The crazy ambitions of the DRC in lithium

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A lithium car battery factory in Nanjing, east China's Jiangsu Province, in March 2021.

Will the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) tomorrow be at the heart of the global energy transition? In any case, this is the ambition of the Congolese authorities who develop the country’s lithium resources, an essential mineral for the production of batteries for electric vehicles, and its competitiveness for those who would like to set up production plants there.

The country has a case: it has the largest untapped hard rock lithium reserves in the world. Only about ten kilometers of its subsoil has been studied out of the hundred which would be full of this ore. But, already, a reserve of 132 million tonnes proven and probable, that is to say exploitable in a profitable manner, has been discovered.

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This makes it the country with the greatest potential on the African continent and suggests that it could one day pass Australia, which has the fifth largest reserves in the world and is the largest lithium producer on the planet.

The Australian company AVZ Minerals is not mistaken: it plans to launch in 2023 the exploitation of the largest hard rock lithium deposit in the world. This one is located in the city of Manono, in the province of Tanganyika (south-east), stronghold of the family of the former president Joseph Kabila. It was notably the brother of the former head of state, Zoé, deputy for Manono and then governor of the province until May 2021, who pushed for the development of the sector.

Beijing very interested

The site owned by AVZ Minerals since 2016 has an exploitable reserve of 132 million tonnes, which would place this mine in the top 5 worldwide. Something to whet appetites: the Chinese group Contemporary Amperex Technology Ltd (CATL), world leader in battery manufacturing, has decided to gain a foothold in Manono through a joint venture called Suzhou CATH Energy Technologies. It plans to invest $ 240 million for a 24% stake in the project and could spend up to $ 400 million in total.

The AVZ Minerals deposit and other exploration permits of lithium around Manono are of great interest to Beijing, which intends to remain the leader in battery production, for which global demand should increase fourteen times by 2030 according to Statista, at the same time more than tripling lithium needs.

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For the DRC, the start of production at the AVZ Minerals mine, the very first lithium mine in the country, would be a turning point by making Kinshasa a stronghold in the energy transition. The country is already the world’s largest producer of cobalt, used for the manufacture of batteries and wind turbines, and the world’s fourth largest producer of copper, which is used in the assembly of electric cars and most renewable energy infrastructure.

The authorities, however, see beyond the mere extraction of these minerals. During the DRC-Africa Business Forum in Kinshasa at the end of November, which brought together heads of state, banks and companies in the Congolese capital to determine how “Develop a value chain around the industry of batteries, electric vehicles and clean energies” in Africa, the government has announced that it wants to participate in their production on its territory by transforming lithium.

“46 trillion dollars by 2050”

« The DRC is the most competitive destination in the world to set up battery factories ”, pleaded Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi. The challenge: to capture some of the “8 trillion dollars” income from the sale of electric vehicles by 2025, “46 trillion by 2050”, he continued. An objective supported by a Bloomberg study which affirms that building this type of plant costs less in the DRC than in the United States or in China.

However, national ambitions risk coming up against many obstacles. First, with regard to the Manono deposit: to bring its mine into production, AVZ Minerals must finalize the transaction with Suzhou CATH Energy Technologies, then it will still have a few tens of millions of dollars to find to dispose of the 545 million needed in total.

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As for other lithium research projects in the DRC, they are much less advanced. Only one company, the Canadian Tantalex Resources, seems really active in the field. Then, the poor general condition of the roads, especially from Manono, will weigh on logistics while the extracted ore will have to be transported hundreds of kilometers to reach the major African ports and be exported to China or elsewhere.

Finally, the factories transforming into batteries are greedy in electricity – in a country where the energy deficit is chronic – but also expensive. However, if Chinese manufacturers are ready to finance lithium extraction, they will be less inclined to favor a local processing sector. They do not want to compete in this market when they have made significant investments to build factories in their country.

Lack of transparency

All the more so as rival projects to build lithium battery factories are already emerging in Europe, Canada and the United States. The Congolese lithium industry will undoubtedly, initially, have to confine itself to the export of raw ore, the least profitable part of the sector.

In a preliminary report published on December 13, and a new, more complete version of which should appear in early January, the NGO Global Witness, for its part, highlighted the risks associated with the operation of the lithium sector, in terms of governance and environment, if national and international rules are not applied.

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The organization, which has investigated fifty-one mining concessions near the town of Manono, including research and exploration permits for lithium, highlights the lack of transparency on the final beneficiaries of the permits and the involvement of politically exposed personalities, such as the Minister of Regional Planning Guy Loando Mboyo, cited in the survey « Congo hold-up ». It also underlines the vagueness that remains around the consequences of the extraction of hard lithium rock on the environment.

Global Witness is finally worried about the lack of traceability within the sector, which is not subject to the same standards as other minerals and metals. This increases the risks of financial embezzlement and human rights abuses, which are already prevalent in the rest of the Congolese mining sector.

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The crazy ambitions of the DRC in lithium

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