Recent helium discoveries may have stolen the show, but Tanzania's gypsum production continues strong and steady with an increasingly important role to play in the country's industrialization narrative.

In 2016, the global gypsum market was valued at USD1.49 billion, just one-sixth of the value of the global helium market. Indeed, while Tanzania's helium discoveries made headline news last year, its gypsum production has gone fairly unnoticed. It is true that Tanzania ranks 42nd on the list of global gypsum producers, information that may not be quite so newsworthy as the bumper helium find.

However, gypsum, unlike helium, is a product for the masses. A mineral with a large calcium component, gypsum is used mainly in construction and agriculture, for fertilizer, cement, concrete blocks, and wall plaster. When we consider the world's rapid population growth, corresponding housing shortages, and gypsum's important role in the construction industry, it is not hard to see why growth of the world's gypsum market is estimated to hit 9.9% by 2018. It has other, more diverse uses too, and can be found in tofu (it can be a good source of dietary calcium), shampoo and cosmetics, and water decontamination products.
According to geologists, Tanzania is home to the world's purest gypsum. Its deposits, situated in Pindilo, Mbane, and Kilwa in the Southern Lindi region, have a purity percentage of 90%. Experts also say there is enough stock for domestic supply, and even export, to last for several decades.
However, while Tanzanian gypsum's purity might make it attractive for certain global industries and players, the focus for Tanzania's Ministry of Energy and Minerals is on domestic production and supply.
The former Minister of Energy and Minerals Sospeter Muhongo announced in 2016 that gypsum mining was vital for Tanzania's economy, since the compound–when produced locally—saved the country from importing and also increased job creation, subsequently fueling the economy in general. To further support the country's industry, Tanzania banned the import of gypsum in November 2016. According to Muhongo, local industries required 312,000 tons of gypsum annually, and with production at 320,000 tons per year, supply just outstripped demand.
Considering the ambition at the forefront of the country's Five Year Development Plan II to dramatically boost domestic manufacturing, industries like gypsum—in which products are sourced, extracted, processed, and consumed locally—are becoming increasingly important.
Furthermore, a study completed by the University of Dar es Salaam in 2012 revealed a missing link between mining and manufacturing in Tanzania, with too much of what was being extracted from the country's underground reserves heading straight for export in its raw form.
Many of Tanzania's gypsum companies, however, sing a different tune, focused as they are on in-country production and distribution. As Zachopoulos Georgios, Director for Knauf Tanzania, a global leader in gypsum production told TBY, “We are producing gypsum from local sources and then sending the finished material to the local market as well as for export. The government needs to attract more companies like us into the country in order to reach its industrialization target.” Increasing overall production is key to augmenting exports without sacrificing local consumption, and Knauf Tanzania's USD17-million investment in production aligns with its goals to increase exports from 8 to 30%.
However, local supply of raw materials is not enough for the industry to thrive; there needs to be a drastic improvement in transport and logistics infrastructure in gypsum mining areas and their surroundings in order to ramp up production, thus increasing the ratio of supply to demand and freeing up more compound for export. Many critics claim that scarce in-house production, transport, and distribution facilities are holding the country back. This will be the key challenge for the government as it rolls out its industrialization agenda, not just in gypsum production but also in industries across the board.