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Addressing China’s Monopoly over Africa’s Renewable Energy Minerals

AFR Program Intern - Desmond Egyin

China (PRC) currently controls an estimated 8 percent of Africa's mining sector, less than half its Western competitors, but still an increase from 6.7 percent in 2018. Although this statistic underlines the often inflated and alarmed perception Western media sometimes fosters about China’s mining operations in Africa, it nevertheless highlights the China Communist Party’s (CCP) goal to grow China’s footprint across Africa’s mining sector. China’s government and private mining companies operate mining sites in various African countries, as well as a small but growing number of processing sites to readily process extracted raw minerals. In the DRC, for example, China boasts at least 7 cobalt processing entities, but mainly ships raw minerals back to China for processing and manufacturing to meet global demand for critical minerals and finished products.  

What concerns the US is China’s monopoly over mining in Africa’s copper belt (the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Zambia), and its substantive recent investments into lithium production in Zimbabwe, which holds Africa’s largest reserves of lithium.  These investments allow China to dictate the global supply chain for renewable batteries and electric vehicles (EVs). In the DRC, the country with the world’s largest reserves of cobalt and high grade copper, China currently owns 72% of the cobalt and copper mines including the Tenge Fungurume Mine, which alone produces around 12% of the world’s cobalt production. China’s mining operations in these three countries give the PRC a significant lead in semiconductor and battery production, and thus in the field of climate security technologies. This leaves the rest of the world increasingly dependent on Chinese innovation and manufacturing to drive global energy transitions and address climate change, according to a study by the Georgetown University Center for Security Studies. China’s opaque extractive mining contracts in Africa also contribute to numerous human and labor rights violations as well as negative environmental impacts on African mining communities.

The US must increase its investment in Africa’s critical mining sector to curtail its growing reliance on a China dominated renewable energy supply chain. It must also build goodwill with local African populations by working to safeguard the labor and environmental rights of mining dependent localities, areas where China’s investments have underperformed. With these goals in mind, the US should employ the following policies:

Incentivize the US private sector to invest in African mining. A strong presence of private US mining companies in Africa’s copper belt and lithium mining areas will be pivotal in decoupling the US from a China dominated renewable energy supply chain. The US government should provide subsidies and tax credits to private US mining companies that invest in greenfield mining discoveries in Africa.  

The US government should also provide lower import quotas on raw or processed cobalt, copper, and lithium from specific African countries to make African mining a more attractive investment option for US companies. 

Prioritize critical mineral agreements (CMA) with African counterparts. Currently, there is no US-Africa CMA or bilateral CMA between the US and any individual African states. To address this gap, the US should incorporate critical and strategic minerals of importance into the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA).  The US should also work to incorporate African countries into international agreements like the Sustainable Critical Minerals Alliance (SCMA) and Minerals Security Partnership (MSP). 

For critical minerals of greatest importance, the US should seek individualized trade agreements with countries like the DRC and Zambia. The US-DRC-Zambia Memorandum of Understanding offers a great starting point toward developing bilateral CMAs with both countries. 

Any regional or bilateral CMA should address supplementary infrastructure development to support Africa’s critical mining sector. The Lobito Development Corridor can serve as a model for US-led infrastructure development adjacent to Africa’s mining sector. China realized decades ago that CMAs are key to having a share of Africa’s critical minerals. The US should employ a similar strategy but go a step further by making sure US-Africa CMAs promote greater transparency and accountability in Africa’s critical mining sector.

Bolster transparency and accountability in Africa’s critical minerals mining sector. Claude Kabemba, Executive Director at Southern Africa Resource Watch, explained during a recent Wilson Center discussion on “China’s Critical Mineral Investments in Africa”, there are no wholly “good or bad investors in Africa”. In fact, some of China’s investment in Africa’s critical mining sector are brownfield operations first established by Western companies. In 2016, for example, an investment firm led by Hunter Biden facilitated the sale of the Tenge Fungurume Mine from US mining company Freeport-McMoRan to Chinese company China Molybdenum.

Both Western and Chinese actors, government and private sector, have exploited Africa’s critical minerals for their economic goals often at the detriment of local African communities. As the US seeks to re-enter Africa’s critical minerals space, it must learn from past errors and work to mitigate labor and environmental rights issues. The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act should be updated to include current minerals of critical and strategic importance. The law should also address conflict minerals across the entirety of Africa to further enhance transparency and accountability in the supply chain. The SCMA and Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act can serve as guidelines for developing legislation that addresses labor and environmental issues specific to Africa’s critical mining sector. 

Collaborating with African civil society groups will be key to encouraging transparency and accountability across Africa’s critical minerals sector. By taking actionable steps to bolster these, the US can show Africa that its investments in this sector are a superior alternative to those of China. A mutually beneficial US-Africa critical minerals partnership will be important for development in Africa and for US competition in the critical and strategic minerals supply chain.

About the Author

AFR Program Intern - Desmond Egyin

Desmond Egyin

Staff Assistant Intern
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Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and US-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial US-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in US-Africa relations.    Read more