Tag Archives: China and Congo

Congo, China and Battery Minerals

Electric truck battery pack between the axles. Image from wikipedia

The demand of cobalt is bound to increase because of the batteries needed to power  electric vehicles (EVs).  Each battery uses about 10kg of cobalt. It is widely known that more than half of the world’s cobalt reserves and production are in one dangerously unstable country, the Democratic Republic of Congo. What is less well known is that four-fifths of the cobalt sulphates and oxides used to make the all-important cathodes for lithium-ion batteries are refined in China. (Much of the other 20% is processed in Finland, but its raw material, too, comes from a mine in Congo, majority-owned by a Chinese firm, China Molybdenum.)

On March 14t, 2018 concerns about China’s grip on Congo’s cobalt production deepened when GEM, a Chinese battery maker, said it would acquire a third of the cobalt shipped by Glencore, the world’s biggest producer of the metal, between 2018 and 2020—equivalent to almost half of the world’s 110,000-tonne production in 2017. This is likely to add momentum to a rally that has pushed the price of cobalt up from an average of $26,500 a tonne in 2016 to above $90,000 a tonne

South Korean and Japanese tech firms and it’s a big concern of theirs that so much of the world’s cobalt sulphate comes from China. Memories are still fresh of a maritime squabble in 2010, during which China restricted exports of rare-earth metals vital to Japanese tech firms. China produces about 85% of the world’s rare earths.

Few analysts expect the cobalt market to soften soon. Production in Congo is likely to increase in the next few years, but some investment may be deterred by a recent five-fold leap in royalties on cobalt. Investment elsewhere is limited because cobalt is almost always mined alongside copper or nickel. Even at current prices, the quantities needed are not enough to justify production for cobalt alone.

But demand could explode if EVs surge in popularity… the use of cobalt for EVs could jump from 9,000 tonnes in 2017 to 107,000 tonnes in 2026.  The resulting higher prices would eventually unlock new sources of supply. But already non-Chinese battery manufacturers are looking for ways to protect themselves from potential shortages. Their best answer to date is nickel.

The materials most commonly used for cathodes in EV batteries are a combination of nickel, manganese and cobalt known as NMC, and one of nickel, cobalt and aluminium known as NCA. As cobalt has become pricier and scarcer, some battery makers have produced cobalt-lite cathodes by raising the nickel content—to as much as eight times the amount of cobalt. This allows the battery to run longer on a single charge, but makes it harder to manufacture and more prone to burst into flames. The trick is to get the balance right.

Strangely, nickel has not had anything like cobalt’s price rise. Nor do the Chinese appear to covet it… Nickel prices plummeted from $29,000 a tonne in 2011 to below $10,000 a tonne 2017…. But by 2025 McKinsey expects EV-related nickel demand to rise 16-fold to 550,000 tonnes.

In theory, the best way to ensure sufficient supplies of both nickel and cobalt would be for prices to rise enough to make mining them together more profitable. But that would mean more expensive batteries, and thus electric vehicles.

Excerpts from The Scramble for Battery Minerals, Economist, Mar. 24, 2018

Fleas in the Barn, they are- for Joseph Kabila et al.

Lake Mai Ndombe, image from wikipedia

Inongo is the provincial capital of the Mai-Ndombe Province, a 13-million-hectare area located some 650 km northeast of Kinshasa, Demoractic Republic of Conglo, DRC.

The forests of Mai-Ndombe… are rich in rare and precious woods (red wood, black wood, blue wood, tola, kambala, lifake, among others). It is also home to about 7,500 bonobos, an endangered primate…The forests constitute a vital platform providing livelihoods for some 73,000 indigenous individuals, mostly Batwa (Pygmies), who live here alongside the province’s 1.8 million population, many of whom with no secure land rights.  Recent studies also have revealed that the province – and indeed the forests – boasts significant reserves of diamond of precious metals nickel, copper, oil and coal, and vast quantities of uranium lying deep inside the Lake Mai-Ndombe.

In an effort to save these precious forests, the World Bank in 2016 approved DRC’s REDD+ programmes aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions and fight forest’s deforestation and degradation, which it would fund to the tune of 90 million dollars annually.  The projects, which are currently estimated at 20, have since transformed the Mai-Ndombe Province into a testing ground for international climate schemes. And as part of the projects, indigenous and other local people caring for the forests and depending on them for their livelihoods were supposed to be rewarded for their efforts.

However, Marine Gauthier, a Paris-based expert who authored a report on the sorry state of the Mai-Ndombe forest, seems to have found serious flaws in these ambitious programmes.  The report, released a few days before the International Day of Forests on March 21, 2018 by the Rights and Resources’ Initiative (RRI)), cited weak recognition of communities’ land rights, and recommended that key prerequisites should be addressed before any other REDD+ funds are invested.  In the interim, it said, REDD+ investments should be put on hold…..

Under the DRC’s 2014 Forest Code, indigenous people and local communities have the legal right to own forest covering an area of up to 50,000 hectares.Thirteen communities in the territories of Mushie and Bolobo in the Mai-Ndombe province have since asked for formal title of a total of 65,308 hectares of land, reports said, adding that only 300 hectares have been legally recognised for each community – a total of only 3,900 hectares.

Pretoria-based Donnenfeld added: “My guess is that the government is more interested in selling these resources to multinationals than it in seeing it benefit the community….Gauthier pointed out that…“REDD+ opens the door to more land-grabbing by external stakeholders appealed…. Local communities’ land rights should be recognised through existing legal possibilities such as local community forest concessions so that they can keep protecting the forest, hence achieving REDD+ objectives.”

Excerpts from Issa Sikiti da SilvaReprint, DR Congo’s Mai-Ndombe Forest ‘Savaged’ As Landless Communities Struggle,  IPS, Apr. 17, 2018

In the meantime the country is ravaged by internal violence

China and its Collaborators in Africa

Congolese critics accuse Sassou-Nguesso [President of Congo] of using the Chinese-backed building boom to move from his ‘authoritarian-authoritarian’ model to something nearer the ‘developmental authoritarian’ style of Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame. However, Sassou-Nguesso was in triumphant mode as he inaugurated a spate of Chinese construction projects in the country’s hinterland on 14-18 May. These projects are intended to bring the benefits of oil-backed growth to regions previously isolated from the bustling cities of Brazzaville and Pointe-Noire.  Now known locally as ‘The Cutter of Ribbons’, Sassou-Nguesso is using oil money and plans to develop Congo-Brazzaville’s mineral resources to shape a new relationship with China. Once a key commercial and diplomatic ally of France, Sassou-Nguesso’s headlong rush to Beijing coincides with the election of President François Hollande. Hollande’s African policy team promises to break with the old Françafrique networks. Among their advisors is the activist lawyer William Bourdon, who has been pursuing a case against Sassou-Nguesso in France for stealing Congolese state assets…..

From fibre-optic installation and new dams to more than 1,000 kilometres of paved roads, companies like China Road and Bridge Corporation and China State Construction Engineering Corporation have quietly landed most of the major contracts issued by the Brazzaville government.  That means large profits and more deals to come.

Congo-Brazzaville, for so long the preserve of European companies, is drawing serious attention from China. The two countries have signed deals to develop special economic zones, build a new oil port and revamp an ageing refinery. For the Chinese investors, the lure is Congo-Brazzaville’s rich but under-exploited resource base. Having relied for decades on offshore oil riches and forestry, the country has until recently made little effort to exploit its mineral deposits, develop its more remote regions or diversify the economy into commerce and services. That could change if the new Asian relationships live up to their billing. For Sassou-Nguesso, the big attraction is an engagement based purely on economic and financial criteria, with a partner who does not impose awkward governance or human rights conditions.

This is not Congo’s first encounter with Asian investment. South Korean and Malaysian companies, via the Consortium Congo Malaisie Corée, had proposed a huge resources-for-infrastructure deal that would build new rail lines in exchange for access to forestry and mining permits in 2008. That deal didn’t work out but the Chemin de Fer Congo Océan received part of its order of engines and cars from Korail in August 2011. Malaysian investors have looked at opportunities in the hydrocarbons sector and – building on their experience of rural Congo in the timber business – palm oil production. In 2010 Atama Plantation agreed to invest $300 million in new oil palm plantations and processing capacity.

The most recent interest from Chinese entities takes the engagement a step further. Alain Akouala Atipault, a Minister in the Presidency, was China’s guest at an international infrastructure and investment forum in Macau where, on 24 April, he signed an agreement with the China Friendship Development International Engineering Design and Consult Corporation (FDDC) – an offshoot of the Trade Ministry in Beijing.  FDDC will seek out Chinese investors interested in setting up operations in four special economic zones, which Congo plans to establish in Brazzaville, Pointe- Noire, Ouesso and the Oyo-Ollombo area. FDDC will also help to mobilise financing for the zones, build their infrastructure and carry out feasibility studies……

China’s engagement in Congo is typical of its strategy elsewhere in Africa. Beijing often takes a long-term view of whether projects will generate an economic return. Viability is seen in broad terms, encompassing not just the specific project’s concerns but also the wider trade and political benefits of partnership and the political goodwill that could open up access to valuable natural resources. Congo has both major reserves of high-value timber – a sector where Congo Dejia Wood Industry, Jua Ikié, Million Well Congo Bois, Sino-Congo Forêt and Société d’Exploitation Forestière Yuan Dong are already active – and reserves of minerals such as iron ore and potash, which are largely untouched.

China National Complete Plant Import & Export Corporation is developing the potash reserves at Mengo with Canada’s MagIndustries; Australia’s Sundance Resources relies on finance and expertise from Hanlong Mining and other Chinese infrastructure companies to make its designs on iron-ore projects in Cameroon (Mbarga) and Congo-Brazzaville (Nabeba) viable. Sundance is waiting for final approvals from Yaoundé and Brazzaville and expects all the paperwork to be signed before the end of 2012.

Beijing’s policy of ignoring questions of democracy and human rights is certainly helpful to Sassou-Nguesso’s regime – which has a poor human rights record, is marred by widespread corruption and remains fundamentally authoritarian despite the trappings of a multiparty system.

Excerpt, Congo-Brazzaville: Sassou Draws in Beijing,AllAfrica.com, June 2, 2012

See also A Continent for Sale through Queensway