Thomas White Global Investing
Morocco Stamp
December 6, 2010
A Postcard from Africa
Morocco: Phosphate Kingdom of the World

Farmer pours phosphate fertilizer

Agriculture is heavily reliant on phosphate for fertilizer, and any shortage in phosphate can cause an alarming upward spiral in food prices.

King Mohammed VI is known to be a bit of a moderate, working towards several social and economic reforms for Morocco. As the King, he is the most powerful man in Morocco, but he also owns more than half of what is becoming increasingly one of the most precious economic resources – phosphates. The tiny kingdom can be called the phosphate kingdom of the world. And as king of this resource-rich empire, Mohammed VI is also the unofficial overseer of the country’s biggest industrial unit – Office Chérifien des Phosphates or OCP.

Phosphate is used in fertilizer and its importance is incalculable in modern agriculture. In addition, phosphate is used in food additives, detergents, and even lithium-ion batteries. A shortage in phosphate can not only drive food prices higher, but also the cost of the latest iPad, and even Coca Cola! OCP doubtless sees an immense opportunity here and is gearing up to meet demand by recently announcing that it will build four new plants by 2015, a project that will raise capacity by almost 70%. It is part of an estimated $7 billion investment that the company is making over the next few years, with phosphate production expected to peak over the next 50 years.

Estimates vary as to how long the world’s phosphate reserves are going to last. While the journal Global Environmental Change believes that the world will be depleted of phosphate in 100 years, others believe that phosphate mines may continue to thrive for the next 300 years. The U.S. has even less time left – it is estimated that the country’s mines have only around 25 or 30 years of mining left, a troublesome figure considering that the U.S. produces around 17% of the world’s total phosphate output. Small wonder then that phosphate is a furiously sought after commodity.

Much of Morocco’s extensive reserves of this white gold, around 50 billion tons of it, lie in the Western Sahara – a ‘disputed territory,’ which the UN designated as ‘occupied,’ or ‘non-self governing’ territories since 1963. It was in 1976 that Moroccan forces annexed the formerly Spanish-occupied region – and today Morocco controls most of the area, while an ongoing dispute drags on with the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic or Polisario Front. Predictably, the territory’s economy mainly revolves around phosphate mining, and the future of this mainstay is of immense local and global interest in the region. Morocco’s phosphate exports surged an astonishing 87.3% in the first 10 months of this year. OCP itself controls 30% of global phosphate exports, and may be producing as much as 54 million metric tons by 2015. For now, it is King Mohammed VI who holds sway here. Knowing the world’s dependence on phosphate, King Mohammed VI is now well on his way to becoming one of the most powerful men in the world as well.

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