John Munemo (38) sits on top of a 150kg bag of scouring powder — commonly known as “Vim” the brand name of a once popular similar product — in anticipation of clients.
Most of the potential customers would be driving along the Harare-Masvingo highway, and whenever a car stops, he has to jostle for the customer’s attention with several other men, women and children selling the same product.
Munemo, just like fellow traders, usually makes between $10 and $30 a day just from selling “Vim”.
The spot from which they sell the powder is just a kilometre from the mine.
“I’ve been doing this (selling Vim by the roadside) for the past 15 years,” he said with remarkable pride, adding that he had been able to raise his family on this by-product of lithium.
Lithium is used in the manufacturing of glass, glass ceramics, lithium batteries and enamels because of the low iron content of the mineral.
Zimbabwe is among the leading producers of lithium in the world.
The industrial salt will in the foreseeable future be needed for the cellphone industry, laptop computers and, more importantly, it is seen as an element of the fuel cell of choice in the nascent but increasingly important electrically-powered motor car industry.
Munemo said they were grateful for the product which has been their source of livelihood for years.
“I was able to see my children through school because of Vim,” he said. “All the money I used to pay for their fees came from Vim.”
The scouring powder is sold in bags of between 3kg and 150kg. While a 3kg bag costs a meagre 50c, the 150kg bag fetches an average of between $10 and $13.
When the powder is repackaged and sold in 500g packages, it is sold for between 36c and 50c.
Another trader, Susan Kamiti (28), said Vim had worked wonders in her life as they had been able to accrue significant material wealth.
“I’ve been able to buy household furniture and if you look at our houses, you’ll see we also have satellite television dishes,” she said.
Many housewives prefer Vim, especially for cleaning stoves. They say the alternative, raw sand, has a tendency of scratching metal surfaces.
Having seen the widespread suffering of his people against the grim backdrop of recurrent droughts and poor harvests, Chief Marozva engaged the management at Bikita Minerals to allow his subjects to collect Vim — which is a waste by-product of lithium — for resale.
This is the only place in the country where lithium is mined.
The chief said while it was good that his people were earning cash through selling Vim, the company could have done more for the community in which it is located.
He had hoped to see major developments such as the construction of schools.
“We expected something better from the big mine. Our people don’t have joy. Yes, they are earning money through selling Vim, but this can cause TB (tuberculosis) and eventually it kills,” he said.
Another significant cause for grief is the fact that their ancestral burial site is within the mine compound, and Chief Marozva preferred that the graves be protected.
He said they had talked to the mine’s general manager to at least fence the burial site, but to date, there had been no response, adding that some graves had actually been excavated through the mining operations.
Another Vim trader Kurai Mashwati (35) said they were born and grew up in the area, and concurred with the chief that it was sad the mine authories had not initiated any community development programmes as a way of giving back to the community on whose back they were making money through their mining operations.
“We had hoped that this company would initiate development here, like constructing schools and putting up buildings, but this has not happened,” he said.
Chief Marozva said many youths in the area had left school to go and sell the scouring powder, which he said although it was in high demand, it was “a reject, idota (it’s ash)”.
Other youths had since crossed borders to South Africa and Botswana in the belief that the grass was greener out there.
He also expressed concern that a lot of the people selling the powder had failed to attend constitution outreach meetings held by Copac as they did not want to miss out on making money.
“They did not want to lose even that $1, so you find a lot of them never bothered to attend the Copac meetings,” said the chief.
Zimbabwe is among the largest lithium producers in the world, after the United States, followed by China and a few other countries.
This is because of the abundance of lithium-bearing minerals such as the petalites, amblygonites, and lepidolites, which have made the country prominent on the world lithium market.
Although many small deposits are known and have been worked on in the past, the production of lithium in Zimbabwe has been mainly centred on the Bikita mine where a complex of large pegmatites occurs in the greenstone belt over a distance of about 3-5 km.