Interview: Romdhane Souid
What sort of potential is there for increasing phosphate production in Tunisia?
ROMDHANE SOUID: A number of upstream exploration activities are currently ongoing, with expectations of new discoveries. However, Tunisia already has a well deserved reputation for high-quality and sizeable phosphate reserves. In the Gasfa area, for example, there are reserves that should last for 100 years, and we’re currently looking to increase the production capacity of that site. There are also huge reserves in the Stra Ouertane mine estimated at 5bn tonnes.
To help exploit these, under the Compagnie des Phosphates de Gafsa, there are three new projects which are currently being carried out to help expand output volumes. The first project is Om Lakhchab in the Gafsa area, which will have a production capacity of 2.5m tonnes per year. The second is the TozeurNefta project, around 80 km from Gafsa, which will produce 2m tonnes per year. Since the project is in a designated tourist area, special guidelines are in place to ensure the environmental impact of the increased production is limited. The third project is in Meknassi, in the region of Sidi Bouzid, and it will have an annual production capacity of 500,000 tonnes of phosphate.
Which international markets represent the biggest potential for increasing exports?
SOUID: When operating at full capacity, Tunisia’s phosphate sector can produce rock phosphate and phosphoric acid in volumes of up to 8.5m tonnes per year, while for phosphorus pentoxide, it can reach 1.7m tonnes per year. The range of destinations for these exports is fairly diverse. Exports of rock phosphate, for example, which comprises around 1m tonnes per year, are primarily sent to Eastern Europe for chemical transformation, and to Brazil, New Zealand and Indonesia for direct application.
As for the phosphoric acid, about 600,000 tonnes are directly exported to India, while another 1m tonnes are transformed into chemical products that are subsequently exported.
In triple super phosphate (TSP), Tunisia used to be the world’s biggest exporter, with total exports up to 1m tonnes and with a combined volume of roughly 500,000 tonnes sold to Iran and Brazil alone. In both cases, Tunisian exports equal about one-third of their total import volumes. Bangladesh also sources about 50% of its import requirements of TSP from Tunisia, while Europe sources around 30% of its import needs.
What are Tunisia’s competitive advantages in terms of phosphate production?
SOUID: While phosphate can be sourced from a variety of countries around the world, one of Tunisia’s primary competitive advantages is the high calibre of local transformation and processing activities.
For example, Tunisia has its own unique process for the production of TSP. Tunisia also holds a number of other patents in the processing of phosphoric acid, which is crucial given that the quality and specific composition of processed products varies significantly depending on the recipient country. This in turn requires the removal of heavy metal components. As a result, Tunisia is able to process phosphate and export it to countries such as Italy, France and several in Africa, in addition to the local market, all while limiting the production costs.
Because of this processing capacity, and in spite of the fact that market share has declined in some regions, Tunisia has been able to consolidate its position on the international market, and has consistently remained one of the leading phosphate and fertilisers producer in the world. With production levels expected to increase on the back of the projects we mentioned previously, Tunisia should be able to expand its exports even further. The next step for the phosphate industry in Tunisia, in order to maintain its competitiveness, is to develop fine chemistry.
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