Viewpoint: Unlocking Africa's Copperbelt

  • Market: Metals
  • 21/02/24

Two railways headed in different directions from the African interior encapsulate the rush for so-called "green metals", with competing trade blocs vying for control of these resources to feed their drive to electrify polluting industries.

The Lobito Atlantic Railway and the Tazara Railway both run from Africa's resource heavy Copperbelt, with each a providing a key strategic asset to their international backers looking to access the area. The region, which encompasses vast swathes of land between Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), hosts rich reserves of copper and cobalt.

The area has played host to great power competition since the first industrial revolution, when an imperial rivalry between Britain and Belgium drove demand for the same minerals. Now the collective western powers — the US and Europe — and China are prioritising both resources to support their transition from fossil fuels, and access to the Copperbelt will play a central role.

The two railways

Construction on the newest of the two rail links, the Lobito Atlantic line, is expected to be completed later this year, with the first shipments of copper concentrates expected to leave the DRC towards the end of the year.

Upon completion, the railway is expected to carry up to 1mn t/yr of material from the DRC's copper provinces westward, across Angola and on to the port of Lobito and the Atlantic Ocean. It will provide an easier route to the US and European markets, circumventing the traditional routes by road to Durban or to other east coast ports in Southern Africa and onward seaborne transit through the Suez Canal and into the Mediterranean.

At 1,600km, the Lobito line is less than half of the distance from Kolwezi to Durban and could take just three days to reach the port, as opposed to more than 15 days to Durban. Shipments on the Durban line currently face 50km queues at border crossings between the DRC and Zambia.

The Lobito railway is the result of a $450mn joint venture between global commodity trading firm Trafigura, Portuguese infrastructure group Mota-Engil and South-African rail operator Vecturis.

The US, EU, African Development Bank and the Africa Finance Corporation signed an initial agreement in October to support the railway as part of the wider Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment (PGI), a G7 initiative. The US International Development Finance Corporation said it would provide an additional $250mn in funding for the railway in February, to aid US access to vital raw materials.

The eastbound metals rail link from Zambia through Tanzania to Dar Es Salaam on Africa's Indian Ocean coast and onwards toward China's vast manufacturing industry, has a very different history.

The Tazara railway was China's original foray into African infrastructure in the 1970s under Mao Zedong. China's current president, Xi Jinping, has called the project a "symbol of China-Africa friendship".

At 1,860km, it is significantly shorter than the road routes to South Africa and cuts journey times to around five days.

In December, a team of Chinese engineers produced a report calling for a $1bn upgrade to the railway, in what was likely to have been a response to the Lobito Atlantic route. Financing was promised by China under the Belt and Road Initiative, which competes directly with the G7's PGI, during a 2023 visit to Beijing by Tanzania president Samia Suluhu Hassan. Investment in the railway should allow for extra supply to be shipped from expanded mines in the region, many of which are Chinese owned.

"It seems like these minerals are more up for grabs than they have been in the past and the countries in the centre will hopefully benefit from the tug of war," one cobalt trader that has worked in the DRC for over three decades said.

Closing the distance

Both projects aim to overcome an increasing obstacle for copper and cobalt producers in the region.

Border crossings into South Africa became problematic during the Covid-19 pandemic, and riots in South Africa as well as continuing power supply issues caused disruption on the routes for copper and cobalt concentrates coming from the region.

The opening of large new mines such as Kamoa-Kakula, the largest in the history of the Copperbelt, and expansions at existing mines such as China Molybdenum's Tenke Fungurume (TFM) and Kisanfu, have clogged arterial roads and monopolised trucking capacity. There are also security issues along the route, with truck drivers regularly attacked, robbed and in some cases killed. Expensive private security firms are employed to guard cargo.

But the success of the expanded rail lines is not yet certain. Traders have expressed doubts over the viability of the route between Kolwezi and Lobito, pointing to difficulties in maintenance and the port's ability to handle significant volumes of freight.

"The railway runs over boggy ground, especially on the DRC side," one trader said, "Landslides and wire thieves will be a constant problem. Lobito is also smaller than Durban, and Durban already struggles to move all that weight sometimes."


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