Mineral Wars:

Various international powers are vying for rare minerals and metals found in Africa, especially lithium ore. Lithium ore is becoming increasingly important at the economic and strategic level for major industrialized countries including the US and China, which use lithium in both military and civilian industries. Lithium is one of the most sought-after minerals and is used for manufacturing electric cars (which require lithium-ion batteries) as well as for smartphones, tablets, laptop computers, digital cameras, and internet servers. It is integral to many emission-reduction technologies as part of the global transition towards a green economy and clean energy in order to combat climate change. There are various potential international ramifications of the scramble for lithium, as well as many repercussions for Africa.

Leading Producers

According to UN estimates, Africa holds more than 30% of global mineral reserves, including 5% of naturally-occurring lithium ore reserves. This means that African countries have the opportunity to help meet the growing global lithium demand while building their own economies. Lithium deposits are found in many African countries:

1. Zimbabwe is home to Africa’s largest lithium reserves, which are also the fifth largest lithium reserves in the world. In 2018, Zimbabwe and Namibia were among the top ten lithium producers worldwide. Zimbabwe is expected to be able to meet 20% of total global demand in the coming years. Bikita mine, Zimbabwe’s largest lithium mine, contains an estimated 11 million metric tons of lithium and is located in the Masvingo Province in the southwest of the country. Zimbabwe is also home to Arcadia mine, which contains 775,200 metric tons of lithium. Revenue from these two mines is projected to reach $1 billion annually. Arcadia’s reserves are estimated around 4-5 million metric tons, which is equivalent to 400,000 tons of production per year, and will also create around 1000 temporary jobs. Meanwhile, the Zulu mine contains 213,195 metric tons of lithium and the Kamativi mine contains 154,600 metric tons, according to September 2022 estimates. Still another lithium deposit under development is known as Good Days mine. 

2. Namibia also contributes to African lithium production. According to statistics from the US Geological Survey, Namibia produced around 500 metric tons of lithium in 2018. The country’s top lithium mines include Bitterwasser, which contains 105,233 metric tons of lithium, Karibib, which contains 53,870 metric tons, and Uis which contains 53,280 metric tons, according to September 2022 estimates. A further lithium deposit under development is known as Brandberg.

3. The Democratic Republic of the Congo also holds major lithium reserves. Some believe that Kinshasa has the largest lithium reserves in the world and that it could become a leading global supplier of lithium. The main lithium mines in the DRC include Manono, which contains around 6,640,000 metric tons of lithium, according to September 2022 estimates, as well as the Gatumba-Gitarama mine.

4. Mali has significant prospects for lithium production. Mali is also projected to contribute to the world’s lithium supply during the coming years. Its leading mines include Goulamina, which contains 1,570,000 metric tons of lithium, and Bougouni, which contains 236,500 metric tons, according to September 2022 estimates.

5. International competition over Nigerian lithium. Nigeria has some of the most promising lithium ore reserves in Africa, although it did not produce any lithium in 2020 or 2021. Nigeria previously produced around 50 metric tons of lithium in 2019. There are various international companies vying for Nigerian lithium, although China controls the playing field there.

Key Drivers

There are various factors driving international competition over African lithium, including:

1. Vast African mineral resources: Africa is among the top global producers for seven out of ten minerals necessary for the global transition towards a greener economy and for manufacturing electric cars. These minerals include lithium, cobalt, and platinum. Africa owns 30-75% of the world’s lithium, phosphate, copper, chromium, manganese, gold, platinum, diamond, and aluminum reserves.

Demand for lithium is projected to rise to 1.5 million metric tons by 2025, and will increase tenfold to thirty-fold by 2040. Geopolitical factors have shaped escalating international competition over natural resources in strategic regions including Africa, which holds a significant portion of the world’s mineral resources.

2. A scramble for African resources: There is intense competition between the US, China, and other nations over African resources. Both the US and China are trying to ensure the continued expansion of Africa’s mineral resources through investing in the African mining sector. These two countries have also expanded economic aid, loans, investments, infrastructural growth, and support for development projects in African countries. Some have accused China of trying to drown African countries in debt in order to control the continent’s mineral resources, something which Beijing staunchly denies.

Russia has also aimed to bolster ties with African countries and to acquire various strategic mineral deposits via the Wagner Group, which has recently expanded its involvement in various African countries.

3. Increasing demand for battery industries: Demand for batteries is set to rise over the coming decade as part of increased demand for electric vehicles, which are projected to comprise 50% of global car sales by 2030. There is also growing demand for smart devices that require lithium, which explains growing international interest in Africa in order to extract more lithium. International powers want to secure their access to these valuable minerals, especially since it is estimated that an additional 400 lithium mines could be needed to meet rising global demand.

4. Fears of global political upheaval: Concerns about a volatile international order have pushed industrialized countries to try to secure their access to multiple energy and mineral sources. This is particularly true in light of the uncertain outlook of the Russian war in Ukraine, which has now lasted over a year, and has led industrialized countries to diversify their mineral supply chains and to target African mineral resources.

5. Global transition to clean energy: The transition to clean energy has major ramifications for Africa, which is also among the regions hardest hit by climate change. Industrialized countries want to cooperate with Africa on various critical mineral supply chains, especially given the global shift away from reliance on oil and gas towards renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. This is why there has been increasing investment in environmentally-friendly industries such as electric cars. Manufacturing of laptop computers and microchips is up, which also requires an expanding supply of mineral resources. African countries control a significant portion of the resources necessary for the future of clean energy. Zimbabwe alone is home over 40 different minerals. This has sparked new competition over African mineral resources including lithium ore. The energy transition will require a dramatic increase in mineral supplies, and is demand is projected to climb to at least thirty times its current level during the next two decades.

International Competition

Many leading international powers, including the US and China, are trying to secure control of African lithium as part of their strategies to ensure access to critical minerals. The scale of this struggle over lithium is clear from the following factors:

1. A race to control African lithium: The mining of lithium ore in Africa has been hotly contested, especially between the US, China, India, and Europe, which are locked in a fierce contest to gain control over the minerals using in various renewable industries. Over the last two decades, China has been trying to bolster ties with African countries in order to get a foothold in the African minerals sector. It now controls 60% of global mineral extraction and refining, especially for lithium, cobalt, nickel, and manganese. China also dominates a significant portion of the African mining sector through various companies operating there.

Washington is trying to counter China’s economic clout in Africa, especially in the mineral extraction sector, and the lithium ore sector specifically. As a result, Washington has been in talks with various mineral-rich African countries, and held a US-Africa Leaders Summit in December 2022, which was attended by 49 African nations. The US has sought to further partnership and investment agreements in the African mining sector and recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the DRC and Zambia. This agreement is likely to involve building a minerals processing plant to support the development of supply chains for electric car production in the US through strengthening electric vehicle battery value chains.

2. Chinese supremacy in African lithium markets: China has been increasingly focused on the African mining sector, especially lithium ore. Between December 2021 and March 2022, three Chinese companies acquired stakes in lithium mines in Zimbabwe in order to strengthen their hold there. This is part of Chinese efforts to diversify lithium supplies, especially since China is the largest market for electric cars in the world.

Chinese companies wield significant clout in the mining sector in the DRC, especially with regard to cobalt and lithium production. These companies are investing in various projects related to lithium mining, including a green energy project. The Chinese company Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt signed an agreement with Kinshasa to build a lithium processing plant, while Ganfeng Lithium undertook a similar project in 2018 in Zimbabwe worth $160 million.

Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt has announced that it would invest $300 million in developing the processing plant at the Arcadia lithium mine in Zimbabwe, after acquiring the mine from Australian company Prospect Resources for $422 million.

3. US interest in lithium resources: Africa’s lithium resources have also caught the attention of US companies. Tesla has tried to get involved in the African lithium mining market due to concerns about rising lithium prices, which could impact the costs of electric vehicle production. This is especially true since the price of lithium jumped 488% in 2021 to $65,000 per ton in June 2022.

4. Many actors vie for a spot in African lithium markets: There are many international companies trying to gain a foothold in African lithium extraction. Leading companies include the Australian company Firefinch, which opened a branch under the name Leo Lithium in Mali and raised $100 million in its initial public offering. Another Australian company, Tyranna Resources, announced in 2022 that it would acquire an 80% stake in the Namibe lithium project in Angola. Meanwhile, yet another Australian company known as AVZ Minerals announced that it was involved in developing various African lithium projects, including the Manono mine in the DRC. The Indian Vinmart group is also involved in a partnership that holds three mining permits in the DRC, while the Canadian company Tantalex Lithium Resources has been developing a project in Manono in the DRC since 2018. The China-based Sinomine Resource Group has invested in Zimbabwe over the last two years, while the Australian company Atlantic Lithium plans to begin production through its Ewoyaa project in Ghana by 2024.

5. International partnerships for lithium extraction: The competition over lithium has led some companies to enter into cooperative agreements and partnerships. There are approximately nine lithium projects being developed in Namibia, Zimbabwe, Mali, Ghana, and the DRC, which are being carried out by joint agreement between international corporations that hope to cement their control over the lithium mining sector in Africa. These arrangements include an offtake agreement between Australian company Pilbara Minerals and Chinese company Ganfeng Lithium on projects such as the Pilgangoora lithium project in Australia, which will strengthen Chinese lithium supply chains. Ganfeng Lithium also reached a joint venture agreement with Leo Lithium (which split from Firefinch) to facilitate the development of the Goulamina mine in Mali. The Goulamina joint venture was listed on the ASX in June 2022 and was expected to raise $72 million.

Potential Repercussions

International competition over lithium in Africa is likely to increase in the next few years, which has various ramifications at both the regional and international levels. African countries feel that the international scramble for lithium is an opportunity for economic development and job creation and have endeavored to convince international companies to come to Africa and establish projects to process minerals for resale. However, this has prompted some African countries to tighten their lithium ore export polices. In December 2022, Zimbabwe banned lithium ore exports in order to encourage domestic mineral processing. This move cost the country $1.8 billion in lost revenue, while Zimbabwe’s lithium ore stockpiles grew to two million tons by February 2023.

There are growing concerns that Africa will not achieve its desired economic returns from the continent’s vast mineral resources. Countries such as Namibia have decided that to require that lithium ore to be processed locally before export in order to ensure a greater profit.

DRC President Felix Tshisekedi criticized the Chinese investment policy in Kinshasa’s mining sector during the Investing in Africa Mining Indaba, which was held in Cape Town in February 2023. Tshisekedi called for better terms for investment contracts in the mining sector. This issue is of particular importance to Kinshasa because it produces around 70% of the world’s cobalt. Tshisekedi stated in January 2023 that his country did not sufficiently benefit from the 6.2-billion-dollar agreement that granted China mining concessions in an "infrastructure-for-minerals" deal.

Meanwhile, there are growing US and Western fears of increasing Chinese influence in Africa and expanding Chinese control over African minerals. This could lead to further Western criticism that China is prioritizing its own narrow interests at the expense of African nations in order to drum up African opposition to China involvement. Some critics have focused on potential environmental and social repercussions of mining processes, such as displacement of local communities and environmental damage from mineral extraction and processing, which require clearing land in ways that could be harmful to both soil and water. Furthermore, lithium processing usually involves chemical toxins that could exacerbate environmental pollution.

Global battery flows are likely to experience growing disruptions as a result of the trade wars between Washington and Beijing. Meanwhile, demand for lithium from battery manufacturers is projected to increase 83% by 2027. This could be an exceptional opportunity for African countries to bolster the continent’s global economic clout and increase its international standing.

In conclusion, international competition over Africa’s expanding lithium production is expected to intensify during the coming years. This is especially true given that production is projected to increase to around 497,000 metric tons by 2030. This does not mean that Africa will become a global force in electric vehicle manufacturing, at least not in the short- or medium-term. However, it holds plenty of lithium and other resources. Africans can make the most of this international competition over lithium resources to maximize economic gains, especially since Africa has the potential to become the main global supplier of lithium in the years to come.