Should Rwanda’s Dramatic Increase in Tantalum Exports Be a Red Flag?

Earlier this week, a press release announced that, as of October 2014, Rwanda had exported 1,931,041 kilograms (1,931 metric tons) of tantalum.  The press release also stated that the official Rwanda tantalum export figures for 2013 were 2,466,025 kilograms (2,466 metric tons).

This piqued our curiosity and we compared these figures to official USGS figures.  We also asked various experts in metals, tantalum production and in-region mining.  Well, we got different answers primarily, as we soon learned, because a kilogram of tantalum has a different meaning depending on who you ask.  In various reporting contexts, “tantalum” refers to:

  • raw ore coming from the mine;
  • concentrate (the result of initial ore processing);
  • tantalum pentoxide; or
  • pure tantalum powder or ingots produced from smelting.

We tracked down someone who was able to clarify and work through the USGS, Rwanda and DRC numbers for us.  He patiently talked us through the various definitions, what point each applies to and the conversion factors between raw ore, concentrate and metal values.  Moreover, he has specific detailed knowledge of in-region production – both official and to an extent, unofficial.

So after all the detailed background made our head spin,  we asked flat out – does the dramatic increase in official Rwandan tantalum exports blatantly demonstrate that tantalum ore (coltan) is being smuggled into Rwanda?

On the other end of the phone, there was more clicking of the keyboard and maybe a calculator.  A bit of mumbling to himself while working through the calculations and referring to various information sources.  Then there was silence.

His final answer – it is “not implausible” that the production figures in the press release properly reflect legal and legitimate production.  He went on to clarify the basis of his opinion, such as:

  • the official DRC governmental figures for coltan exports to Rwanda;
  • limitations related to the USGS figures for 2013;
  • that Rwandan mining cooperatives are much more organized than those in DRC, and therefore contribute more production; and
  • significant growth in commercial mining projects over the past couple of years (the press release points out 22 new commercial projects).

Of course, the final and official 2014 production figures from Rwanda, DRC and USGS won’t be available for a few more months.  But there is reason to be optimistic that the year-over-year increase does not inherently indicate significant leakage of illegal/unverified material into Rwanda.

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