Reserves of Critical Minerals in Africa – a Crucial Source of its Economic Growth

Critical minerals are essential naturally occurring elements crucial for modern technology and industries. These minerals play a vital role in the production of advanced technological devices like mobile phones, computers, semiconductors, fiber-optic cables, and various other applications. They are particularly significant in the manufacturing of eco-friendly products such as electric vehicles, wind turbines, solar panels, rechargeable batteries, and other low-emission technologies. Countries worldwide depend on a variety of critical minerals like cobalt, copper, lithium, nickel, and rare earth elements based on their specific industrial needs and priorities.

The global critical minerals market was valued at US$ 320 billion in 2022 and is expected to reach US$ 494.23 billion by 2030, increasing at a 5.69% Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) between 2023 and 2030. In recent years, the market has witnessed significant growth (Kings Research).

Source: Kings Research

The global critical minerals market was valued at US$ 320 billion in 2022 and is expected to reach US$ 494.23 billion by 2030, increasing at a 5.69% Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) between 2023 and 2030. In recent years, the market has witnessed significant growth (Kings Research). The trade of critical minerals has also increased over the last two decades.

Source: World Trade Organisation

The trade of critical minerals has also increased over the last two decades.

The import value of critical materials grew from US$ 212 billion in 2017 to US$ 378 billion in 2022, driven by a significant rise in Platinum Group Metals (PGM) such as rhodium, iridium, ruthenium and osmium in the global market. In 2022, China was the world’s top importer of critical minerals, accounting for 33% of the global total critical minerals trade value, followed by the European Union at 16% and Japan and the United States at 11% (World Trade Organization).

The whole picture depicts a global push for a green energy transition that has accelerated in line with rising environmental and social concerns. With these changes, the demand for critical minerals from Africa, which owns a sizable share of global reserves, has also increased.

Africa has abundant natural resources, including arable land, water, fossil fuels, natural gas, minerals, and more. The continent holds a substantial portion of the world’s natural resources, both renewable and non-renewable, with natural capital contributing significantly to overall wealth in most African countries. Additionally, Africa stands as a key reservoir of critical minerals crucial for modern technologies, especially those propelling the clean energy revolution. These critical minerals include cobalt, copper, bauxite, chrome, high-purity iron ore, platinum group metals, lithium, rare earth metals, and others.

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Which factors are boosting the growth of the critical minerals industry in Africa?

1) Substantial reserves of critical minerals –

Africa’s substantial reserves of critical minerals position the continent as a key player in the global supply chain for clean energy technologies. With around one-third of global critical mineral reserves, Africa has a strategic advantage in meeting the rising demand for these minerals.

Source: UNCTAD, USGS, UNEP, IRENA, Zero Carbon Analytics

Nearly half of the countries in Africa boast significant reserves of one or more critical minerals essential for the energy transition, with nations like South Africa, Nigeria, Algeria, Angola and Libya collectively holding over two-thirds of the continent’s mineral wealth (Colorado School of Mines).

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is one of the world’s richest nations in terms of critical mineral reserves. The DRC has 70% of the world’s cobalt reserves, a key metal for the manufacturing of electric vehicles and batteries, with its largest mine producing up to 95,000 tons, or roughly 41% of global production (Energy Capital & Power).

South Africa is a leading producer of numerous vital minerals, including Platinum Group Metals (PGM), manganese, chromium, and vanadium, which are all required for the production of batteries and renewable energy.

2) Growing implementation of new policies –

The increasing recognition of the need for governmental interventions to ensure a sustainable and adequate mineral supply has led to the implementation of key measures such as the European Union’s Critical Raw Materials (CRM) Act and the United States Inflation Reduction Act.

In 2023, the European Commission enacted the Critical Raw Materials Act to secure the EU’s access to minerals essential for net-zero technology. The EU recently declared that it was in discussions to source critical minerals from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and that it planned to do the same with Rwanda, Gambia, and Zambia. The EU has already finalized a deal with Namibia.

Similarly, in 2022, the United States introduced the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which mandates that subsidies for electric vehicles are contingent on 40% of their essential minerals being mined or processed domestically or in countries with which the US has free trade agreements. Furthermore, the US has signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the DRC and Zambia to promote sustainable production of electric vehicle batteries (Chambers and Partners).

Such types of strategic policies from the EU, US and other nations aimed at securing critical minerals for clean energy technologies have not only bolstered the African critical mineral reserves industry but also paved the way for sustainable growth, technological advancement, and economic prosperity in the region.

3) Increasing demand for clean energy technologies –

Clean energy technologies, such as solar panels, wind turbines and electric vehicle batteries, rely heavily on critical minerals such as lithium, cobalt and nickel. Electric vehicle sales surged by 60% in 2022, surpassing 10 million units. Energy storage systems expanded even more rapidly, with capacity additions doubling by 2022. Demand for vehicle batteries surpassed the growth rate of electric car sales, as the average battery size for electric cars increased in practically every major market (International Energy Agency).

The surge in battery demand, especially for energy storage applications, translates to a greater need for the critical minerals used in battery production. This benefits Africa as it holds a significant portion of the world’s reserves of these minerals, like lithium, cobalt, nickel, and graphite.

What have been the key challenges for Africa to utilize its immense reserves of critical minerals? How can the challenges be managed?

1) Infrastructural deficiencies

African minerals are currently largely exported in their raw form and processed elsewhere. Many African countries operate in the upstream sector, mining minerals and exporting raw materials with little value added. China leads the market, accounting for 85% of global processing capacity and 60% of global production of critical minerals. Meanwhile, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) refines around 7% of all copper products produced domestically, while Zambia refines 1.3% (Zero Carbon Analytics). This keeps the continent at the bottom of global value chains, limiting economic advantages and the potential to negotiate better trade conditions.

Countries could export intermediate commodities or final products by investing in processes that add value to mineral resources and boosting processing capacity within Africa, shifting their positions in value chains to the midstream or downstream segments. This could lead to more jobs in the processing sector, as well as higher tax revenues and export money.

The African Continental Free-Trade Area (AfCFTA), implemented in 2021, has also acted as a strong impetus for African governments to address their infrastructure gaps, enhance and streamline supply chains, improve climate policies that fulfil net zero commitments, boost manufacturing capacity and overhaul regulation relating to trade, cross-border initiatives, investment-friendly policies and capital flows.

2) Absence of significant investment

Despite Africa’s significant reserves of critical minerals, the continent has historically received less investment compared to other regions like Latin America, Australia, and Canada. This disparity is evident in the mining exploration budget in sub-Saharan Africa. The lack of strong commercial diplomacy ties between the United States and Africa has also contributed to this lower level of investment, with only a few exceptions, like Kenya and South Africa, standing out in terms of engagement.

Furthermore, the exclusion of Africa from key partnerships, trade deals, and discussions related to critical minerals has hindered the continent’s ability to attract investment in its extraction, processing and value-addition capacity. For instance, the Minerals Security Partnership (MSP) primarily includes Western countries, and advanced South and East Asian countries, but lacks the participation of African-producing countries. This exclusion limits the potential for collaboration that could lead to socioeconomic benefits, infrastructure investments, employment generation, and fiscal revenue for African nations (CSIS).

The low investment in Africa’s minerals industry can be managed through targeted policy actions aimed at reducing tax avoidance, fostering revenue mobilization, and promoting sustainable mining practices. Additionally, promoting sustainable mining practices that prioritize local procurement, shared infrastructure use, and renewable energy development can contribute to long-term economic growth and community development.

Conclusion

Africa’s critical mineral reserves hold immense potential to fuel the global clean energy transition and propel the continent’s economic development. The rising demand for these minerals, coupled with Africa’s abundant resources, presents a unique opportunity. However, significant challenges like inadequate infrastructure, and environmental concerns need to be addressed. By fostering a more attractive investment climate, prioritizing responsible mining practices, and investing in value addition, African nations can unlock the true potential of their critical minerals. This will not only ensure a stable supply of essential materials for the world but also empower Africa to claim its rightful place as a key player in the green revolution and achieve sustainable growth.

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dhitasree

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