Zimbabwe: Chinese investors launch three new lithium plants in 3 months

According to a UBS bank note published this year, Beijing will increase its control over the world’s lithium supply to 32% by 2025, up from 24% in 2022. This growth is largely due to the numerous African projects in which Chinese companies have invested in recent years.

In Zimbabwe, the Chinese mining company Sinomine Resource Group announced this week the commissioning of a spodumene concentrate plant. With an annual production capacity of 300,000 tonnes, this is the third facility of its kind run by Chinese companies to go into production in the southern African country since May 2023.

Last May, Chengxin Lithium Group commissioned a lithium concentrator with the same annual capacity, 300,000 tonnes, at its Sabi Star mine in the east of the country. At the beginning of July, Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt launched its plant with an annual capacity of 450,000 tonnes at the Arcadia mine.

Over the past two years, investors from the Middle Kingdom have invested a total of more than one billion dollars in buying and developing lithium projects in Zimbabwe. While consolidating its dominant position in the production of this metal, essential for electric vehicle batteries, Beijing is also helping to maintain Zimbabwe’s position as Africa’s leading lithium producer.

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From next year, however, Harare is set to be joined by new players on the continent, notably Mali, which will launch its first lithium mine in the first half of 2024, again with the help of the Chinese group Ganfeng Lithium. The Ewoyaa project, piloted in Ghana by Australia’s Atlantic Lithium with the support of American Piedmont Lithium, is one of the few future African lithium mines without direct Chinese involvement.

In the ongoing global battle to secure supplies of strategic metals, China is well ahead of other competitors such as the European Union and the United States, which are also interested in African mineral reserves. To counter this influence, Washington has been working hard in recent months to increase its presence in the continent’s mining sector, with investments announced for a battery-grade nickel plant in Tanzania, and the Lobito Corridor in Angola, designed to promote the export of copper and cobalt from Zambia and the DRC.

Also in the DRC, the chairman of the Africa sub-committee of the US House of Representatives this week introduced a bill to establish a national strategy to secure the supply chains of strategic minerals there. Calling Chinese domination of these products “an economic and national security threat”, the Congressman proposes to counter it.

For African countries, this fierce competition for their resources is an opportunity to negotiate more profitable contracts, in particular by adding value to the minerals extracted locally. Observers also believe that this rush is accompanied by risks of corruption and degradation of environmental and social conditions in the regions concerned by mining, and are therefore calling for greater commitment to transparency.

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