Promise and Pitfalls: Africa’s Strategic Position in the EV Supply Chain

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Western companies are diversifying the EV Supply Chain by investing in facilities outside China to process battery metals. They are targeting countries like Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Mauritius, and South Africa. As the U.S. seeks broader access to lithium and other essential minerals for electric-vehicle batteries, they are expanding international cooperation, as revealed by a senior State Department official told Nikkei in a recent interview.

Jose Fernandez, undersecretary for economic growth, energy and the environment, discussed plans to broaden the procurement network via bilateral and multilateral agreements. An agreement with Japan in March and the launch of the Minerals Security Partnership, which includes 13 countries and the European Union, are steps in this direction.

These collaborations not only aim at procuring minerals but also at fostering partnerships for mining, processing, and smelting. The U.S. is scrambling to rework its supply chain for critical minerals in order to rely less on China, which produces about 80% of the world’s supply.

China has a commanding presence in the production and processing of rare earth elements, a group of 17 elements crucial for various high-tech applications, including EVs. At various points over the past decade, China has accounted for up to 90% of the world’s Rare Earth Elements production.

While China does not have the largest lithium reserves, it dominates in the processing of lithium. China controls a significant portion of the lithium refining, battery-grade lithium production, and battery component manufacturing processes.

DRC As the World’s Largest Producer

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is the world’s largest producer of cobalt, a vital component in many EV batteries. However, China plays a crucial role in the processing and refining of cobalt, importing large quantities from the DRC and other nations. The majority of the world’s cobalt refining capacity is in China.

As the world moves towards greener technologies, electric vehicles (EVs) are at the forefront of this transformation. However, producing these vehicles requires a steady supply of specific minerals. The global scramble to control these essential resources has led the U.S. to Africa, a continent rich in the minerals required for EV batteries while trying to bypass and reduce reliance on china.

Recognizing the strategic importance of these minerals, the U.S. is expanding its diplomatic and trade ties with African nations. The goal is to ensure a stable supply chain and independence from dominant players like China.

The need for these minerals is set to skyrocket. As per a senior State Department official, Jose Fernandez, the U.S.’s clean-energy goals for 2050 will require substantial amounts of lithium and graphite. This urgency is compounded by the U.S.’s ambitious target to make half of all new passenger vehicles zero-emission by 2030.

The surge in electric vehicle sales presents a tangible opportunity for the U.S. to lessen its reliance on oil, combat climate change, and decrease the influence of major oil-producing nations like Russia.

However, there’s growing concern over China’s control over EV supply chains. This dominance has led some to argue that the U.S. might be trading one dependency for another: from oil to the crucial elements used in EV batteries. Such worries even influenced a proposal in the Wyoming state legislature in January to halt EV sales by 2035, pointing to potential supply chain vulnerabilities.

While these apprehensions have some merit, the U.S. should tackle the issue of essential minerals with a combination of diplomacy, investment, and ingenuity, rather than using it as a reason to stall the push for electrification.

However, merely securing a supply chain isn’t enough. If the U.S. doesn’t identify and tap into new mineral sources, it risks becoming even more reliant on its competitors. As the race intensifies, countries like Zimbabwe, Congo and Tanzania rich in critical minerals, become crucial players in this global game.

Zimbabwe, with its significant lithium deposits, stands poised to play a pivotal role in the EV revolution. Zimbabwe is home to the Bikita mine, one of the largest lithium mines worldwide. The Arcadia Lithium Project, near Harare in 2022, produced 26,600t of the metal, an integral part of electric vehicle batteries. As lithium is a primary component of EV batteries, these reserves place Zimbabwe on the world map as a crucial player in the lithium supply chain.

Tanzania boasts some of the largest graphite reserves in the world. Graphite is a crucial element for lithium-ion batteries. In 2021, Tanzania’s estimated graphite reserves were at 17 million tonnes, ranking 6th in the world after Turkey (90 million tonnes), China (73 million tonnes), Brazil (70 million tonnes), Madagascar (26 million tonnes), and Mozambique (25 million tonnes). Total global reserves of graphite were estimated to be 323.8 million tonnes, with Tanzania accounting for about 5% of them.

Also read Tanzania’s Graphite: The Investment and Geopolitical Landscape.

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) stands as the undisputed heavyweight in global cobalt production, contributing over 60% of the total output. This dominance becomes even more pronounced when comparing the DRC’s production volumes to other cobalt-producing countries.

Nations like Russia, Australia, and Canada are also significant producers, but their combined output doesn’t come close to the DRC’s contributions. The southeastern Katanga region in the DRC is particularly rich in cobalt reserves. This precious metal, vital for the manufacture of lithium-ion batteries used in electric vehicles and various electronic devices.

What Does It Mean for Tanzania and Africa at Large?

It’s essential to note that while Africa has vast mineral reserves, challenges like infrastructure, political instability, regulatory environments, and the need for sustainable and ethical mining practices can influence the rate of extraction and global supply.

As the demand for EVs grows, there will be a continued focus on Africa’s role in the supply chain, and investments in the region’s mining sector are likely to increase. However, it’s vital for countries in the continent to ensure that this mineral wealth translates into broader economic growth and development for their populations.

Undoubtedly, the demand for EV-related minerals presents a potential economic windfall for African nations. Investment in mining, infrastructure development, and related sectors could lead to significant job creation, GDP growth, and increased foreign exchange reserves. But governments must ensure that the mining laws are in favour of the locals so that foreign investors might not exploit the countries for their own gains.

The lithium boom should present an opportunity for Zimbabwe to rejuvenate its economy. The country should seek to improve their mining laws to ensure that major jobs within the production process stays within the country thus offering more opportunities to locals.

Investments in the mining sector could lead to job creation, infrastructure development, and an increase in foreign currency inflows. Given the nation’s past economic challenges, the lithium industry could become a cornerstone of economic growth and stability. The global attention on Zimbabwe’s lithium reserves has also paved the way for new diplomatic and trade relations.

Countries and global corporations eager to secure a stable lithium supply might look to forge partnerships, trade agreements, and investment deals with Zimbabwe, enhancing its geopolitical significance.

Rather than merely exporting raw minerals, there’s an opportunity for African nations to invest in value addition. Establishing processing plants, battery production facilities, and even EV manufacturing units could catapult African economies into the next industrial age. This would not only boost revenues but also foster technology transfer and skill development.

As currently, The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is the world’s largest producer of cobalt, a vital component in many EV batteries but China plays a crucial role in the processing and refining of cobalt, importing large quantities from the DRC and other nations. This gives China more power over the mineral than the natural producing country which is congo.

To truly benefit from this mineral wealth, strong governance and regulatory frameworks are crucial. Transparent licensing processes, fair revenue distribution, environmental regulations, and policies that prioritise local communities are vital to ensuring the broader benefit of the populace.

Challenges Ahead

While the prospects are promising, challenges persist. Infrastructure development remains a hurdle, with roads, transport networks, and processing facilities requiring significant enhancements. Additionally, there’s the pressing need for sustainable mining practices to ensure minimal environmental impact and to safeguard the rights and well-being of local communities.

History is replete with instances of Africa’s resources being exploited without adequately benefiting its people. The new interest in its minerals, if not managed responsibly, could lead to environmental degradation, displacement of local communities, and inequitable distribution of wealth. African nations must prioritise sustainable and ethical mining practices, ensuring minimal environmental harm and maximum benefit to local populations.

For African countries to truly benefit from this growing demand, there’s an urgent need to emphasise value addition within African borders. This could mean moving beyond just extracting and exporting raw minerals to processing, refining, and even manufacturing, ensuring that a significant portion of the value chain remains local.

Such an approach would not only maximise revenues but also spur technological advancements and skill development. As the world accelerates towards a greener future, Africa’s mineral wealth places it at the heart of this transformation.

The challenge lies in navigating this opportunity responsibly, ensuring that the continent’s resources catalyse sustainable development and broad-based prosperity, rather than repeating historical patterns of exploitation. The continent’s future role in the global EV supply chain is not just as a supplier, but as an influential stakeholder driving the narrative of responsible and equitable resource utilisation.

Take you time to explore on a Comparative Analysis on Tanzania’s Graphite Market and the Future of EVs.


A skilled business writer who uses her background in business to explain tough ideas about economics and finance in easy-to-understand ways. She approches writing as a way to make a difference in the world, pushing for positive changes in society through her articles. Besides her work, Tumaini loves to read. She enjoys a variety of books, from imaginative novels to fact-filled history, which helps to give her writing fresh and interesting angles. Most of all, Tumaini believes in always learning and improving. Her tireless effort to know more and do better has earned her a respected place in the field of business journalism.

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