covered hill dotted with large trees. This is fertile land, and Tete's curse, some say. The best arable land close to the river is also where you find the most valuable coal.

From the highest hill, through the heat haze, there is a spectacular view of the Vale plant. Painted bright blue, it looks like a model factory with red excavators transporting coal from mine to an open storage area.

Just next to the plant, lying on the ground, is the coal that Vale has dug out of the ground in recent weeks.

But there is a problem. The coal lined up in enormous neat piles cannot be transported to port and thence to market.

"We need to get this coal to the port before we produce more," says Altiberto Brandao, Vale's coal operations director.

"The coal can be stored in the open air up to six months, after that the quality deteriorates," he explains, adding that production was stopped for the whole of March as a result of the hold up.

Mozambique's dilapidated infrastructure is to blame. There is only one railway line to take the coal to Beira the nearest port, 575km (357 miles) away.

Such is the condition of the track that trains are constantly being derailed and in February several kilometres of the railway were washed away by floods. Repairs were still being carried out in mid-March.

Three coal mining companies are now building or proposing to construct entirely new railways to export their coal.

However, it is not clear if the lines will be open to all or if Mozambique will end up with three competing railway lines.

It is not just coal that is piling up. Local frustration with the recent development is also growing.

It is generally held that Vale mishandled the resettlement of 5,000 people who were moved to make way for its mining operation.

At one point, protesting groups from the resettled population blocked the railway in protest at what they said were broken promises.

The conflict has only partly been resolved, despite Vale's efforts last year to make amends.

There are also rumblings on the streets about the lack of jobs for locals, using workers from abroad and not buying locally grown produce.

Backlash?

Vicente Adriano, a teacher of long standing in Moatize, says that few of his former pupils have been employed by the mining companies and those that have are either "guards or chauffeurs".

Furthermore, Mr Adriano says, the impression is that those getting the jobs come from other parts of Mozambique or from neighbouring countries. He says he worries there could be a violent backlash.

"We can already hear the mumbling on the streets and the issue has found its way into songs and poems. That´s always where it starts," he says.

Image caption There have been complaints that too few locals have been employed by the mine companies

Mr Brandao says Vale does its best to recruit locally.

"It's difficult to find the skills we need here. The jobs are highly technical and there is no technical institute here," he says.

"We compete with coalmines in Australia and Canada. We don't get a higher price for the coal because it's extracted in Africa. It's easy to blame the companies but the problems were here before."

Vale says it employs nearly 400 workers from Tete province - out of a 1,400 strong workforce - and are recruiting 300 others for training, a third of whom are earmarked for jobs in a new mine opening next year.

Local government officials admit they have been slow to response to the mining boom and the need of skilled labour.

"We were taken by surprise by the boom. We were not prepared," says Americo Conceicao, acting permanent secretary of Tete province.

He says there are plans for a new technical school, but admits: "Of course we should have done that 10 years ago."

Processed food

However, one thing the province is ready to supply is food.

Mr Conceicao says he is frustrated that the new companies are importing pre-packaged food and not buying locally.

"I had a coffee with one of the directors the other day," he recounts. "I said to him, if you need 100 tonnes of tomatoes and we just have 10 tonnes. Please buy the 10 tonnes we have. Next time we will be able to produce 15 tonnes."

But the companies want pre-packaged foodstuffs and these services are not found in Tete.

Mr Conceicao recognises the need to develop a local food processing industry, but nothing has been done yet.

Vale has a plan of setting up a small industry in Cateme, where the majority of the resettled populations live, Mr Brandao says.

This would create employment were it is badly needed and maybe also dampen the criticism.

The mining companies still have a job to convince the population of Tete and Moatize about the benefits of coal.

There are more banks, shops, restaurants and hotels than before the boom.

But for the population still living on smallholdings or minimum wages, this is not the kind of benefits they were hoping for.

They are also living with the less visible side effects of the development; rising criminality and increased prices for food and housing.

Vicente Adriano is not impressed by the mining companies' commitment to development in Tete and Moatize.

"Look at the roads, still full of potholes," he laments. "Not much has been done in the schools [either]. Everything has just become much more expensive. Nothing has really changed here to the better."