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The Export Ban on Lithium: Resource Nationalism or Africa’s Bargaining Chip?



The Export Ban on Lithium: Resource Nationalism or Africa’s Bargaining Chip?


The Inaugural London Indaba which took place towards the end of June, saw Zimbabwe and Namibia’s decision to ban raw lithium exports as a hot topic of discussion.

By Alexandra Mliswa

Some experts went as far as to comment that the countries were ‘playing with fire’. The basis for this is that the export bans are allegedly against the WTO (World Trade Organization) regulations. This prompted this piece on whether Africa or Zimbabwe in particular, is finally in a position to leverage its mineral resources to Its people’s benefit.

First, it’s important to set the scene by providing some context as to why Zimbabwe’s decision to ban raw or unprocessed lithium has caused such panic. As we are hearing more and more, Lithium is a ‘future-facing’ commodity. This is because lithium is a key component in hybrid and electric vehicle batteries, electronic devices, and battery storage power stations that will help reduce carbon emissions and mitigate the effects of climate change, in what has come to be known as global decarbonization.

Global decarbonization refers to a global move to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by moving away from global dependence on fossil fuels and towards what has been called ‘green’ or renewable energies (solar, wind, biomass, geothermal, et cetera).

It should be clear at this point that Zimbabwe’s ban on raw lithium exports (as part of its beneficiation policy) is perceived as a threat to the global supply in that it would affect the development and supply of “environmental technologies” needed in the fight against climate change.

This sort of thinking leads one to surmise that it is being framed as a ‘threat’ because it provides Zimbabwe and other resource-rich African countries with an opportunity to leverage their natural resources for economic growth and development, which were once simply just taken during the imperialist era.

Simply calling the lithium export ban ‘resource nationalism’ is reductionist and ignores firstly, the reason behind the ban, and secondly, the many possible and much-needed benefits to Zimbabwe as well as other African Nations.

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Let us begin with the former. Zimbabwe, home to one of the top 5 largest lithium reserves in the world, banned the export of raw or un-beneficiated lithium late last year (SI 213/2022) in response to trade leaks and deficits of up to €1 billion. While some may argue that there are alternatives to export bans, Zimbabwe’s fragile economy may not have the luxury of experimenting with them.

Secondly, this beneficiation policy may have far-reaching impacts with the potential to revive the Zimbabwean economy. Some of these much-needed benefits include job creation, accelerated industrialization, an increase in government revenue, and the acquisition of technical know-how.

While the African Union has not necessarily supported export bans on minerals per se, it has recognized the value of mineral beneficiation in the AMV (African Mining Vision) -a road map designed to guide African governments in their natural resource management. According to Eunomix, The AMV has identified mineral beneficiation as a way in which African governments can catalyse economic growth and industrialisation. It is at this point that it should be stressed that there is no outright ban on lithium in Zimbabwe, just un-beneficiated or unprocessed lithium and the ban is a means to the end of beneficiation.

The effects of the beneficiation policy remain to be seen but it can be said that if the people of Zimbabwe are to truly benefit government needs to take certain issues very seriously, firstly, ensuring that labour is being sourced locally and that the labour conditions are fair and humane, as well as ensuring there is a real transfer of technical know-how, secondly industrialization must be monitored to ensure that that the buildings and equipment have structural integrity and are future-facing or ‘green’ in line with global decarbonization. Thirdly, the increased revenue must be transparent and accounted for and lastly, responsible and sustainable mining practices need to be adhered to that protect the natural environment and the communities that inhabit them.

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