Lithium-rich African countries, including Zimbabwe and Namibia, are trying to develop processing and refining industries to capture more of the profits of global demand for the battery material.
As the auto industry shifts towards electric vehicles (EVs), spurred by proposed bans on fossil-fuel cars beginning at the end of the decade, lithium prices and demand have soared.
China, the world’s top lithium refiner and a leading producer, dominates the supply chain, but Western governments and international companies are trying to challenge that and see Africa’s lithium reserves as an opportunity.
For their part, African countries are determined to retain more of the value of their resources than they have in the past, which means not just mining them but processing them before export, which economically is referred to as beneficiation.
“We are saying to ourselves, if you have got the minerals that everybody wants now, you need to make sure that at least you probably mine those minerals differently and not in the usual manner,” Namibia’s Mines Minister, Tom Alweendo, told Reuters in an interview at the Investing in African Mining Indaba in Cape Town.
“We are going to insist that all lithium mined within the country has to be processed in the country.”
Africa’s lithium production is set to rapidly increase this decade. From 40 000 tons this year, the continent will likely produce 497 000 tons in 2030, commodities trader Trafigura estimates, with the bulk of that coming from Zimbabwe.
Prices for lithium more than doubled last year as demand from the electric vehicle industry outstripped supply.
Zimbabwe in December imposed a ban on raw lithium exports, a measure aimed at stopping the smuggling of lithium ore and spurring mines to process in the country.
“We made plans to only allow the export of concentrates,” the country’s mining minister Winston Chitando told Reuters. “Because of the ban, other investors have come in wanting to mop up lithium ores and develop them to concentrate stage.”
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