Caledonia Mining to expand gold exposure in Zimbabwe
* Currency impact, power outages have delayed output increase
* Says needs to invest now to benefit from later improvement
* Bureaucracy delaying share stake purchase
By Barbara Lewis
LONDON, March 25 (Reuters) - Gold miner Caledonia Mining is seeking ways to deepen its investment in Zimbabwe even though a currency crisis has dented its earnings and bureaucracy has slowed the company's purchase of an increased stake.
The end of Robert Mugabe's rule in 2017 after an army coup led to a rush of excitement that miners would flood in to develop the nation's mineral wealth.
That enthusiasm faded as a severe dollar crunch hobbled business and led to shortages of medicine, fuel and food.
Following violent protests at the start of the year and Zimbabwe's introduction of a new currency last month, Caledonia Mining's Chief Financial Officer Mark Learmonth told Reuters the "hot money" had left but said the country was gradually moving in the right direction. "If you believe things will be better in five years' time, you have to get in now," he said.
Caledonia Mining's main asset is its 49-percent stake in the Blanket Mine, which produced 54,511 ounces last year, a nearly 3 percent fall year-on-year because of lower ore quality.
The mine has been producing for a century barring a temporary shut-down from October 2008 to April 2009 at the height of Zimbabwe's economic crisis.
Caledonia is expanding production at the mine in southern Zimbabwe and says it is sufficiently confident Zimbabwe will recover from its problems to re-invest on a modest scale.
"We're not talking about a big, producing mine. We're talking about advanced exploration or brownfield, but with good prospectivity," Learmonth said. "We plan to redeploy some of the surplus cash to be generated by the Blanket Mine," he added without specifying figures.
The plan is to stay focused on gold, rather than expanding into other minerals.
Like other miners, Caledonia Mining has been hit by the currency turmoil, which slowed operations because it couldn't buy equipment. Power shortages also disrupted production.
The Blanket Mine is now expected to reach a target of 80,000 ounces per year in 2022, rather than in 2021, a deadline the company previously thought achievable. Zimbabwe's foreign currency shortage worsened after the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe said last October gold producers would receive 30 percent of their proceeds in U.S. dollars and the rest in local currency, Caledonia said.
Following negotiations between the government and Caledonia and other gold miners, the U.S. dollar percentage was raised to 55 percent and a higher share can be negotiated for specific needs, such as dividend payments.
The currency situation, Caledonia says, is manageable, but bureaucracy is a problem.
Following Zimbabwe's changes to ownership laws announced last year, Caledonia in November agreed to raise its stake in the Blanket Mine to 64 percent from 49 percent, but does not know when that deal will be completed.
"The impediment is not political, it's purely bureaucratic,"
(Reporting by Barbara Lewis; editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise)