The Politics of Lithium Extraction in Africa: Economic, Environmental and Geopolitical Impact


Abstract: Lithium is a vital resource used to produce batteries for electric cars and other high-tech devices. China is currently the world’s largest producer and consumer of lithium, while Africa is home to significant lithium reserves. The increasing demand for electric vehicles and other lithium-powered devices has led to a growing interest in the extraction of lithium from Africa by Chinese companies.

The politics of lithium mining in Africa is complex and often controversial. Some African countries view lithium mining as an opportunity for economic development and job creation, while others are concerned about the environmental impact of the mining operations and the potential exploitation of local communities. There is also a geopolitical dimension to the issue, as China seeks to secure access to critical resources and expand its influence in Africa.

Lithium is a critical element in the production of batteries used in various applications, including electric vehicles, energy storage, and consumer electronics. Africa is home to vast reserves of lithium, and as demand for the metal rises, its extraction has become a significant political issue, often pitting economic development and job creation against environmental concerns. At the same time, geopolitical interests have emerged, with China seeking to secure access to critical resources and expand its influence in Africa. In this essay, we will examine the politics of lithium extraction in Africa, exploring the economic, environmental, and geopolitical dimensions of the issue.

China is the world’s largest consumer of lithium, which is primarily used in the production of lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles and other energy storage applications.

According to data from the United States Geological Survey, China produced about 80,000 metric tons of lithium in 2020, representing about 62% of global production. China also accounted for approximately 80% of global lithium chemical production capacity as of 2020.

In terms of lithium consumption, China accounted for about 64% of global demand in 2020, with the majority of this demand being driven by the electric vehicle industry. According to the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers, Chinese electric vehicle sales reached 3.9 million units in 2020, up from 1.2 million in 2018.

Economic Development and Job Creation

From an economic perspective, China’s mining activities in Africa could bring much-needed investment and job opportunities to the continent. Lithium extraction has the potential to provide a significant boost to the economies of African countries, particularly those with large reserves of the metal. For example, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is believed to have the world’s largest reserves of lithium, estimated at around 47,000 tons. However, the benefits of lithium mining are not evenly distributed, and the industry can exacerbate existing economic inequalities. In many cases, multinational corporations are the ones doing the mining, and the profits they generate often flow out of the country, rather than being reinvested in local communities.

China has invested in several mining projects, such as the Kasbah Resources lithium project and the Green Power DRC project. The Chinese firm, Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt, has also signed a deal with the DRC to build a lithium processing plant in the country, in a bid to extract and process the metal locally. This has been seen as part of China’s broader global economic strategy to secure access to key mineral resources.

Ganfeng Lithium, a Chinese company, has emerged as a key player in the global lithium market China has invested in lithium projects in Zimbabwe, where it has a partnership with the Australian mining company, Pilbara Minerals. The joint venture, known as the Pilgangoora Lithium-Tantalum Project and has significant economic implications. The company’s investments in Africa also benefit China’s economy by providing a steady supply of lithium for its industries.

Ganfeng Lithium’s investments in lithium mining have created job opportunities and contributed to the economic growth of African countries. For example, in 2018, Ganfeng Lithium invested $160 million in the construction of a lithium processing plant in Zimbabwe, which is expected to create over 2,000 jobs. However, critics point out that it is relatively small number compared to the size of the country’s workforce and that many of the jobs created may not be high-paying or secure. Hence, the mining industry tends to be capital-intensive and requires a relatively small workforce, meaning that job creation may not be as significant as proponents of the industry suggest.

Environmental Impact

The development of local mining supply chains could support downstream industries and provide a pathway for African countries to participate in the global clean energy transition. However, it is also important to consider the potential environmental and social impacts of mining operations, including the displacement of local communities and the degradation of natural habitats.

Lithium mining has significant environmental impacts, particularly in the extraction and processing of the metal. The process typically involves large-scale open-pit mining, which can have significant impacts on soil, water, and air quality. Moreover, the processing of lithium often involves the use of toxic chemicals, which can cause contamination and pollution of the surrounding environment.

China’s interest in lithium mining in Africa has raised concerns among some observers, who argue that the country’s involvement in the continent’s resource extraction industry lacks transparency and accountability. There are also concerns about the environmental and social impacts of mining operations in Africa, and the ability of local communities to benefit from the extraction of critical resources.

Geopolitical Dimension

The rising demand for lithium has created a geopolitical dimension to the issue, with various countries vying for access to critical resources and seeking to expand their influence in Africa. China, in particular, has been active in pursuing lithium resources in Africa, with a view to securing the materials needed for its rapidly expanding electric vehicle industry. China is the world’s largest market for electric vehicles, and demand for lithium is expected to rise significantly in the coming years.

China’s pursuit of lithium resources in Africa is part of a broader strategy to secure access to critical resources around the world. The country has been investing heavily in African countries in recent years, providing loans and financing for infrastructure projects and resource extraction. In exchange, Chinese companies gain access to critical resources, including minerals like lithium. For example, China’s Tianqi Lithium has invested heavily in the Greenbushes lithium mine in Western Australia, which produces around 40% of the world’s lithium.

China’s involvement in lithium mining in Africa has raised concerns about the country’s expanding influence on the continent. Critics argue that China’s investment in African countries is driven primarily by a desire to extract resources and that the country’s involvement in Africa has been marked by a lack of transparency and accountability. Some have also raised concerns about the environmental and social impacts of China’s investment in African countries.

Furthermore, the success of China’s mining operations in Africa may depend on  political stability and regulatory frameworks as well. China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a global infrastructure development strategy, has expanded its economic influence in Africa, but it has also faced criticism for prioritizing China’s interests over the needs of African countries. As such, the China-Africa relationship remains complex and multifaceted, with implications for the global economy and international relations.


In conclusion, the politics of lithium extraction by Chinese companies in Africa is complex and controversial, with competing interests and perspectives. The economic development and job creation benefits of the mining operations must be weighed against the potential environmental and social impacts. At the same time, the geopolitical dimension of the issue, particularly China’s involvement in securing access to critical resources and expanding its influence in Africa, raises important questions about the sustainability and equity of the global green energy transition.

Oksana Salabai
Oksana Salabai
Oksana Salabai is a PhD candidate of International Relations and Diplomacy at the School of International and Public Affairs, Jilin University China. An alumnus of Ivan Franko National University of L’viv, Ukraine.


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