The Future in Zambia Looks Electric
As the global demand for lithium-ion batteries grows due to consumer interest in electric cars, Africa hopes to ramp up its copper mining production to jump-start its economy and meet the electric vehicle (EV) battery industry demand.
Since most of the world’s cobalt comes from the Copperbelt region, which runs through the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Zambia (Copperbelt Province), the continent is on a quest to position itself in the battery manufacturing value chain.
Cobalt, a by-product of copper and nickel mining, is a crucial element in lithium car batteries and is used to power the new generation of carbon-free electric vehicles. Zambia, Africa’s second-largest copper producer, boasts large cobalt reserves and is positioned to benefit from the increasing demand.
According to a recent MoU signed between Zambia and the DRC, the deal will usher the two nations into significant producers and refiners of cobalt for electric vehicle batteries to establish a value chain in electric battery production and clean energy.
“Our focus is job creation for the people of our two countries through economic diversification, job and wealth creation for the economic and social transformation of our citizens,” said President Hichilema when he signed the “Zambia – DRC Battery Council” cooperation agreement in Lusaka with his DRC counterpart President Felix Tshisekedi.
Africa currently does not produce electric vehicle batteries, nor does it produce electric vehicles. It is no surprise that South Africa, a country that boasts assembly plants for Japanese, US, Chinese and European automakers, is the only country in the region under consideration for investment in electric car assembly plants. For this reason, the Zambian government is upbeat about the need to harness its large deposits of copper.
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), global consumers are warming up to electric cars, whose sales forecast is expected to jump to over 23 million units in 2030, up from an estimated 1.2 million units in 2017. Naturally, similar growth is anticipated for rechargeable batteries, with the cathode market – the positive electrode of the lithium-ion battery – forecast to reach $58 billion in 2024, up from an estimated $7 billion in 2018.
Furthermore, according to Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, global demand for cobalt has tripled since 2011 in the battery sector alone. It predicts that demand for cobalt will reach 190,000 metric tons by 2026.
While two-thirds of the world’s cobalt is produced in the DRC, cobalt refining mainly occurs in China, which accounts for about 66% of the world’s refined cobalt output.
The Zambia Chamber of Mines believes that the shift towards green energy generation and EVs is an immense demand opportunity for the copper mining sector.
“If our country effectively mines cobalt and copper for the electric vehicle battery value chain, it’s going to be a win for Zambia, a win for the EVs industry, and a win for the environment as we look to cut fossil fuel emissions on a global scale,” mining engineer Gabriel Mtonga told Nkwazi.
Therefore, investing in cobalt production and refinement would boost Zambia’s mining and manufacturing sectors and provide an incentive to produce lithium-ion batteries in Africa by shortening supply lines between cobalt refineries and battery-making plants.
Zambia’s Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Minister Stanley Kakubo recently said the Zambia-DRC cooperation agreement aligned with the country’s development aspirations to bring about a more diversified and industrialised economy.
“President Hichilema and President Tshisekedi, therefore, agreed to launch a joint Zambia-DRC Battery Precursor Initiative, whose vision is to create a competitive electric vehicle battery value chain for sustainable development and inclusive growth through the production of battery precursors. The Zambia-DRC Initiative aligns with the country’s development aspirations to bring about a more diversified and industrialised economy which will contribute towards job creation and improve the Zambian people’s livelihoods, among others,” Kakubo said.
Speaking during the groundbreaking ceremony of First Quantum Minerals’ Enterprise Nickel Project in Kalumbila district recently, President Hakainde Hichilema said the investment, which is Africa’s largest nickel mine, underpins an unwavering commitment to creating a conducive and fair environment for both local and international investors that will encourage innovation and create opportunities for local businesses.
He added, “Our vision of Zambia plays a credible part towards the transition of energy from fossil fuels that are damaging our climate to green energy that will reduce carbon emissions. Therefore, transitioning from fossil fuels to drive our cars to electric vehicles and nickel is part of the package of minerals (copper, cobalt, nickel, manganese, lithium), and we are fortunate as a country to host a fair share of these minerals, but if they stay in the ground and if we don’t unlock projects like this, we won’t be able to play our part in keeping our world cleaner and reduce the environmental damage.”
As the yearning for electric vehicles increases, Zambian industry experts say it is high time the country sets up an EV battery manufacturing plant, a move that has the potential to create more jobs and other support industries. While the Zambian government has stayed true to its commitments to diversifying the economy and alleviating poverty, considerable financial investments and technical know-how are still needed to become a significant player in the battery production sector.