Chinese billionaire misled over Zimbabwe lithium

Tichaona Zindoga

Chinese billionaire Pei Zhenhua lost millions of dollars after being duped about a huge lithium find in Zimbabwe, an investigation by South African media has uncovered.

Pei, whose personal net-worth is estimated to be around $8-billion, is a major shareholder of Contemporary Amperex Technology Co. (CATL), the largest supplier of electric vehicle batteries in the world.

The group reportedly agreed to invest in a lithium battery plant in Zimbabwe’s Mutoko district after being convinced by South African businessman Zunaid Moti, a controversial figure with other mining interests in Zimbabwe and enjoy a close relationship with President Mnangagwa, about a massive lithium eldorado in Goromonzi.

Believing that there was a billions’ worth of lithium in Mashonaland East, just adjacent to Arcadia Lithium Mine where another Chinese company, Huayou Cobalt hit jackpot, Pei’s company Yibin Tianyi agreed to a $6 million upfront cash payment towards a vehicle called Pulserate owned by Moti for 20% with the promise of $4 million more if initial exploration looked promising and a commitment to spend $20 million on extensive exploration if the project looked feasible.

Then Yibin Tianyi also got an option to buy another 50% based on exploration results.

According to documents contained in the #MotiFiles, a massive leak from inside the Moti Group uncovered by South African investigative journalism projects, intense negotiations following a MOU signed on 31 March 2022 led to the signing of a Share Purchase Agreement on 20 May with a low-key ceremony over a video call.

Pulserate was thus able to secure an upfront payment while, in the words of Moti Group inhouse lawyer Natalie Graaff, Pei’s people were busy “drilling holes for two years, if they stay that long”.

However, things were not as they seemed.

After the Moti Group started its own exploration, the group’s own chief operations officer has been recorded stating that “there is Jack shit there – just rock”.

His colleagues have similar opined that “we know there is nothing” and even admitted that they have no qualms about losing the entire project as long as they can keep a down payment from their apparently unsuspecting investor.

Prospect Resources, which founded Arcadia before it was wholly bought by Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt, had actually found that there wasn’t a commercially viable amount of lithium in the area that the Moti Group held over a reported 10 000ha of land.

According to the report: “Prospect’s chief geologist Roger Tyler emailed a report he had produced to Moti Group executive Bianca Waskow on 2 September 2021. In his report Tyler noted that there were sporadic instances of lithium-rich rock but that these were ‘highly zoned’ and very limited in extent. They were in other words like needles in a haystack and there probably weren’t enough of them to warrant upending the haystack to begin with.

“No further work is recommended in the area,” he said.

However, despite this knowledge, Moti still managed to convince the Chinese to invest, before the Chinese discovered the lie and subsequently scaled back commitment to invest in the project

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