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O n 8 November the European Union (EU) and the United States (US) announced plans to develop the “Lobito Corridor”, which will upgrade rail infrastructure than enables access to critical minerals in the Katanga and Copperbelt province in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Zambia respectively. The current Lobito railway spans 1,300 kilometres (807 miles) across Angola before crossing the Angolan-Congolese (Kinshasa) border. It then extends for 400 kilometres (248 miles) to end in Kolwezi in Lubumbashi province – a mining heartland in the DRC. 

To facilitate this infrastructure investment, Angolan President João Manuel Gonçalves Lourenço, Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema and Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi on 4 July awarded a 30-year concession to the Lobito Atlantic Railway, a consortium that includes commodities trader Trarigura, global construction and infrastructure management company Mota-Engil Engenharia e Construcao Africa SA (“Mota-Engil”) and Belgian rail operator Vecturis SA. The consortium will invest in rolling stock, a thousand wagons as well as 35 locomotives. The total estimated investment of over USD 500 million is forecast to trigger a sixfold increase in freight traffic by 2035. 

Chugging along

Geopolitical considerations are an inevitable component of the global discourse surrounding the race to access critical minerals. Demand for critical minerals, many of which are found in Africa, will increase unabated as countries and companies ramp up participation in the just energy transition. Securing access to these minerals is of national strategic importance and ensuring minimal disruptions to supplies has become a key economic imperative. 

The Lobito Corridor announcement is the most significant infrastructure development project to rival China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The US has been diligently seeking ways in which to counter China’s economic prowess in Africa. China does not expect nor require states to adhere to the values that underpin liberal democracy, therefore it has been the partner of choice for many African governments seeking a commercial transaction that requires no changes in approach to governance. 

This dynamic worked well for China and Africa for over a decade. China’s foreign direct investment (FDI) grew from USD 75 million in 2003 to USD 5 billion by 2021. Several strategic investments ranging from the construction of African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa (China refuted spying allegations that arose six years after its construction) to the USD 3.6 billion Nairobi-Mombasa Standard Gauge Railway highlight the extent of China’s economic engagement with the continent.

China has, however, changed tact in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. A domestic economic slow-down and seeming dearth of policy options to revive growth has seen China scale back the scope of its ambitions and temper its willingness to issue loans for infrastructure projects. Debt repayment challenges across a number of BRI projects has added strain. For example, the Kenyan government is struggling to payback its loans to China’s Eximbank, which financed 90% of the Nairobi-Mombasa Standard Gauge Railway. The railway is simply not profitable; freight and passenger is significantly lower than projected, and civil society organisations have criticised the opaque nature of the contract. In 2022 China announced that it would not finance the extension of the railroad to Uganda. In January 2023, the Ugandan government approached Turkish company Yapi Merkezi to finance the USD 2.2 billion raiways connecting Uganda to Mombasa port. In November 2021 Chinese President Xi Jinping described the next iteration of the BRI as being characterised by “small and beautiful” projects. The days of a cash-flush China have come to an end just as other players are realising the results of years of commercial courtship.

Full steam ahead

The US, EU, Angola, DRC, Zambia,  African Development Bank (AFDB), the Africa Finance Corporation (AFC) signed a memorandum of understanding during the two-day Global Gateway Forum in Brussels in October. They plan to jointly develop 800 kilometres (500 miles) of new track between Zambia and Angola by 2028 at an estimated cost of USD 1 billion. This effort forms part of the G7’s Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment, which seeks to invest over USD 600 billion by 2027 in key infrastructure projects in select developing countries. The group is eager to not repeat mistakes made by other financiers in the recent past. A robust operation and maintenance plan is being developed by the AFC. 

The Lobito railways is a colonial legacy, which like many railways across the continent, has fallen into disrepair. Briefly touching on the origins of Africa railway infrastructure has modern-day relevance. Colonial railways networks were designed and built to primarily enable the extraction of minerals and cash crops. In a joint statement issued on 9 September by the EU and US, both parties stated that the new railway will “lower the logistics costs and carbon footprint of exporting metals, agricultural goods, and other products as well as for future development of any mineral discoveries.”

The messaging from the US and EU also emphasised the new investment’s impact on cross-border trade, agricultural value chains and intra and inter-state mobility of citizens. However, its its connection to the mining sector – something which the Nairobi-Mombasa Standard Gauge Railway did not have – will be the key to its commercial success. Demand for rare earth elements (REE) and critical minerals needed for electric vehicles (EVs) and batteries is forecast by the International Energy Agency to increase by more than three-fold by 2040 if the majority of countries adopt policies anchored in sustainable development.

Mineral demand growth from new EV sales by scenario, 2040 compared to 2020.

IEA. Licence: CC BY 4.0

Mineral demand growth from battery storage additions by scenario, 2040 compared to 2020.

IEA. Licence: CC BY 4.0

Swivelling

The green energy revolution is a once in a generation development and much has been made about its potential benefits for the continent. However, its politics – extracting mineral resources from Africa to facilitate a just energy transition in the West while under-development and under-investment in secondary industries in Africa persists – make for an interesting dynamic that will likely embolden local politicians to become equally extractive. 

Some African governments has begun to designate critical minerals as being of national strategic importance and introducing legislation to ensure local beneficiation. Two countries have recently made headlines – Tanzania revising details of the government’s free carry interest in mining operations and Namibia for and banning the export of unprocessed critical minerals. Southern African countries in particular and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) at large, are expected to renew resource nationalisation efforts, targeting critical minerals, in the short to medium term. 

During a briefing call with reporters discussing the Lobito Corridor in September, US State Department Special Coordinator for the Partnership on Global Infrastructure Investment (PGI) Helaina Matza stated,  “of course, our interventions are designed for what’s a huge part of our national security policy and our economic policy…”.  African states will increasingly seek to match this approach.