China is winning Africa’s “white-gold” rush for lithium (The Economist – November 9, 2023)

Its grip on clean-energy minerals is a challenge for the West

Avisit to the district of Goromonzi, in north-east Zimbabwe, is a lesson in economic history. Its fallow fields hint at the decay that followed the government’s seizure of white-owned farms more than two decades ago. In the surrounding hills ad hoc campsites reveal the sites of artisanal gold-miners, digging for the same yellow metal that led British colonists to cross the Limpopo river in the 19th century.

Today the rush is on for “white gold”. Every day scores of lorries rumble through Goromonzi, carrying lithium bound for China, where most of the metal is refined for use in batteries for electric vehicles and electronics.

They carry loads from Arcadia, Africa’s biggest lithium mine, opened this year by Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt, a Chinese firm. “China is buying any lithium it can find,” says a local industry insider. “There’s an absolute feeding frenzy.”

China’s dash for lithium is part of a bigger challenge for the West. America and its allies want to weaken China’s grip on clean-energy supply chains. They see Africa, home to perhaps 30% of the world’s critical mineral reserves, as part of the solution, and argue that they can do more to help African countries add value to minerals before export.

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