Critical minerals: Africa holds key to sustainable energy future

05 June 2024

The continent’s abundant mineral wealth also offers an opportunity to generate revenues for governments, finance development and improve living standards.

A solar farm in Malawi
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© Shutterstock/Tukio | A solar farm in Malawi.

Africa’s vast deposits of minerals critical to the global energy transition, such as cobalt, copper and lithium, can power a sustainable energy future, UN Trade and Development Secretary-General, Rebeca Grynspan, said.

She spoke during an event held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and online on 4 June as part of the organization’s 60th anniversary celebrations. Read her message.

The event themed “Maximizing Africa's potential: Leveraging demand for critical minerals to boost inclusive growth and sustainable development” explored ways to optimize the development benefits of these minerals.

“Cobalt, manganese, graphite, lithium are not just elements on the periodic table,” Ms. Grynspan said. “They can be the building blocks of a new era – powering our homes, driving our vehicles, and connecting our world. Catalyzing a green revolution that can lift millions out of poverty and create a fairer world.”

But to realize this vision, Ms. Grynspan said, the world must break free from the past and reject the extractive model that has kept resource-rich nations dependent and poor.

“Instead, we must embrace a new paradigm that prioritizes domestic value addition, fosters regional integration and empowers local communities,” she added.

Value addition and justice are key

The UN Economic Commission for Africa’s deputy executive secretary, Antonio Pedro, said adding value to critical minerals in Africa could make the continent a competitive hub for green industrialization.

“Imagine the potential if African minerals are processed into African batteries, installed into African cars that are driven across the continent and the world,” he said.

“This would accelerate the deployment of renewable energy and the electrification of transport systems on the continent, create decent jobs and make Africa a competitive hub for green industrialization,” Mr. Pedro added.

He also called for justice and equality in how minerals are harnessed in the global energy transition and the drive towards sustainable development, noting that a mining boom that does not deliver benefits for everyone across the society, “will leave us back at square one.”

The African Union Commission’s deputy chairperson, Monique Nsanzabaganwa, underlined that harnessing critical minerals for sustainable development in Africa would require a different and strategic approach to policymaking to position the continent as a new global growth pole.

“In addition to the right policy mix, it also requires fair international structure and systems, especially in terms of regulations and rules,” she said.

She cautioned that some current rules and those in the making threatened to affect African countries’ efforts to increase and enhance beneficiation and value addition on the continent.

“It wouldn’t make sense to not trust our continental certification systems and instead condition Africa’s minerals to go hit another certification system just to come back to us for value addition or trade among ourselves,” she said.

A new development course

The event brought together leaders, diplomats, experts and key stakeholders to chart a new development course in Africa by exploring ways to better harness the continent’s critical mineral wealth.  

Africa is home to sizeable reserves of the world’s critical energy transition minerals: 55% of cobalt, 47.65% of manganese, 21.6% of natural graphite, 5.9% of copper, 5.6% of nickel, 1% of lithium, and 0.6% of iron ore globally.

But the continent has yet to fully seize the opportunities presented by its natural resource endowments. Estimates show that African countries generate only about 40% of the revenue they could potentially collect from these resources.

Amid current global crises, limited fiscal space, slow growth and high debt, African countries need to maximize the financial and development benefits of these resources.

Participants discussed ways to enhance revenue mobilization and fiscal administration, boost regional value chain integration and increase investment in infrastructure, skills and innovation to support minerals-based industrialization on the continent while promoting climate action.

The event set the stage for further discussions scheduled to take place during the Global Leaders Forum from 12 to 14 June in Geneva to mark UN Trade and Development’s 60th anniversary.